How to Read a Surf Report for Beginners

by Jan 29, 20210 comments

5 minute read

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 to read a surf report? As a beginner surfer, I want to know the conditions are safe – The ocean can sometimes be unpredictable and scary. Similarly,  I wouldn’t want to make the drive from the city to the coast and not be able to surf anything.

Surf reports or surf forecasts help us predict what the conditions will be like in the ocean so we know what to expect. But as a beginner surfer, 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 article, we’ll help you learn how to read a surf report and how to use surf reports to your advantage.

Contents

  • What is Surf Forecasting?
  • Keep it Simple
  • Wave Height
  • Wave Period
  • Swell Direction
  • Wind
  • Tides
  • Final thoughts

WHAT IS SURF FORECASTING

In simple terms, surf forecasting is the process of using offshore wave buoy (and other) data, to determine how ocean swells will form and how the surf / wave conditions at the beach or foreshore will be affected. 

It is a complicated task as it takes into account meteorology and oceanography – and we all know how difficult predicting the weather can be!  

Legendary blunder by UK weather presenter Michael Fish just goes to show how difficult weather forecasting is. 

KEEP IT SIMPLE 

There are so many websites to get information on surf conditions now it can become a bit overwhelming. 

Try to avoid Analysis Paralysis

I have found the best way is to actually put in a bit of time and use your real World experience in conjunction with one of our favourite surf forecasting tools like MagicSeaweed, or Surfline.

What I mean by this, is, if MagicSeaweed says the surf will be 3-4ft and it’s actually bigger, make a mental note and file it away in your brain.

Over time, this way, you get an idea of the nuances of your local spot the forecasting tool doesn’t pick up on.

Of course, this is a long process which takes a bit of dedication – but if you are a surfer, you already know this part!

WAVE HEIGHT

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, normally measured in feet, of all the waves over a 20 minute period. If you want to look at wave height more in-depth, you can usually find a few different measurements on the surf forecast.

How to read a surf report for beginners

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.

As a beginner surfer, you should be prepared for a wave of the maximum height before heading out into the water – to be safe, make sure you are comfotable with waves this size.

If you are a complete beginner surfer, you will probably be confortable in waves between 1-4ft. Smaller will not be any fun at all, and any bigger may be too much for your level of experience.

Over time, you will feel more comfortable in bigger waves, but again, this is a process so enjoy the journey!   

WAVE PERIOD

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, which are generally pretty bad for surfing, have a wave period of about 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 – much better for surfing.

SWELL DIRECTION

Swell direction on a surf report is typically expressed in cardinal points (North, East, South, West) or in degrees (0 – 360). 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 and the quality of 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.

This is a topic specific to each spot, so we cannot go into too many details here, but Steve in the video below does a pretty good job of explaining it. 

WIND

Wind direction will normally 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 spots.

In general terms, we want the wind to be light, and blowing offshore – so blowing from the land to the sea. 

Wind Direction Image

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.

 

Offshore winds blow from the shore toward the ocean helping create cleaner, smoother waves.

 

TIDES

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 and new moon, the tides will be at their lowest and highest, known as spring tides, whereas during the first quarter moon and last quarter moon, they will show little change, known as neap tides.

To learn more about tides, check out this article What are Tides and How do they affect the Surf

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.

Nothing beats local knowledge

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.

Supertubos, Peniche, Portugal

FINAL THOUGHTS

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.

How did you learn about surf forecasting? Good old trial and error? 

Or did you go old school, reading the atmospheric pressure forecasts in the newspaper? Either way let us know! Comment below, or hit us up on Instagram or Facebook or ping us an email at [email protected]

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