Surfing is one of the few sports that rely mostly on various weather conditions to align. Without the basic knowledge of swells, winds, and tides – it’s far too easy to miss the perfect timing to go in and enjoy the waves.
How To Read The Waves?
I recommend watching the best introduction video on YouTube by The Surf Rat
Surfing is rewarding like no other sport out there. Many sacrifices must be made to maximize the time in the water. Each surf spot generates unique waves at certain conditions, where the tide, swell, and the wind is all aligning up, and this guide is written to inform how the forecasts work, with explanations and surf forecast links below.
How to read a surf forecast?
- Knowledge of the basics of surf conditions
- Check the Report – Current conditions
Which is the best surf weather?
Checking the surf conditions and surf webcams is a routine every keen surfer is familiar with. The swells can be predicted for a reasonable amount of time in front, while the winds can change rather quickly and ruin the perfect surf weather.
- The best surf weather is usually in the mornings when the wind has not picked up, and the ocean is glassy.
- The right direction swell is also a must for excellent surf conditions.
- No wind or a low to medium offshore wind is a good sign.
- Incoming or outcoming tide, depending on the break you are about to surf.
Ultimate Surf Forecast / Reports Guide
Knowledge of how to read the weather forecast is an essential skill for every surfer. As the winds, swells, and tides determine the quality of surf a ta certain surf-break – it is crucial to pay attention to each detail.
Knowing how to read the report will also help to plan a weekend surf-trip. Should you travel east or west to catch good surf, or wake up at 5 am to find the only surfable gap. The more we surf, the more we know that the right conditions will most likely not last long – so make sure to make the most of it.
What is the Swell?
An ocean swell is a series of waves that propagate along with the interface between water and air and thus are often referred to as surface gravity waves, generally created by strong winds and storms. The direction of the swell will determine the quality of surf at a particular surf spot since every surf break “works” when the swell hits the coastline at a certain angle.
Groundswell – Waves generated far off the coast.
Wind swell – waves formed from local winds to the specific surf spot.
Direction of swells
Each surf break is unique due to various natural factors. Different tides, incoming swell angles, and winds will result in exceptional conditions. Some spots work only on a relatively specific swell angle, while other points work all year-round and with different swell directions.
Usually, if your home surf break is facing 90degrees east, the swell coming from the east has the highest success rate of having good surf weather. Some surf spots or point breaks are right behind the corner, and the right direction swell to “hit” the spot, is also something to look after.
Swell direction is generally in degrees:
N – Swell moving towards the north. 0 degrees
E – Swell moving towards the east. 90 degrees
S – Swell moving towards the south. 180 degrees
W – Swell that moves towards the west. 270 degrees
NW – northwest. 270 – 360 degrees
NE – northeast. 0 – 90 degrees
SE – southeast. 90 – 180 degrees
SW – southwest. 180 – 270 degrees
The buoys in the ocean measure the height of the swell. Most surf forecasts prefer to use imperial over metrical, so the wave height is measured in feet(ft).
It is measured from through to crest.
Measured from crest to crest. The length of the wave determines the period.
The period of a swell is the amount of time a wave passes a certain point (usually a buoy). Timely, the swell period is measured in seconds. Good quality surf is generally from 10-20 seconds.
Winds create swells in the ocean. The direction of the winds will also determine the movement of swells.
Diffraction – Is a change in the intensity and direction of the waves after passing by an obstacle like a big rock, small islet, or landmark.
2 ft @ 10-20 seconds – good quality
2 ft @ 5-10 seconds – nearly flat
5 ft @ 10-20 seconds – epic and large surf
5 ft @ 5-10 seconds – low to average quality surf
Wind creates swells and determines the direction where the swells will move to. Wind can increase or decrease the local surf conditions. As winds can change their directions rapidly, it is the hardest factor in surf forecast to rely upon.
A strong wind or storm generates a groundswell further back in the ocean, while a local wind can produce a choppy and temporary condition for a surf.
Types of winds
On most surf spots, the mornings are the best time to go for a surf. The weather in the mornings is generally calm; midday is the time when the winds pick up and mix the conditions. The second best time to go for a surf is right before a sunset when the winds have calmed down.
- Onshore – An onshore wind is not suitable for surfing since it blows the edges of the waves and flattens the surf. A mild onshore wind can have a little effect on the ocean, but generally, it’s not preferable. Strong onshore winds ruin the surf and make the conditions un-surfable.
Conditions: Choppy, bumpy, ungroomed.
- Offshore – Wind that blows from the beach towards the ocean. Offshore winds make the waves more groomed and help to create barrels. Strong offshore winds will make the surf conditions harsh due to the spray from the tips of the waves. A cresting wave will limit your visibility when dropping in.
- Cross-shore winds – Not preferable due to uncertain directional blows. Cross-Shore wind can end up pushing you sideways the beach, which will result in a long walk back to your belongings.
- No wind – A glassy condition for perfect waves.
The moon controls tides. Every day, there are two low and two high tides. Tides are very predictable and change by 51 minutes after each day. Tide size difference around the full moon has the most substantial severity change where high tides are extremely high and low tides shallow. The world’s highest tides occur in Canada, with tidal changes in 40 feet.
- Outgoing tide – A condition after the high tide, where the water levels are lowering at a beach.
- Incoming tide – Rising or incoming tide is the period after the low tide until the high tide
- Low tide – A period where the water level is at the lowest point and will be increasing soon.
Waves on low tide are generally fast and tend to close out.
- High Tide – Period, where the water levels are the highest, and soon will be decreasing
Waves on high tide are known to be fat, slow, and mushy.
Surfing a beach break can be difficult. It is crucial to find a spot where the quality of waves is the best. How to spot a good sandbar? When the forecast for surf is excellent, the waves should be there. Walking down the beach and looking for the best place to jump in and start surfing? Well, we all know that the grass is always greener on the other side, so it is when surfing a beach break. Make sure you examine the whole beach before jumping in. Take a good minute or two to check out where the surf is more consistent.
An excellent tip for finding the best sand bar is to spot a location on the beach where the water reaches the furthest towards the beach. This is the indication that the strong currents and waves are pushing the water stronger and further towards the shore. If you’ve found a spot, use the rip to paddle in and enjoy.
Finding the surf
Once you know the basics of how the conditions affect the surf – it’s a path to get a good quality surf. For example, two surf breaks, maybe a few miles apart from each other – can have different surf conditions.
Best Surf Forecast Links:
Coastalwatch.com – Australias surf forecasts
Best Surf Forecast Apps:
Most used mobile applications to check the surf forecast.
NOAA Buoy and Tide data
I created Nulltuul to share my experience, research and analysis with other surf enthusiasts out there. If I'm not surfing on my travels - I like to photograph waves, surfers, and the surf lifestyle in general.