How To Read Waves
Learn how to read and anticipate how waves will break. Predict if you will surf a right, a left or a close-out.
“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?”
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Reading waves itself could be considered an art. As you progress from a beginner into an intermediate then advanced surfer, your capacity to read and anticipate waves will slowly increase. It’s important to note that this is not a skill you simply learn overnight or master quickly. Increasing your hours in the ocean will help to accelerate your learning process in predicting how waves will break. It’s all about patience, time and experience.
To get started on predicting how waves will break and be better prepared for your next surf session, we’ve simplified and condensed what we believe to be the most important basics involved in wave reading below.
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1. Different types of waves: Rights, Lefts, A-Frames & Closeouts
“So where do I start?” Let’s begin by categorising waves. A wave may break into many shapes, but most can be labelled as either a right, a left, an a-frame or a closeout. You want to begin by looking out towards the horizon. When you see a lump forming, understand that this movement of water will eventually transform into a wave as it gets closer to the shore.
A wave that breaks (or peels) to the right, 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 below is following the wave to his right, this wave is called a “right”.
A wave that breaks to the left 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
A “peak-shaped” wave, with both right and left shoulders. With the option to go either left or right, “A Frames” are great as it doubles the number of rides, with two surfers able to catch the same wave, going in opposite directions (one going right, the other going left).
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).
2. Parts Of A Wave
Recognising different parts of the wave is one of the most important aspects of wave reading. Being able to identify (and properly name) the different parts of a wave will help you better understand how and where to position yourself in the water. Also, if you are taking surf lessons, this is essential in order to communicate with your surf coach.
- White Water (or Foam)
After the wave breaks, it transforms itself into “whitewater”, also called “foam”.
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.
The curl is the “concave” part of the wave’s shoulder that is very steep. This is where most of the high-performance manoeuvres happen. This section offers a vertical ramp, similar to a skateboard ramp. Advanced surfers can therefore use this part of the wave to do tricks like airs or big snaps.
- 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”.
- 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 out to the surf, as this is where the wave has most of its power.
The highest point on a wave is 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 reading and predicting how a wave will break.
- 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 the “shoulder” or “face”.
3. Peak Positioning
Finding the peak is key to anticipating how the wave will break. You will be able to be proactive and paddle in the optimal position to catch the wave. So how do we identify the peak? You can start by noticing how the steeper and higher parts of the wave have a darker green colour. This is the peak and will be the highest point of the wave. Ideally, you would reach the peak before it breaks, giving you a longer ride. Below we break down the process:
Identify the highest point of the wave (peak)
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 the “peak”). This will be the first place where the wave breaks.
Paddle To The Peak
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
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.
4. Shoulder Line & Peeling Speed
When you’re sitting on your surfboard waiting for a wave, you should be looking for the peak to indicate where you need to catch the wave. It’s usually possible to have an idea of how the wave will break in the next few seconds after you’ve noticed the peak. You can know this by looking at the angle of the shoulder. If you clearly see a steeper slope on one of the sides of the wave, that is usually where you are going to surf. If you are not able to see any shoulder with an angle going down, it usually means this wave will be a closeout.
Predict The Peeling Speed
We can predict the peeling speed of a wave by looking at the angle of the shoulder line. Go for the shoulder with an angle that is right for your level. 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 closeout, 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. As an advanced surfer, you might choose the faster shoulder to generate speed down the line and set up a more advanced manoeuvre.
5. Decision Making
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?”
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.
6. Identifying & Mind Reading Waves
If you’ve ever surfed before and wondered how advanced surfers usually catch more waves than others, we can relate it back to their ability to identify waves out at sea faster. The quicker you can identify the wave and the peak, the faster you can react, respond and position yourself. It can often feel like some surfers seem to magically start paddling for a wave even before others noticed a lump out on the horizon. Experience and familiarity with a spot certainly make a huge difference, but there are other ways we can learn to identify waves more quicker.
- Keep track of the average time in between sets.
