Figuring out surf forecasts can be a challenging task especially with all the surf forecast apps and varying opinions from surfers.
Here’s some terms and basic info on how to be there at the right time for your next session.
Basic Surf Terms –
–Period – Space between each wave crest (or wave top). Less means usually wind mixed of storm surf. Longer means more powerful waves.
–Direction – The direction the Swell or wave is going, so West or East. Also listed as a compass direction such as 290 degrees.
–Wave Height – Height of swell (unbroken wave) coming in. In Hawaii they measure the back of the waves.
–Wind Direction – West wind means the direction the wind is coming from (or Westerly). Understanding how wind affects your break is important.
–Tides – Each surf spot has a specific type of wave in ideal conditions at a certain tide level. Wind direction and speed can alter that effect.
–Currents – Many surf spots are directly affected by longshore (parallel to beach) or outgoing current. Some places like the Strait list current speeds and direction. Many miss this detail.
–Wave Sizing: Means how surfers talk about waves. Varies per region, some go by Waist high, overhead, double overhead.
–Offshore Winds: Means winds blowing out to sea. This helps build up wave faces. A preferable direction.
–Onshore Winds: Winds blowing from the sea into shore which flattens wave crests making for less desirable ‘mushy’ surf.
–Shore Break: Means waves that break on the beach. Usually not preferable
–Close-Out Waves: Waves that collapse all at once leaving for little area to surf with.
–Surf Etiquette: Basic rules of surfing. A must know for any break.
Beach & Wave Preferences – Some beaches only break at a specific tide, wave size/direction and wind speed. And some have a variety of wave types and each person may be seeking a favorable type of wave produced by specific conditions. For example I like a high tide at a location for a certain type of wave I like but a friend prefers a barrel wave which is produced at the same location at low tides.
You’ll find out what you like by going several times to a specific location. In time you figure out the personality of that beach, how wind and waves work there and the type of wave that beach produces at varying different conditions.
Wave Forecast Issues – Many use online forecasting tools such as Surf Forecast, Magic Seaweed, NOAA, Surfline or StormSurf. They’re all good but not always 100% correct. Many think that the forecast on the sites is 100% correct – but it’s a forecast which is just a prediction. Friends come home from surf trips pissed that Magic Seaweed lists a 5 start day but ends up being flat. Truth is, you have to use a cross section of each to get an idea whats going to happen, then make the decision if its worth driving 3 hours from Seattle. My rule of thumb is if it looks 80% good, I’ll go and see what I get. But I’m easy, I can surf any size and be happy.
Example of varying surf forecasts for one day – NOAA: 8′ west swell, 5-25 knots NE wind rising to 30kt NE winds later in the day, 12 seconds. Magic Seaweed says 4′ west swell, 12-15 NE winds and 12-13 sec period, 3 star.
What is Big or Small? For me a ‘big’ day is 6′. For others big means double overhead. Small may mean 10′ for someone who likes it really big. Make sure you know what work for you and what your friends translate size to before you go. As a beginner go for 2-4′. Some say those aren’t waves but you’ll scare a beginner and they’ll never go again if you insist that those are too small.
Hazards at Beaches – As fun as surfing is it can be dangerous quick if you’re not paying attention…
– Biggest hazards we have are offshore wind which makes nice waves but also can push you from the beach out to sea and can push unsuspecting surfers out into bigger waves or reefs.
– River Mouths. Even breaks by little creeks can create enough outgoing current to send you offshore. Watch your position – keep yourself in a little box to stay close to the beach.
– If you’re a newbie, you can be a hazard to others. If new to surfing, keep a good distance from others until you can control your craft. SUPs with a leash means a roughly 20′ radius around your board when you wipe out.
– Surfers with attitude, usually about localism or if you’re not riding their exact board size. I usually ignore or get some distance from them. Life’s too short.
– Rip Currents. These pull you out to sea. Swim or paddle at a 90 degree angle away.
Best Steps for Planning a Surf Trip:
– Find out which beaches are good for your skill level. Beginners should not surf advance breaks. If you’re a SUP and you find a beach with only surf boards, be cautious or possibly find a sup friendly beach.
– Beginners should start with ‘small’ waves 2′ to 4′, low or now winds, minimal if no current and other newbies around. Ask for the beginning beaches.
– Ask friends, local shops and/or follow local surf groups online to find out which beach is best for you, where to take a lesson, rent gear etc.
– Check the surf and wind apps to begin to build an idea of where to go and when.
– Upon arrival at the beach make sure the conditions are to your skill level. When in doubt, don’t go out.
Tip: If you haven’t surfed in a while, paddle your sup, prone board or surf board for a days prior to your surf trip.
There’s many more conditions which I can’t fit here, so check out my SUP book for a whole chapter on wind, waves, beach types, surfing terminology, hazards, people issues, gear, etc. Even if you’re a kayaker or traditional surfer the chapter is pretty detailed for all surfers.
Check out Elliott Almond’s book “Surfing: Mastering Waves from Beginning to Intermediate.”