We believe surfing comes with a responsibility, a way of thinking – tuning into the rhythms of Nature – a way of conscious living. It is possible to attain a deeper understanding and connection with the Ocean, her highs and lows, her Ebbs, her Flows. 

This takes awareness, patience, observation, and time in the Ocean to learn. It is a continuous process of growth, we believe the endless lessons and the understanding which come with the Ocean to positively influence both the surfing journey as well as our daily life.

The performance of Surfing is another variable on its own, which we can enhance and improve through practice on the land and water. But knowing what waves work for you, where to find them, and understanding your local conditions is what sometimes takes an average surfer, to a progressive one. 

Within this chapter, we will have a look at geophysical variables that influence the type of waves we can expect and experience at our local surf spots.

  1. Swell, 
  2. The geographic location of the surf spot,
  3. Wind
  4. Tides
  5. Typography (Ocean seafloor)

#1 Swell

Although quality waves depend on a combination of all variables, swell is considered as the most important. Basically, no swell = no waves 🙁

Shane Fourie, Basque Country – France

Swell can be considered as unbroken waves rolling through the ocean. They are generated by winds from ocean storms far out at sea. These winds create ripples, which gain momentum, merge together, and begin to form swells. The further these swells travel, the more time and space they have to structure and organize themselves as sets of waves to break at the shallow coastline.

In-depth: Wind Waves are generated by immediate local wind and are not self-sustaining, so when the wind dies down so will the waves. However, at the end of the local wind: wind waves will become swell waves. Swell waves are generated by the energy carried beneath the ocean surface (energy passed down by the wind). Swell waves no longer need local wind as they are self-sustaining. 

The wave/swell period is the time required for crest A to reach crest B.

Wave length is the distance, in meters / ft., between crest A and B. 

Swell height is the height from the top of the swell wave to the bottom of the face.

These elements will change and evolve while traveling before reaching our coasts. No swells are exactly the same: some swells arrive with more energy (bigger swell size), from different directions/angles, and some with longer wave periods too.

GroundswellWindswell
Travel longer distances. Travel shorter distances (normally form local wind patterns) 
More organised in structure and longer distances between waves (tend to generate cleaner waves)Less organised, and more on top of each other (tend to generate messier surf conditions)
Swell periods (10 seconds +)Swell periods (4 – 10 seconds)
More powerful and don’t die as quicklyLess powerful, and can fade away

Tip: Both swells can be used to surf, yet groundswells are generally preferred. 

The swell direction is determined from the bearing where it is coming from and NOT the direction it is traveling to.

For example:Swells which are traveling from the South, and move to the North, are South Swells. Swells which come from the North-West, and move to South-East are North-West swells.

Swells travel with different levels of energy:  a swell window reaching the coast often builds up, has a peak of energy, and then slowly decreases. Swells with larger energy tend to come along and push in larger waves to ride. However, this is not always the case.

The Swells that arrive at our coasts are then affected and shaped by the local geographic variables. Let’s have a look at how this happens and how it affects the waves we so much love surfing.

#2 Geographic Location

Through years of evolution and weathering, coastlines have been shaped from continental shelves all around the world. Each location is unique to its own, however there are distinct similarities that can be seen from one continent to another.

Peninsulas:

The Cape Peninsula (Atlantic Surf School)

A Peninsula is characterized by a headland surrounded by water on the majority of its border while being connected to a mainland from which it extends. The latter can be bigger or smaller, for example: Italy is also considered a Peninsula. In this case, however, we would rather consider smaller size peninsulas.

Examples: The Cape Peninsula (South Africa), The Bukit Peninsula (Indonesia),… 

Often peninsula perimeters are scattered with beaches, all of them facing in different directions. Each beach is thus affected differently than the neighboring one under the day’s conditions (swell and wind directions) as they have different aspects/orientation. One spot might be clean and pumping, the other might be sloppy and messy on the same exact day (very important to understand when surfing). 

The positives of such peninsula settings are that with beaches facing in different directions, there is a good chance that you can find good surf conditions almost 365 days a year (with different beaches all have their preferred wind or swell, and it’s bound for somewhere to be working).

It’s easiest to explain the effect this peninsula has on wave size and type by means of an example.

