How to Read a Surf Report

Something that is unique to the sport of surfing is that surfers need to be in tune with the waves. The conditions of the surf dictate everything for us. The size of the waves, the tides, the wind, and so many other factors determine where we can go surfing, or whether or not we can go at all. This is an aspect of surfing that can be frustrating to those who like to plan around their work schedule, but it is a great way to get in sync with the ocean, the weather, nature, and local surf breaks. If you are unsure what to look for, the surf report can be confusing. You don’t have to be an oceanographer to read a surf report, but if you understand the following terms, you will easily be able to know exactly where and when to paddle out.

  • Surface Winds: The direction and the strength of the wind mainly affects the surface conditions of the waves. When the wind is blowing off shore (from the same direction as the beach), the waves will generally be clean and glassy, but if the wind is blowing too hard offshore, it can blow the waves flat. When the wind is blowing on shore or side shore, the conditions will generally be choppy and disorganized.
  • Height: This usually refers to the size of the wave. Wave height refers to the distance between the crest of the wave face to the trough. Hawaiian surfers measure from the sea water level at the back of the wave to the crest. On most surf report websites, the given height measurement is referring to the average wave, therefore there will be some set waves that are much bigger than what is shown on the report.

Size isn’t everything when it comes to surfing. It is a common mistake to assume that size determines wave difficulty. There can be a 20 foot wave that is much more gentle and easy to surf than a 6 foot wave due to wave shape and speed.

  • Swell Direction: The swell direction refers to exactly which direction the waves are coming from. If your beach faces west and you are expecting a west swell, you will be directly affected. If your beach faces south, you will probably not benefit from a north swell. Obstacles including islands, reefs, sandbars, coves, rocks, jetties, piers, etc. should all be considered with swell direction. You will be most directly affected by swells approaching you from the direction with the fewest obstacles. Most surf reports show swell direction in terms of degrees from true north.
  • Wind Swell:  A wind swell is caused by winds or storms very close to shore. Wind swells create weaker choppier waves than ground swells.
  • Ground Swell: A ground swell is caused by a far away source like an offshore storm or earthquake. These waves have longer periods, more power, and better conditions.
  • Sets: Waves usually travel in groups. These clusters of waves are called sets. A set will usually contain anywhere from 3-7 consecutive waves.
  • Swell Period: Swell period is the measurement of time between sets. The shorter the period the more frequent and weaker the waves, and the longer the period, the less frequent and more powerful the waves.
    • 1-4 second periods are usually weak wind swells and are typically unsurfable.
    • 5-6 seconds are still very weak wind swells that may begin to show some substance.
    • 7-9 second periods are typical of a surfable wind swell. These waves will be a little choppy, but will have enough power to ride.
    • 10-12 second periods will create a nice size wave, but these waves generally won’t bend or barrel. They could be really fun easy fat waves to surf, depending on what kind of break you are surfing.
    • 13-15 second periods and generally ground swells that could create really good surfing conditions.
    • 16+ seconds will create very powerful swells.
  • Tides– Tides are a complicated science. Gravitational pulls on the planet create changes in water levels throughout the day. Some areas have very drastic tide changes that can greatly affect the surf. The tide reaches its extreme highs and lows generally two times every 24 hours.

So when is the best tide for surfing? The answer is: It depends. It depends on your exact surf break, how deep or shallow it is, obstacles, and the moon cycle. Knowing your break is key to knowing what is the best tide for surfing. Don’t limit yourself. Different tides can create different types of waves. Try it out at different times of day and see what you like!

Now that you understand the basic parts of reading a surf report, you need to get to know your local surf break. All of this information is useless without knowing how your particular spot is affected by winds, surf height, swell direction, type of swell, and tides. So take some time to ask around, or just get to know a place personally. Knowledge of your surf break along with a basic understanding of how to read a surf report are all you need so that you can know when to go.

Contributor: Emily Shoemaker