Learning how to surf is about more than just learning how to use a surfboard. In order to be a successful surfer, you also need to know how to read waves.
It’s super easy for even the most experienced surfer to go about this the wrong way and miss out on some great waves while wasting double the energy.
However, you’re in luck!
Because in this post you’ll learn exactly how to read waves and get the most out of each and every session.
The ocean can be unpredictable and ever-changing so you’re not going to find the same kind of waves on any given beach. The best surfers can anticipate a wave while it is still barely there in the eyes of less skilled surfers.
Reading waves is one of those things that you will learn as you surf. It is not something you can learn overnight or something you can learn just by reading about waves. Here’s a few tips to get your technical surfing expertise started, that is if you aren’t an pro already.
Tips and Tricks for Reading Waves
Watch the Tide
How the tide affects waves can depend on the exact spot you’re surfing so it is a good idea to speak with other surfers to get tips on when the best time to surf is based on the tides. The way waves break can change depending on the tide.
- High Tide: In some areas, you may be able to get better waves as the tide is coming in. In other areas, high tide may cause those large waves to break down before you’re able to surf them due to there being too much water.
- Low Tide: Waves can also do a number of things when the tide is low. You may find larger waves or more hollow waves. The waves might start breaking further out from the shoreline.
- Changing Tide: When the tide is coming in or going out, you may notice more downtime between sets once the wave breaks.
Learn Wave Shapes
You can watch a wave begin as a mound or a lump far out in the ocean. As the waves get closer to shore and begin to break, watch for the shape and direction of the break. There are a few different shapes to look out for.
- Left: To clear up any confusion, the direction in which a wave breaks is based on the perspective of the person riding the wave. When a wave clearly breaks to the left, you should generally ride it to your left.
- Right: Again, this from the perspective of the surfer. When a wave breaks to the right, follow the wave to your right.
- Closeout: You cannot ride a closeout wave to the left or right because it begins to break evenly across the whole wave and “closes out” all at once. Some very experienced surfers can ride a closeout before breaks but generally, closeouts are hard to ride since the whole wave breaks at once and if you’re attempting to ride it you’ll usually end up heading back toward shore.
- A-Frame: An A-frame wave has a dip in the middle and two distinct left and right sides. You can ride either side successfully. These are especially good waves because two surfers can ride the same wave, one on the left and one of the right.
Find the Peak
Look out at the horizon and watch for lumps. Those will be your incoming waves. If you can find the highest part of the wave, also known as the peak, you’ll know where the wave is going to break first. You then want to paddle out in the direction of the peak.
Reaching the peak before the wave breaks will give you a longer ride. You can still ride the wave if it breaks before you reach the peak, you will just have to ride closer to the shoulder of the wave and it won’t be as long of a ride.
Figure out the Speed of the Break
- Faster: If the shoulder of the wave is close to being level, it is going to be quick to break. The straighter the angle the more likely the wave is going to become a closeout.
- Slower: If the angle of the shoulder is steeper, the wave is going to break slower. Beginners generally want to find a wave that is slower to break so they have more time to follow along with the shoulder of the wave.
Watch for Consistency (or Inconsistency)
If you are seeing wave after wave break in the same general spot and the waves are good for surfing, you can generally assume that if you head off in the direction the peaks were for the other waves you’ll be able to catch a wave. If peaks are all over the place and waves are breaking in many different spots, you are going to have to move around and be more mindful of when a wave is beginning to come in.
Reading waves really is an art and it’s one that you need a lot of practice to perfect. Begin with these tips but the best way to learn how to read waves is to get out there and surf. You’ll find that the more you surf, the more you pick up on what the waves are doing and which ones you should try to catch.
Written by Chet James
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