Case Study: The Cape Peninsula

Muizenberg Beach (Left),
Beach orientation (direction facing) = South, South East (see arrow)

Table View (right),
Beach orientation (direction facing) = West (see arrow)

If a surf spot is directly facing into the swell window that reaches the shores, we would expect bigger waves to be breaking. 

Swells arriving to Cape Town from more westerly directions, are more exposed to the Table View coastline. The peninsula stands as a block for swell reaching directly into Muizenberg, and the swell would thus have to wrap around (see green arrow left)  in order to reach the beaches. 

Only once enough swell energy is able to push the swell around the peninsula, do we see the swell begin to filter into the bay of Muizenberg.

We would expect head-high plus waves at Table View beach and waist-high waves at Muizenberg. 

In regard to the wind, the two spots work best at different wind directions: for Muizenberg we are looking at a NW wind. Whereas for Table View we seek an Easterly wind direction. Both being offshore winds for the particular location, blowing land to sea and grooming the waves for us to ride. 

Bays: Bays are a recessed, coastal body of water that directly connects to a larger body of water (ocean, lake,...). A bay can be of all shapes and sizes, however a very big bay is called a gulf (such as is the Gulf of Mexico). 

Bays often offer some shelter from the direct swell reaching the coast, with the land blocking the direct swell, which then has to wrap around to enter the bay and reach the beach and/or surf spot.  Depending on the conditions and swell directions, waves breaking in bays often tend to be more gentle and forgiving (ideal for beginners). 

The energy consumed by the swell wrapping around a headland, often means smaller waves. However this is not always the case: if the swell direction faces the opening of the bay, this can mean big waves, and epic long rides. A good example would be Lagundri Bay on the infamous Island of Nias (Indonesia) home to the notorious big waves and palm tree backgrounds. 

A local kid, surfing the infamous wave in Lagundri Bay on a small swell day (Demi Kerkhof)
Demi surfing a small Sorake Beach (Lagundri Bay) back in 2017 (photographer unknown)
For reference, Sorake Beach on a big swell (Magic Sea Weed)

Other geophysical variables to keep in mind are landscapes, piers, hills and cliffs which surround a spot. They can often provide shelter from the wind and be influential in depositing sand banks for waves to break on. 

TIP – Whether it regards your local breaks or a new region you are visiting: having a basic understanding of which conditions work best will as a surfer (beginner or advanced) help you make accurate decisions on where would be best to surf based on the day to day daily conditions. 

#3 Wind

Wind is a relatively easy variable to understand. We know that we need wind to create the waves and that we want this to happen as far away as possible, giving swell space and time to organize into ground swells and reach our coastline as beautiful waves.

Once these swells start to approach our local spots, we want as little wind as possible. Imagine blowing air into a bowl of water and seeing the water begin to become choppy. Try to imagine now how this choppy surface condition will affect the wave face and the difficulty in riding your board through this.

Wind blows at different speeds and in different directions. We measure wind speeds in knots or km/h, wind directions are determined by the direction in which they are coming from. Not all winds are bad, however.

Offshore winds – wind which blows from the land toward the sea. Generally GREAT for surfing, as these winds hold the wave up, grooms them, and keeps the surface smooth (as long as they don’t get too strong).

Onshore winds – wind which blows from the sea toward the land. Generally BAD for surfing, as these winds chop the wave up, making the surface bumpy and hard to ride.

Cross Shore winds  wind which blows from either side. Generally BAD for surfing, as these winds chop the wave up, making the surface bumpy and hard to ride. 

WIND DIRECTION IS DETERMINED BY THE DIRECTION IT COMES FROM! 

For Example:  a wind coming from an Eastward direction traveling to the West is an Easterly Wind. On the other hand, a Wind coming from North-West traveling to a South-East direction is called a North-Westerly Wind.

Most locations have prevailing winds each season: the latter are affected by the changes in large-scale weather patterns (changes of the global circulation pattern: the necessary transport of heat from tropical to polar latitudes by means of the world wide system of winds). A good example is Cape Town, which in summer has prevailing South East winds, and in winter North Westerly winds caused by the Coriolis Force.

#4 Tide

Tide is basically the alternate rising and falling of the Ocean. This movement is affected by the gravitational forces of the Moon, the Sun, and the rotation of the Earth. The tide can be low (Ebb) or high (FLOW). These cycles are roughly 6 hours apart, the times and length of the cycles oscillate and vary from day to day and shift per location.

