Learn how to forecast surf with this guide to the basics. Note that this post is often refers to Pacific Northwest surfing but does apply to other regions.
Long Range Forecasts – I don’t trust the TV weather people when they predict 7 or more days out. For Seattle or coastal weather I use the NOAA site a few days before a class or my personal surfing time. I use this site Marine Forecast (top selections) and a local app called Surfwater.org. Check if there’s local weather and/or surf forecast apps for your area.What do I look for?…Swell Direction – For the Strait of Juan de Fuca, I want a NW or W swell. S or SW doesn’t work as well, it has to get into the Strait. If you were in Vancouver Island, you may want a SW or W, but not a NW. For WA – NW is best. Many use compass degrees to determine specific angles. Each coastal beach has a specific direction people prefer. If you don’t know, go. Over time you’ll figure out which you conditions you like best for your skill level.
Swell direction and swell size as well as wind speed and direction are measured on offshore buoys and by some land based towers run by NOAA or Environment Canada. Swell is the incoming waves. If you look at SurfWater, the first listing is La Perouse (46206). This is located in the middle of the Strait between Vancouver Island and WA. This is our best buoy for Hobuck, Neah Bay and Port Angeles breaks. At time of writing it says – 5 ft – 12 sec. NW – Wind: 10kts SE. Updates occur each hour.
– 5′ NW swell. 5′ is a good size both on the coast and on the Strait. By the time it reaches Port Angeles it could be 5′ or knocked down to 2-4′. Wind direction and tides effect wave size.
– 12 second period – This is the distance between each wave. Storm surf is lower, so 5-9 sec. This means the waves will be closer to each other making it harder to catch waves and you’ll have less clean wave faces. Calmer seas and less wind but more powerful waves will be from 12-18sec more preferred by experienced surfers.
– Wind Direction – For the Strait, South (comes from south) is preferred as it creates ‘offshore conditions’ building up wave faces making them more ridable. W is ok. North creates ‘onshore’ conditions which flattens waves faces making ‘mushy’ waves thus less clean wave faces to surf. This is great for beginners as they just want a ride, don’t necessarily need a perfect wave and the break will be less crowded. East wind kills the incoming W or NW swell, At Hobuck, a SE or E wind creates offshore waves, W is onshore.
Tides. Each beach requires a specific tidal level for specific types of waves. Or surfers have a preference for a specific level for what they like. For example, I prefer a high tide at my favorite break for long rides from the outside to the beach. Low tides close out (wall up then crash on or near beach) which is great for short boarders, but SUPs can’t always take a close out steep drop and turn the board before hitting the beach.
In Seattle for Freighters, we need a lower tide for our breaks to work at all. I determine tides using a few tools depending on what’s available and/or if I have an internet connection. I prefer a printed book by Captain Jacks (I have one in the car too) and Mobile Graphics, an online site. Some like Dairiki which I is local. In reading tide charts, note that those are just predictions. Wind, current and recent heavy rain (flooding) will speed up or slow down tides. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is particularly hard to predict, it can be 1-2hrs off the charts in either direction.
That’s a lot of info to digest. As surfers we become amateur oceanographers, weather men/women and scientists. The key to improving as a surfer is to go often and over time you get it figured out. Even with all the best satellite, radar and even your own experience, you can get stumped after a 3hr drive and not find good waves. We’ve all been there. But you won’t learn if you don’t go. Many of these breaks are very scenic and have other things to do such as visiting Hurricane Ridge or the Olympic National Park if there’s no waves. Or bring along your touring board for a coastal tour.
Some may say, “I’ll just go to Hawaii for the warmer water instead.’ Problem is Hawaii waves have the same basic requirements for forecasting waves. Each beach there has a different ‘best time’ to be there. Plus add coral, wind, locals. We recommend learning here where you can get regular time on the water to improve, then take your skills with your while on vacation. If you visit Oahu, we recommend Blue Planet Surf for lessons, rentals and local info.
Safety & Common Sense.. And always use a leash and apply Surfer’s Etiquette on the water to prevent collisions and negative feelings toward you by other surfers. My 3 key etiquette rules are – One person per wave. Don’t take a wave if others are paddling out directly towards you. When paddling back out after a ride, don’t paddle out directly in line with those surfing in. Lastly, share waves. As SUPs we can take more waves than traditional surfers, and this can lead to jealously or a sense that you’re a wave hog. Sit a few out or give that surfer who’s been patiently waiting for a perfect wave his/her turn. Learn Surfer’s Etiquette here.
If new to surfing or travelling, ask a local surf shop for tips on where and when to go for your skill level. Take a lesson if you haven’t surfed before, this will save you tons of lost waves!
Check out my book Stand Up Paddling Flat Water to Surf and Rivers for tips on how to surf as well as surf forecasting, beach types, etc. We also teach SUP surfing all year round in Washington State.