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How to Read a Surf Report

You must understand how to read a surf report if you want to know where and when the best waves will break on a particular day or the upcoming week ahead.

Good, high-quality waves result from a combination of many factors, including:

  • Swell Size and Period
  • Swell Direction
  • Wind Direction and Speed
  • The Tides

As outlined in a surf report, understanding how each is related and how this might affect your local breaks is a fundamental aspect of surfing. With so many variables, this could be the difference between getting totally skunked, finding good waves, or finding epic waves that make for legendary sessions.

What is a Surf Report?

A surf report essentially summarizes the present-day wave conditions, utilizing oceanography/weather-based charts, graphs, and other factors to provide an overview of how the waves are breaking. Sometimes, a surf report is performed by a person who watches the waves with their very own eyes, providing a definitive, first-hand overview of the current conditions based on what they have seen. A lot of surf reports are accompanied by a surf cam so that you can watch the waves for yourself and determine if it is a worthy day to paddle out.

By looking at a surf report, you'll better understand how big the waves are and if they are clean and organized or choppy and disorganized, helping you dictate where to surf and what type of equipment you might need to bring along.

What is a Surf Forecast?

A surf forecast predicts the wave height/quality for the coming days ahead, just like a weather forecast. It is a scientific-based estimate that helps to tell us more about what we can expect from the ocean and can estimate the conditions up to 14 days into the future.

Difference Between Surf Report and Surf Forecast

The difference between surf report and surf forecast is quite simple: a surf report is a report of the conditions during the present, current day, and a surf forecast is an estimate of how the waves will break in the future days ahead.

You will use a surf report to determine the wave quality when you wake up for dawn patrol and a surf forecast for planning your surfing endeavors ahead of time, such as dictating travel plans. Lucky for us, learning how to read a surf report doesn't mean pulling out tide charts and looking at swell maps anymore- nowadays, most of the work is done for you!

How to Read a Surf Report

Anyone can load up a surf forecast app and see how the waves are breaking, but learning how to understand a surf report will provide you with a goldmine of knowledge. The ability to find the best waves and search for secret spots will do nothing but enhance your surfing.

Swell Size and Period

Swell size is the average size of the waves from trough to crest, calculated in 20-minute windows and measured in feet or meters. This is measured by buoys in the open ocean and is one of the most important factors to note when looking at a surf report.

Swell size helps you know if the conditions are safe to surf, as beginners generally don't want to paddle out in anything too large (always surf within your comfort zones!) and provides insight into what type of equipment you might need. Small surf? Snag the log. Medium size? Go for the shorty. XL waves? It's time for the step-ups and guns.

But did you know that swell size is influenced by the swell period? Two waves of the same height but with varying swell periods will be a totally different quality.

The swell period, measured in seconds, calculates how long it takes one wave to break after another. When a wave crest breaks at a particular point, the swell period is the time it takes for the next wave to reach the exact same point and also break. The longer the swell period, the better and more powerful the waves, and you generally want to look for swell periods at or over 8-10 seconds for the highest quality waves.

This means that the waves have ample time to gain momentum and build strength, and groundswells are synonymous with long-period swells that are the absolute best to surf. On the other hand, a short period swell means that the waves break in concession much quicker. This is generally indicative of choppy wind swells and disorganized ocean conditions that are less ideal to surf.

Swell Direction

The entire coastline faces varying angles of the sea, and this is precisely why an understanding of swell direction is an essential aspect of learning how to read a surf report. Swell direction tells you the direction of where a swell is moving from the open ocean, measured in degrees, and summarized by cardinal points, aka- north, south, east, and west, or a combination of the four.

Just as with wind direction, the swell direction tells you where the swell is coming from, not the direction it is moving. On the East Coast, for example, an east swell isn't moving towards the east. That would mean it is literally heading away from the coastline, like a backward wave. Instead, it means the waves are coming from the east, and with this, the best surf spots are those that face directly east.

So why does this matter? You need a swell to "find" the coastline so that the waves may break. The ideal location to surf will be the area of coastline that best faces the direction of the swell. An east-facing coast works best during an E swell, a west facing coast best during a W swell, a northeast facing coast best during a NE swell, and so on.