Before paddling out, do a spot check and wait to observe the time frame between sets.
- Keep an eye out for an “indicator.”
An indicator could be a headland, cliff, rock or break wall further out. You could use either of these to know when the set is coming by noticing when water breaks over one of the indicators. You may notice that this means a set is on its way and will arrive about 20 seconds later. Indicators can also be other things like boats anchored out at sea moving up and down.
- Stay focused.
Staying focused on the horizon to improve your reaction time is key. Less experienced surfers need to stay focused to identify when waves are coming and position themselves accordingly.
- Mind reading and “mentally” catching waves.
These are great tools to use both in and out of the water. There will be plenty of waves that you either won’t be able to physically reach in time or that other surfers are better positioned for. Whilst watching the wave either from the beach or in the water, try to predict how the wave will peel, visualising when and where you would paddle for the peak. That way you can compare your imagined decision-making, and compare it to the positioning of other surfers in the water. Mind reading waves is something even advanced surfers do, imagining how they would position themselves and what manoeuvres they would do on the wave.
7. How Surf Conditions Affect The Wave
Having a deeper understanding of how surf conditions affect the wave will enhance your ability to anticipate how the wave will break. So how do tides, swell, wind and bottom contour affect conditions? Let’s break it down below.
Tides are created by the gravitational attraction of the moon and the sun on the earth and its oceans. There are two high tides and two low tides within a 24-hour period, with about 6 hours between low tide and high tide every day. On the days that get closer to the full moon, the tides get very big (very high tide shifting to very low tide). This tidal movement has a direct impact on both the shape and quality of the wave, as well as how it will break. Some surf spots only work on higher tides, others work on low tides and some work on many different tides.
- High tide can sometimes mean mushier, slower-breaking waves.
- Low tide often translates into faster, more powerful breaking waves.
- Keep in mind that every spot is different, so sometimes this is not always the case. During low tide, you may be subject to exposed rocks or reefs that weren’t a concern six hours before.
Swells are produced by winds and storms hundreds of kilometres out at sea. The different swells coming through will bring bigger or smaller waves to the same surf spots. The larger the swell, and the longer the period, the bigger waves you get.
The period is the distance between waves out at sea, which is measured in seconds.
- Small and weak waves= 6 seconds
- Medium waves= 10 to 12 seconds
- Large, solid waves= 15 seconds +
Tip: When getting to a surf spot, analyze the wave conditions for 5 to 10 minutes. Remember that waves come in sets, and it sometimes can take a while for the bigger sets to show up. Taking a few extra minutes to see how and where the bigger sets break on a specific day is a good idea so that you can grasp where you should sit once paddling out.
The shape of waves also varies from day to day due to swell directions. This is why even on perfect point break setups, you need the right swell direction in order for the wave to break and peel properly. Depending on what angle the waves are coming from, it can generate better or worse quality waves according to a specific spot.
Wind affects surf conditions in every specific surf spot. Generally, surfers want either no wind or little offshore wind, meaning a soft wind coming from the shore towards the ocean. These waves are cleaner and easier to read so you can predict how they will break.
Winds that blow toward the ocean from the land, usually creating clean conditions. Offshore winds often hold up the waves so they break in shallower water than normal and become much more hollow.
Winds that blow from the ocean toward the shore. This wind creates poor conditions as it makes the wave crumble faster without taking a proper shape. It’s also much harder to read these waves as they are less predictable.
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Getting familiar with the term “bottom contour” and how it affects the wave’s shape will also help you to understand why waves break the way they do.
So what is the bottom contour? Answer: the shape of the ocean floor. Waves are created and get their particular shape because they come from out at sea and eventually “feel” the bottom contour, which determines how they break. The bottom contour affects so many elements of a wave, determining its speed, direction, steepness and power. The shape at the bottom of the sea determines if waves will either break to the left or to the right. It also explains why some waves peel both rights and left, commonly called “A-frames”, or why some waves don’t peel at all and just close.