Coarse-gravel beaches are common features along the eastern margin of Tasman Bay, at the north end of South Island, New Zealand. Although these features have traditionally been interpreted as spits, contemporary incident wave energy appears too small to transport boulders and cobbles persistently along the beaches and platforms by longshore drift. An alternative explanation suggests that boulder beaches are essentially derived in situ from resistant bedrock, which lies seaward and was buried by gravel during the Holocene sea level rise. Wind, wave and clast size data from Cable Bay and the Nelson Boulder Bank were used to resolve this problem. Wave and wind data indicate that waves reaching these areas are derived locally in Tasman Bay, and are limited in size and energy. Hindcasting predicts a 4·7 m wave could propagate from Tasman Bay. However, during Cyclone Yalli, the most intense storm in nearly 40 years of wind records, the largest wave measured in the nearby area of Cable Bay was only 2·7 m high. Maximum orbital velocity on the seabed beneath a 4·7 m is calculated to be 2·9 m s−1, which cannot initiate transport of clasts greater than 0·15 m in diameter. Clasts on the gravel platforms have average diameters greater than this, but some clasts may be as large as 1·0 m in diameter. By comparison, a swash run-up method predicts that a wave 4·7 m high can transport clasts no larger than 0·3 m in diameter. These data and approximate calculations strongly suggest that the present wave environment in eastern Tasman Bay is not capable of consistently transporting clasts on the boulder platforms by longshore drift. Reduced sea levels in the pre-Holocene period would further reduce wave energies available in Tasman Bay. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.