Your board is waxed and ready to ride. All you need are some sweet little swells, a bit of luck, and your surfing life is born. You have a few hours before work, so you hit your local beach… sorry, the tide’s too high and the waves are weak. Okay, how about surfing around noon tomorrow… nope, the wind is blowing 20 knots onshore and the ocean looks like a washing machine on spin cycle. Never mind you say, I’ll just go for a surf in a few days when the wind is calm and the tide is right… yep, dead flat.

Before you can surf the waves, you have to find them. It helps to have a basic knowledge of the conditions that generate and shape them. Fortunately, as a 21st century surfer, you can find a wave near you by using online surf reports and a few basic rules of thumb.

Your average surf report forecasts waves based on swell direction, wave height and local wind conditions. When they are all in sync, get stoked. When one is out of whack, waves and surfers suffer. A bunch of factors play into just how big and well-formed swells are when they reach your beach. Let’s talk about how to understand ocean and surf conditions and how to read a surf forecast so you can learn to gauge what’s coming.

Swell Direction

All you need to know about swell direction is how it impacts your surf spot. For example, in California, when a surf report says a west swell is on the way, they are describing waves originating from the west. Assuming your beach faces due west, the swell is on course to hit your break straight-on. If they are forecasting a southwest swell, then the swell will hit your break at an angle from the SW, giving you a different looking wave as it meets your beach, reef or point break. Knowing what swell directions work best for your local surf spots comes with time spent in the water and talking to locals. Checking your favorite surf sites each day doesn’t hurt either.

Wave Height

The number one question is: how big is it going to be? You can look online at your local wave buoys (offshore wave and weather buoys) for this information, but most surf report sites will interpret the important points for you and provide links. To know how to read a surf forecast, you’ll need to understand commonly used terminology, such as swell height and swell interval (time between waves).

“3 feet at 10 seconds” is an example of the average height of waves passing the offshore buoy and the average time between waves as they pass by. Both numbers are critical in judging the size of the waves that eventually hit your local surf spot. However, the swell interval is where you should put your money. A longer interval makes for a larger wave. “3 feet at 4 seconds” is an insignificant wave. “3 feet at 18 seconds” and I’d recommend you call in dead from work. Add a large swell to a large interval (10 feet at 22 seconds) and you can anticipate massive surf. It should be no problem to forecast the size of waves if you apply these basics to your local surf reports.


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