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A Guide to Reading the Ocean – Surfing, Forecasting, Gearing up – CHAPTER 1

Surfing and the Ocean are two elements that have positively influenced our lives, sharing with us many lessons of respect, patience, and timing. Principles and learnings that we have now applied and integrated into our daily lives and lifestyle.

The intention of this guide is to share this with you, gaining a deeper understanding and knowledge of the Ocean, her movements, her lessons. 

We begin slowly, covering the very basics of Knowing Your Perfect Wave, to  Understanding your local conditions and then applying this knowledge into the basics of Predicting the Surf. An additional chapter has been added, Gearing up,  to help better understand what gear (surfboard, wetsuit, wax, and board setups) best suit you.

This will be a series launched in 4 different episodes. Eventually, the guide will be available as a document to download you can save and consult when needed.

It is in hope that after reading this, you have a clearer understanding of the language of the Ocean and an urge to GO SURFING!

Chapter 1: Knowing your Perfect Wave 

The Ocean is the source and creator of many different types of waves. These waves, the ones that we enjoy so much are generated by wind, travel from far and wide, reaching our coastline in all different shapes and sizes. 

Just as in life, we need to learn to adapt to the environment surrounding us: shift, follow, and cooperate with these waves that are given to us, rather than to assume control and competition.

Having expectations in a changing and unpredictable environment as the Ocean, can often lead to disappointment. Stay focused on remaining present, finding the conditions which make surfing easier and more enjoyable for YOU. It’s good practice to surf and makes the most of all conditions, however finding clean, long-running waves with minimal crowd are what dreams are made of.

Waves can be big, small, fat and thin, it’s important that we respect each equally and to appreciate what each individual one has to offer. 

We characterize waves using different surf lingo, namely:

  1. Size
  2. Power
  3. Shape
  4. Surface conditions
  5. Speed
  6. Direction 

Let’s break down these characteristics to gain a better understanding of what kind of waves we will be surfing.

#1 Wave Size
Wave size is the height of the wave from the bottom (ocean level), to the top of the lip (see picture). For surfers, depending on the location, the size of a wave is normally measured in a unit of “foot” or meters.

The specific size of the wave is often mixed between different surfers, cultures, and egos around. After all, it’s a personal guess and often related to one’s experience and habits. A 2ft wave for an Hawaain Surfers might be a 6ft wave estimate for a European.

Neither is correct, nor incorrect. These are merely a measurement of waves and storytelling fallacies. 

(A standard is said to be that a 6ft wave = 2 meters) It’s sometimes easier to measure a wave saying; knee, hip or shoulder height, overhead or double overhead. These can be a bit less ambiguous.

What’s important when one is learning, is to focus on finding waves which you are confident in. This depends on your surf experience, fitness, and ocean knowledge. As a rule of thumb, anything between waist to head high is a safe bet to go surf.

#2 Wave Power
Wave power is relative to how hard the wave is breaking and the volume of water involved. In measurement, these can be described simply as Thick or Thin waves.

Thick/Heavy waves – have a very high impact when the waves break.
Making them more powerful and less room for error when riding them. 

Thin/Weak waves – have a more gentle impact once breaking.
These waves are less powerful and safer to ride generally. 

Bigger waves often carry more power, due to the larger volumes of water which they are carrying. However, this is not a fixed rule. There are small waves, which can carry immense power, breaking over shallow sandbanks or reefs and can be as “dangerous” as bigger waves.

Before paddling out, it’s good practice to Pause, look up, and observe. You are entering a changing and unpredictable environment.

Try to identify waves which look appropriate for your level, and not just because there is a crowd sitting there. Observe any rip currents, or other hazards such as rocks or shallow sandbars. 

If unfamiliar to an area, be open to ask for advice. Check the internet or go past a local surf shop to learn more about the conditions and waves which might suit you. Breathe in, breathe out, tune in. 

#3 Wave Shape
Waves are master shapeshifters, they can be deceiving or more predictable – but there are two more common forms and characteristic ways in which a wave breaks in: either this can be referred to as Hollow or Spilling waves.

Hollow waves – are generally more sucky or tubing waves, break quicker and are perfect for barrel riding.
Spilling waves – are more “Mellow”, gentle slopes, easy riding, slow and steady.

#4 Surf Conditions
Surface conditions are a deal-breaker when it comes to determining the way the waves break and how your surf is going to be: either making your surf pleasant or rather giving you a hard time. The biggest driver affecting the Ocean surface conditions is the wind. (among other side players such as currents and tides)

Either we get clean or choppy waves.
Choppy waves – are generally quite bumpy, tough to ride and normally caused by an onshore wind.
Clean waves – are generally smooth, easy to ride and occur when little to no wind.

The cleaner the waves the better, Shaka!

#5 Wave Speed
How quickly a wave goes from a rolling swell (the beautiful clean lines you can see coming in on the horizon) into a broken wave (the white wash).

Fast breaking waves – These waves can be nice for aerial maneuvers or barrel riding, however, extremely fast-breaking waves can be called Closeouts.
Examples: Supertubos (Portugal), Hossegor (France), Uluwatu (Indonesia)

Slow breaking waves – Waves moving at a slower pace, can often be referred to as running waves.
They are more lekka and smooth for riding, and offer more room for maneuverability.
Examples: Big Bay Beach (South Africa), Imsouane  (Morocco), The Pass (Australia)

#6 Wave Direction
The wave direction is simply the way towards which the wave is traveling to and breaking in. This is simply noted as a left or right breaking wave.

If facing with our back to the wave:
Lefts have a higher peak on the right-hand side which travels beachward in a leftward direction.
Rights – have a higher peak on the left-hand side which travels beachward in a rightward direction.
A-frames – Have a high peak in the middle and will break in both directions, left and right, traveling beachwards.

Up Next:  In the next chapter we will look into understanding your “local” conditions. An overview of how different variables (swell, wind, geography, etc,…) will affect the surf conditions reaching the shore.

Created and written by 

Shane Fourie – Atlantic Surf Co. – Cape Town, South Africa (@shane4rie and @atlanticsurf_)
Demi Kerkhof – Content Creator Chixx on Board 

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