Understanding Surf Conditions for Beginners

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When a newbie first dives into the wondrous world of surfing, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by all the different factors that must align for a perfect day of surf. Below some surf terminology and surf conditions for beginners to read before setting the foot in the water.

The ocean is infinitely complex and always changing—each break is unique, and no two days are ever the same. Predicting the surf and reading the sea is a lifelong art form, one that only comes over time with lots of practice and patience.

In honor of the massive swell currently approaching our coastline (see photo at end!), here are the 5 most important factors one should understand to stay safe and score sweet waves!

       1. Types of Breaks

There are three primary types of surf breaks, or geographical seascapes that create surfable waves:

Beach Break – When waves break off of a sandy bottom. Where the wave breaks depends on the shifting contours of the ocean floor, which changes based on tides, seasons, and storms. Examples of nearby beach breaks are Devils’ Rock and Anza.

Point Break –  Waves that form as a result of the natural geography of a coastline jutting out to a point. A point breaks either to the left or the right, not both directions like beach breaks. The bottom might be either sand or rocks, depending on the break. Nearby epic point breaks include Anchor’s Point and Killer’s Point.

Reef Break – Reef breaks are when a waves breaks off a coral reef or rockbed. Reefs are often the most epic, world-class waves, and are rarely suitable breaks for beginners. Often creating steep, hollow, barreling waves, reefs can be both highly risky, and highly rewarding! If one falls, a bed of razor-sharp coral or rock is waiting just a few feet below the surface. Local reef breaks are Boilers and Draculas. 

       2. Tide Cycles

Local tides are a key factor in understanding a given spot. The tide effects the depth of the water, which exposes or hides the seascapes mentioned above, and thus changes the wave. Different spots work better at different tides. Even the direction of the tide – if it is rising or falling – can have a large impact on the wave.

Luckily, local tide charts are readily available on the internet. There is a tide shift every 6 hours, from high to low and back again.

       3. Wave Height

How big the waves are depends on the size, speed, direction and type of swell approaching your local break. You can check data from your local buoys, and there are many awesome surf apps that interpret how your breaks will receive a given swell such as Magic Seaweed and Surfline.



       4. Wind

Just because a massive swell is coming doesn’t necessarily mean there will be surfable waves!

Local winds make or break the wave. Understanding the difference between onshore and offshore wind is key:

Offshore wind blows toward the face of the wave, from the land to the sea. This is generally favorable for surfing as it holds the face of the wave up.

Onshore wind blows from the back of the wave toward the shore. This is generally unfavorable for surfing as it pushes the wave down, making it mushy and often unrideable.

       5. Seasons

The time of year plays a huge role in wave size and consistency, as swells come from different directions in varying sizes depending on the season.

Beaches that are facing the direction the swell is coming from will be more receptive to that swell and pick up larger waves, while beaches facing a different direction will generally have smaller waves for a that swell.

Remember, predicting the surf is truly an art form, and cultivating this skill doesn’t come overnight – practice patience, check the sea in person whenever you can, and remember there will always be more waves on the horizon!

Now, let’s celebrate the massive swell heading our way, and get some big ones!

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