The swell direction will also dictate the potential directions of the wave breaking. Some spots will break left in a particular swell direction and right during another. All of this will influence the waves you get to surf on a specific day.

Let's look at the Oahu surf report, zooming in on Pipeline, as an example. When you look at a map, you will see that the Pipeline beach faces NW to the open ocean. With this, it will work best during a WNW or an NW swell.

Wind Direction and Speed

Both direction and speed, the winds will make or break a surf sesh, one of the most influential aspects of learning how to read a surf report. Overall, the best surf is when there is little to no wind, but that's usually not the case. Let's start with the direction.

The wind direction, similar to the swell direction, signals where the wind is coming from. A north wind is therefore blowing from the north, not blowing towards the north.

Winds are generally categorized into two categories: offshore and onshore.

Offshore winds mean the wind is blowing from the land towards the water. On the east coast, offshore winds are typically west and on the west coast, typically east. This will vary depending on the specific angle of a particular coastline or cove, but you get the point. Offshore winds, because they are blowing against the wave's direction, will help push the wave upwards. This helps to keep conditions clean and often results in epic, barreling conditions.

Onshore winds are indicative of choppier surf conditions. Onshore winds blow from the sea to the land and therefore push against the waves from the backside. This makes the waves break messier and choppier and results in lesser quality waves. A very light onshore wind is ideal for certain aerial maneuvers, but a strong onshore means poor surf.

Wind speed is pretty self-explanatory, and the lower the wind speed, the better the surf. Offshore winds are great, but offshore winds with an intense wind speed will be difficult to paddle into, as the wind will push your board up and away from the wave. To avoid the downfalls of strong wind, it is beneficial to surf against piers or jetties that protect a surf spot from the wind. The early mornings and evenings are generally the best time for lower wind speeds and higher quality surf.

The Tides

Some surf sports only work on a particular tide, whereas others will entirely change personalities during varying tides, such as barreling at low tide and turning to mushy longboard waves at high. As well as this, some surf spots see much more significant tide changes than others.

The higher the tide, the more water will exist between the bottom of the seafloor/reef. This means that the power of the wave won't break as dramatically, resulting in calmer, mushier, and easier to ride surf. However, if the tide is too high, the waves won't break until they reach the shore, deeming them unrideable.

During low tide, there is less water between the seafloor/reef. Low tide at the right spot might mean epic, barreling waves, or it could mean that there is not enough water to hold up the breaking waves in an organized manner, and this results in unrideable closeouts.

Let's again take a look at the Oahu surf report as an example, specifically Pipeline. Hawaii doesn't see tide changes as drastic as other spots do, so it won't affect the waves quite as much, but the ideal tide is still determined as a mid-tide. Too low, and the waves become deadly against the exposed reef, and too high, they won't give you those world-class barrels pipeline is known for. The best bet is really to learn your spot through experience to determine what tides are more ideal than others!

How to Understand Surf Reports

Most surf reports on a particular day will have all the hard work done for you and are super easy to understand. Surf forecasting sites, such as Surfline, will feature daily, hands-on reports of the most popular spots. It will be presented as a summary that is a general estimate of the wave height (1-2 ft, 3-4 ft, 6-8 ft, etc.), and an overall category of wave quality (poor, poor to fair, fair, good, good to epic, and epic). This determination summarizes everything we just talked about- epic waves being the culmination of the perfect tide, the ideal winds, a solid size, and a long period swell.

But the world is a big place, and with this, surf reports/surf forecasts are generalized to broad locational areas. For example, the Florida forecast is broken down into three major regions: South Florida, Central Florida, and North Florida. Although the forecast will hold generally true for the entire area, there might be a particular surf spot that is a little different from the rest, such as a cove that is protected by a specific wind direction, that might be breaking better or worse.

And this is precisely why learning how to not only read a surf report, but truly learn how to understand surf reports can be all the difference between choosing to surf that crowded pier or knowing that your secret, elusive spot will be breaking perfectly.