How do you read a surfing report, anyway?
Having advanced information at your fingertips can play a big role in the planning of surf opportunities and allows the modern surfer to manage their time efficiently. With surfing conditions in constant change from one day to the next, the insights provided through surf forecasting proves invaluable to the surfer whose days in the water are limited. Time is money… and time is perhaps what you need to have a positive surfing experience. Study so you don’t waste your time. As any surfer will tell you…
New surfers should only concentrate on the three main areas which will provide you with the most valuable and important snippets of information. These bits of information only become valuable to you when you can relate what you see on the screen to what you see on the beach.
One of the main questions that a surf report answers is, “How big are the waves going to be today?” This is given to us in the form of the wave height and swell period. Swell period is the amount of time is takes a wave to pass a certain point. The longer the swell period, the faster and more powerful waves will be. For example the report may say 2ft at 15 seconds. Even though the wave is only 2ft, it has a 15 second period which means the wave is traveling from a longer distance (known as a ground swell) and will result in powerful waves. A 2ft wave at 5 seconds will most likely result in small and weak waves. Short period swells generally mean that the wave was created by a storm close by and has not traveled far enough to gain speed and power. Swells that have a wave height of 8ft and a swell period of 22 seconds are going to be huge!
Knowing which direction a swell is coming from will tell you if it will hit your region correctly. The direction from which the swell is coming can be expressed in degrees or cardinal points. As a general rule of thumb, a coastline facing west will get bigger waves if the swell comes from W, instead of NNW. That’s why the angle of a swell is so important.
The swell direction is usually expressed in cardinal points (N, E, S, W). As a general rule of thumb, a beach facing directly west will get bigger and better waves if the swell comes from the west. The swell direction is important — if the swell doesn’t hit your region correctly, you will not receive good waves. Example of swell direction: Every summer, Southern California receive many southwest swells. Since San Diego county predominately faces west, they will miss out on most of those summer swells. On the other hand, Orange County will benefit from southwest swells because they have many southwest facing beaches, which means they will receive bigger and better waves during those swells.
Want better and more powerful waves for surfing? Groundswells associated with long wave periods, typically 10-to-20 seconds, are known for bringing better and more powerful waves for surfing. On the opposite side of the spectrum, wind swells with periods of less than 10 seconds will deliver poor quality surf conditions.
Wind Speed and Direction
Wind is responsible for the creation of waves, but it can also destroy a day of surfing. Even if a groundswell is hitting the shore. In most cases, onshore winds will decrease the quality of the waves, while a gentle and steady offshore wind will hold the face of the wave for a little longer before breaking.
On shore winds blow from the ocean towards the shore. These types of winds are terrible for surfers because it causes a choppy and bumpy surface which is harder to surf on. On shore winds break up the swells causing the wave height to be smaller and not as groomed. Some surfers who like to perform aerial maneuvers with their surfboards welcome a bit of onshore wind because it helps keep their surfboards close to their feet when in the air.
Off shore winds are the best kind of wind to have when surfing next to no wind of course. Off shore winds blow from land into the water creating very smooth and well groomed waves that can typically take a barrel shape. Off shore winds can be a problem when blowing to hard though. Surfers taking off on a wave can get blown back by the wind or sprayed with a large mist of water from the cresting wave making it hard to see as you drop in.
The Moon’s eight phases have a direct impact on the Earth’s tides. When the moon is full or new, the high tides are dramatically high, and the low tides are extremely low because of the combined effect of the gravitational pull of the moon and sun. They are called spring tides. However, when the sun and moon are not aligned, i.e., during the moon’s quarter phases, the differences between high, and low tides are almost undetectable. They are called neap tides.
High and low tides play an essential role in the formation of good surf. Depending on the spots you surf, there will be moments when the tide is too low, and the waves are closing out. But you will also observe periods when the tide is too high, and the waves are breaking too close to the beach, and cannot be surfed.
Most beach breaks will work best at a medium to high tide because sand bars maybe too shallow or exposed on a lower tide causing the wave to close out or break all at once. Reef breaks work best on a low to medium tide with the higher tides causing the waves to slow down or go flat. This is because a wave needs to have a shallow bottom to cause friction and make the wave stand up and break on itself. Be careful however, some reef breaks are very shallow and dangerous to surf at very low tides due to exposed sharp coral or rocks.