“In the period of a Full Moon and New Moon, we experience Spring Tide patterns. Meaning there are large differences between the low and high tide. We should expect very high, high tides and very low, low tides. Neap Tide has less difference between high and low tides, the latter happens 7 days after a spring tide when sun and moon are at a 90 degree angle from one another.”

Tide has a major effect on how waves break at our local surf spots.

Lower Tides  the water is shallower where the waves are breaking.
Making the wave shape likely to be steeper and break faster and harder. 

Higher Tides  the water is deeper where the waves are breaking.
Making the wave shape more fuller, spilling waves and breaking slower and more gentle. 

Each spot is affected differently by the tide. It takes time and experience to learn how your local surf spot is affected, there is no fixed rule! Observing, gathering knowledge and experience (in and out of water) will enable you to better understand how a certain spot works under certain tidal conditions.

Type of surf break

Our final variable to consider is the type of surf spot. This often is affected by the type of sea floor (bathymetry)  the wave breaks on. We break this down into 4 different types: Beach Breaks, Point Breaks, Reef Breaks and River Mouths.

Beach Breaks are waves breaking over a sandbank/sandbar. We normally see waves breaking in both left and right directions depending on how they are set up. Since we are for the most part dealing with sandy bottoms, beach breaks are generally safer to surf as you aren’t needing to deal with rocks. However, there are some beach breaks that are characterized by some very hard crashing hollow waves. Making them unsuitable for learning and dangerous to surf. Examples: Hossegor (France), Table View (South Africa),…

Beach Break: Cape Town, South Africa (Shane Fourie)

Point Breaks are characterized by waves wrapping around a headland and/or point and break sideways along sand or rock bottom. Point breaks generally have (long) running waves in a specific direction (left or right) due to the swell rolling along the headland/point it follows.

Great examples of such breaks are: Jeffey’s Bay (South Africa), Anchor Point (Morocco), …

If not experienced, surfing these point breaks can be tricky. They are generally crowded, and you are forced to adventure over a series of rocks to get to the backline. If you get it right however, you could get the wave of your life! 

Point Break, Imsouane, Morocco (Demi Kerkhof)

Reef Breaks are waves breaking over a coral or rock reef. The most common picture that comes to mind are the christal clear barrels breaking over a reef in Indonesia or a remote tropical island in the Pacific. Yet, cold water reef breaks are not less common.

Examples: Teahupo’o (French Polynesia), Padang Padang (Indonesia), …

If not experienced these breaks can be tricky to surf and get to. The entry and exit points can be challenging as they often consist of walks over sharp and slippery reefs (I have had my good share of cuts (note by wDemi)), long paddles or boat access only. The surf inself is most likely characterised by steep drops and breaking over shallow water. This is however not always the case. 

TIP: Always ask the specific of entry and exit points to a local (helps avoid unnecessary reef cuts). And/or join someone for your first sessions to get the hang of the break. 

Reef Break:  Bali, Indonesia (Demi Kerkhof)

River Mouths: waves breaking over a sand bar at the meeting point of the river with the ocean. River mouths are great to surf at. Normally they work well when large dumps of sand settle where the ocean and river meet, forming clean beautiful waves. 

There are a few downsides to breaks as such: strong rip currents, pollution brought in by the river and sharks have also been found to like the fresh water nutrients flowing into the ocean. 

Examples: Margaret River Mouth (Australia), Patea River Mouth (New Zealand),… 

River Mouth, Somewhere in South Africa (Shane Fourie)

Coming Up Next…

In the next chapter, we will have a look at the principles behind reading surf forecasts: which platforms to use, what to pay attention to and little tipps and tricks along the way.

Wishing you a great day, with some awesome waves. Yours in Surf. 

Behind the text: 

As much as we both love writing and sharing our experiences and love for the ocean, we are always on the lookout for new adventures and waves to ride. So here a little impression of us (Shane Fourie and Demi Kerkhof) in the place that we love most, and the driver, behind the little series we are creating for you to enjoy and learn with us! 

Demi in full focus mode – Picture by Greg Chapman 
Shane Fourie, down the line in cruise control – Photo by Jordy Masters