How To Read Waves When Surfing

So, one of my closest friends is just now picking up surfing and asked me, “how exactly do you time waves when you’re out surfing?”

Read waves when surfingI gave him a quick and easy answer and said, “with practice.” Obviously, practice makes perfect, but that wasn’t the end of my answer.

I took a little extra time to explain how waves break, how they behave and the different kinds of breaks out there.

What I’m about to share with you is the only guide you’ll need to read waves when surfing. It is an exact how to read waves for surfing manual in order to give you the best possible experience out there.

Introduction: Entering The Vast Ocean

Just as there are many variations of surfaces on land, the ocean is the same. It’s always changing and that is why it’s imperative that every surfer learns to effectively read waves in order to get the most out of their sessions.

Being able to understand means that you’ll have the upper hand and the best pick of the waves out there giving you the ultimate riding experience.

If you’re like my friend and you’re still learning how to surf, you might find yourself stuck and barely ever catching waves worth riding.

Focus on learning first so that you can be the one having all the fun instead of on the sidelines – watching all of your friends snag the best waves.

This guide will be your quintessential bible for learning to read waves. Follow it closely and you’ll have unlimited awesome sessions in no time!

Reading Waves Rule Number 1: Watch the Tide

First rule watch tidesOnce you learn how to watch the tide, read it and understand it, you will be able to set yourself up for success.

You first have to understand if the tide is coming or going. Wave breaks can be affected by the tide and can determine the quality of the wave you’re aiming to catch.

Out on the water, I’ll notice how there are certain spots that catch a little more wave due to the tide getting higher.

Sometimes, if the wave isn’t large enough, it can completely dissipate because there’s too much water.

Once the tide lowers, the waves can behave a different way. It’s possible they may get bigger and more hollow, breaking out farther rather than closer.

It’s all dependent on the size of the wave and the direction of the tide. Sometimes a break can cause extended moments of calm while the tide is changing directions.

Keep an eye on the tide and study it to determine the possibility of the next wave you intend to catch.

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Rule Number 2: Evaluate the Shape of the Wave

Evaluate shape of the wave in order to read itAfter some time, you’ll be able to read the tide and get the most out of your session and your available energy.

There are quite a few things that can affect the shape of the wave. Some things to consider are: the tide, wave direction & size, the wind, and currents.

These are just a few things that can ultimately change the shape a wave will form. Once you begin to notice these little changes, you’ll have your pick dependent on your skills, style, and equipment.

There are a few things you should ask yourself while you’re evaluating the waves:

  • Is the wave hollow or is it about to break perfectly (peeling)?
  • What shape is the wave creating?
  • Are the bigger waves maintaining as they each come in, or are they disappearing as they get closer to shore?
  • In what direction are you planning to ride based on the width of the wave?
  • Are the waves forming swiftly or gently?

Use your answers to establish which waves you want to go after and which ones you want to leave behind. I guarantee asking these questions will help you get the most out of your session.

Rule Number 3: Find Your Target

Surfers find their target

Before you even think about getting into the water, analyze the water and determine where your perfect waves are breaking before they reach the shore.

Trust me. It’s imperative you find your target, your mark, on the beach from which you choose to set up.

Not only that, but you have to know how far you plan on going out from that point. Not having a target set up before you ride can set you up farther than you anticipated and making you use way more energy to get back to your starting point. Find your target and stick with it.

Rule Number 4: Watch Everyone Else Surfing

For learning watch other surfers

I know I said earlier how uncool it would be to be on the sidelines rather than catching your ideal wave, but this is different.

This is essential when it comes to learning how to read waves for surfing. Once you’re past the break, relax and watch where the seasoned surfers are.

Notice the waves they choose to ride. Doing this will add to how you observed your target area from the previous rule. It will give you an understanding of where you need to be to catch your ideal wave.

Keep in mind, what may work for the more seasoned riders may not be best for you. What works for you is dependent on your board and your strength.

The pros may have a longboard with more volume than you and be strong enough to paddle the waves.

They’ll be more capable of lining up farther and catching those waves before you can. Pay attention to where they are, what they have and their skill level.

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Rule Number 5: Determine the Consistency of the Waves

This ties in with rules 1 & 2 but is just as important, if not – more important. Pay attention and see if you notice how the waves group.

Are they more organized with consistent peaks and breaking around the same place? Or are they more random and inconsistent? If the waves are more erratic, be prepared to maneuver more than if they were predictable.

Determine the consistency of the waves and you’ll be a step closer to the getting the most fun out of your session.

Rule Number 6: Find the Pattern

A good surfer knows how to read waves

After some time, you’ll notice a number of waves in each set and you’ll begin to see when they break.

You may also start to notice the length and the amount of calm between each wave set. For example, if the calm between waves is long, you may want to catch a few waves on the inside after you’ve caught a few on the outside.

If for some reason the calm between sets is short, you might want to use a little more energy to reposition yourself for the next set. Find the pattern so that you’re always prepared.

Rule Number 7: Study the Horizon

While you’re out on the water, it’s important to make sure you are always facing the direction the waves are coming from and pay attention to them.

If you notice a sizable lump on the horizon or a bunch of kelp pushing upwards, there’s a chance that something could be headed towards you.

If the incoming waves start to wall up more or they’re wider than every previous set, you may want to consider paddling outside in order to avoid getting stuck. Study the horizon so that you can prepare yourself best.

Rule Number 8: Settle on Your Entry

Alright, you’ve got the previous rules in your head and you’re ready to tackle a wave. Great! First thing’s first though, make sure your position is ideal for your skill level and that you won’t drop on anyone around you.

It’s time to paddle without any doubts. However, make sure the break isn’t outside of your skill level.

If you’re too far from the highest point of the break or somewhere on the shoulder, an angle so that you’re ready to make that bottom turn once you’ve popped up.

Once you settle on your entry, do your best to stick with it as long as it’s within your skill level.

Rule Number 9: Experience is Key

Just like riding a bike, being able to understand your surroundings gets easier the more you do it. Pay attention to the surfers, the tide, the breaks and everything in between each time you’re out.

After enough time studying the waves, you’ll get an understanding of when to attack and ride. Don’t worry if you don’t nail it right off the bat. Keep at it and eventually, you’ll be a master of the waves.

About the Author Chet Thornberry

My name is Chet and I'm a surfer living in Cocoa Beach. I created this blog to put my experience with surfing, skimboarding, bodyboarding, and paddleboarding to good use (pretty much all things water sports).

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