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How To Read Waves

Learn how to read waves and anticipate how they will break. Predict if you will surf a right, a left, or a close-out.

Read Waves : Faster vs. Slower

“How do I know if the wave is a right or a left”? “How can I know when a wave is going to break”? “What is a closeout”? These are very common questions we get from our travellers.

Reading waves itself could be considered an art. As you progress from a beginner to an intermediate, then to an advanced surfer, your capacity to read and anticipate waves will slowly increase. Take into consideration it’s not something you will master quickly. Reading waves better mostly comes by spending loads of hours in the ocean. This is why even after a few years of surfing, you might see local surfers paddling for a wave way before you even noticed a lump!

This being said, here are the most important basics to help you get started on your next surf session.

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1. How a wave breaks: Rights, Lefts, A-Frames & Closeouts

When you see a lump on the horizon, you know that the lump will eventually transform into a wave as it gets closer to the shore. This wave may break into different shapes, but most waves can be categorized either as a right, a left, an a-frame or a closeout.

A Left

Left Wave Reading

A wave that breaks (or “peels”) to the left, from the vantage of the surfer riding the wave. If you are looking from the beach, facing the ocean, the wave will break towards the right from your perspective. To avoid confusion, surfers always identify wave directions according to the surfer’s perspective: the surfer above is following the wave to his left, this wave is called a “left”.

The Surfer is Riding a Left
In the above picture, the Surfer is riding a “left”.

A Right

Riding a Right Wave

A wave that breaks to the right from the vantage of the surfer riding the wave. For people looking from the beach, the wave will be breaking to the left from their position.

An A Frame

Riding in a Frame

A “peak-shaped” wave, with both right and left shoulders. These waves are great since it doubles the number of rides: 2 surfers can catch the same wave, going in opposite directions (one going right, the other going left).

A Close Out

A Close Out

A wave that “closes all at once”, making it impossible to ride the shoulder either right or left. It’s possible to catch a closeout, but usually only a second or two after your take off, the whole wave will break, leaving you not many options but to go straight towards the beach (unless you are an experienced surfer, then you could do airs or floaters, but since you are reading this article, we can assume this is not the case).

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2. Different Parts of A Wave

One of the most important aspects of wave reading is being able to identify (and properly name) the different parts of a wave. Also, if you are taking surf lessons, this is essential in order to communicate with your surf coach.

Different Parts of the Wave

Lip

The top part of the wave that “pitches” from above when the wave is breaking. A big part of the wave’s power is located in the lip.

Shoulder (or “Face”)

The part of a wave that has not broken yet. Surfers ride from the area that is breaking, toward the unbroken section of the wave called “shoulder” or “face”.

Curl

The “concave” part of the wave’s shoulder that is very steep. This is where most of the high-performance manoeuvres happen. Advanced surfers use this part of the wave to do tricks like airs or big “snaps”, since this section offers a vertical ramp, similar to a skateboard ramp.

White water (or Foam)

After the wave breaks, it transforms itself into “whitewater”, also called “foam”.

Impact Zone

The spot where the lip crashes down on the flat water. You want to avoid getting caught in this zone when sitting or paddling our to the surf, as this is where the wave has most of its power.

Tube (or Barrel)

Some waves form a “cylinder” when they break. Commonly described as “the ultimate surfing manoeuvre”, advanced surfers are able to ride inside the curve of the wave, commonly called tube, or “barrel”.

Peak

The highest point on a wave, also the first part of the wave that breaks. When watching a wave on the horizon, the highest part of a wave is called the “peak”. Finding the “peak” is key to read and predict how a wave will break.

3. How to Read Waves and Position Yourself according to the Peak

Identify the highest point of the wave (peak).

Wave Horizon to Be Read

As you are sitting on your surfboard, look at the horizon. When you see a lump further out, try to find the highest part of the wave (called “peak”). This will be the first place where the wave breaks.

Paddle To The Peak

Paddle to the Peak of the Wave

The sooner you identify the peak, the better. You will be able to be proactive and paddle in the optimal position to catch the wave. Ideally, you would reach the peak before it breaks, giving you a longer ride.

If the wave is bigger and you are not able to reach the peak before it breaks, paddle further on the wave’s shoulder. In this situation you want to be paddling into the wave at “Stage B”: the stage where the wave is steep enough to catch, but the lip hasn’t started to pitch yet (for more information about “Stage B” see How to Catch Unbroken Waves).

Turn Around and Paddle

Turn Around and Paddle on the Surfboard

Once you are in the proper position to catch the wave, turn around so your surfboard faces the beach and paddle with proper power and technique.

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4. Decision Making: Different Situations

Decision Making : 2 Surfers Sharing in a Frame Wave

Facing an A Frame. A frames are great because if nobody else is paddling for the wave, you can choose to either go right or go left. If another surfer is also paddling for the wave, the best thing to do is to communicate and ask: “Are you going left, or right?”.

Breaking Speed on a Wave

Going for the shoulder with a steeper angle. The steeper the angle of a shoulder goes down, the slower the wave will break. The straighter the shoulder looks, the closer it gets to being a close out, meaning the faster the wave will peel. As a beginner, you probably want to choose the steeper angle, to give you more time to follow the shoulder.

Going to the shoulder of the wave

Is it really a closeout? Where the beginner sees a closeout, sometimes the advanced see a good wave. Some waves might look like closeouts, but if you look properly you might see a peak and a shoulder. You have to move and find opportunities for waves.

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