After taking my first surf lesson, I was hooked. There’s nothing quite like experiencing the ocean in such an intimate, enjoyable, and rewarding way as surfing. I left my first lesson eager to come back for more. Yet, there was one worry in the back of my mind. How do I know the conditions are safe for a beginner like myself? The ocean can be so unpredictable and scary. I wouldn’t want to make the drive from the city to the coast and not be able to surf anything, or worse, get myself in an unsafe situation.
Surf reports help all surfers predict what the conditions will be like in the ocean so they know what to expect. But as a beginner, many of the terms didn’t mean much to me and I didn’t know what sort of conditions were right for my ability. In this blog, we’ll help you learn how to read a surf report and how to use them to your advantage.
- What is surf forecasting?
- Keep it simple
- Wave Height
- Wave Period
- Swell Direction
- Final thoughts
Waves vary in height from one wave to the next. Because of this, the wave height on a surf forecast will give you the average wave height measured in feet of all the waves over a 20 minute period. If you want to look at wave height more in-depth, you may find a few different measurements on the surf forecast.
First, there’s the most frequent wave height which, as its title suggests, is the predicted height of most waves. Then, there’s the significant wave height which will be a taller height occurring in 1 of 7 waves. Lastly, there’s the maximum wave height which will be about two times the height of the significant waves and will occur around 3 times in 24 hours. You should be prepared for a wave of the maximum height before heading out into the water.
Wave height and wave period go hand-in-hand because the power and size of a wave are dependent on the wave period. In order to understand the wave period we first have to understand swell. Swell is the energy that has been transferred into the sea from the wind. The longer and stronger the wind, the more energy, and larger swell. The wave period is the amount of time in seconds between waves. The higher the wave period, the more energy in the swell, and the larger the wave. Wind swells have a wave period of 1-9 seconds. The winds creating this swell are not blowing strong enough or long enough to transfer very much energy into the ocean. This results in small waves that break close together. Ground swells have a wave period of 10 seconds or more. These conditions result in uniform sets, a more pronounced shape, and longer rides.
Swell direction on a surf report is typically expressed in cardinal points (North, East, South, West). Generally speaking, a beach facing directly West will get its biggest, best waves when the swell is coming from the West. Depending on where you are surfing in the World, swell direction can be CRITICALLY important to the size of the surf at your local spot. Many spots around the World will only work on a certain swell angle, and you need to dial in these nuances to really become an expert.
Wind direction will be shown by an arrow icon. It’s important to note that the direction of the arrow is the direction from which the wind is traveling from. This will make a significant difference that you will start to notice as you get to know your local surf spot better.
A typical wind map showing the direction and strength/speed of the wind. Pale blues and greens are light winds, and yellow and orange are more moderate wind speeds.
Wind strength is also very important and will affect each surf location differently. Although wind is in part responsible for making waves, when it comes to surfing, the less wind the better. However, if it is windy, there is one kind that’s better than the other. Onshore winds blow from the ocean toward the shore causing choppy, poor conditions. Whereas offshore winds blow from the shore toward the ocean helping create cleaner-shaped waves.
In a 24 hour period, there will be two high tides and two low tides. These tides are very predictable because the moon controls how they move. Your surf report will give you the times and levels of both the high and low tides each day. The high and low tides will continue every day about 50 minutes later than the previous day and the level will change with the phases of the moon. During a full moon, the tides will be at their lowest and highest whereas during a new moon they will show little change.
Over time you’ll begin to learn which tide is better suited for surfing at your local beach and which favors the wave shape you most like to ride. You can always get a head start on this by calling and asking your local surf shop or friends who surf in the area. If you know the best tide for your particular beach, you’ll be able to surf the best conditions.
With experience, you’ll begin to learn how all of these conditions affect your particular surf spots and what conditions are best suited for your ideal surfing experience. These main five elements of a surf report will give you a solid understanding of the surf forecast at your local beach. Beyond these basics, there’s plenty more depth you can dive into to really get to know how all of these factors work together to produce different outcomes at different locations.