closeout wave
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Closeout Set

Closeout waves are distinct yet risky. We'll learn how to spot them and what we can do when we're riding on a wave like this.

closeout set

A closeout wave in the surfing world is one of the most dangerous and risky waves there is. Most members of the surfing community won’t even go near a closeout wave because it breaks continuously, all throughout, at the same time. 

This makes the wave exceptionally hard to board and ride. It’s basically a vertical wall that collapses on itself in a matter of seconds. It’s very important to learn how to spot a closeout wave, and if you find yourself riding one, it’s paramount that you are equipped with the knowledge of how to deal with the situation.

If you find yourself in such a situation, the only thing that you should be striving for is to abandon your speedline, make a turn as quickly and safely as you can, and hope to ride the wave out toward the shore. 

Eager beginners will paddle onto anything without taking the time to assess the situation. It’s almost a given that a closeout wave will wipe you out. 

So how do you recognize a closeout set wave in time? Well unfortunately there isn’t a single answer to this question, as it all comes down to the terrain. 

Some of the most popular surfing locations, such as the Pipeline and Jeffreys Bay, deliver waves that do not seem like closeout waves at first glance but morph themselves into them. So, in a sense, the more familiar you are with the terrain, the better. 

Reading the Wave Breaks

Most surfers know that nothing is certain when it comes to riding a wave, and everything can change in a blink of an eye. The first and most important thing is to be vigilant and ready for anything. Even when you relax your body, never let your guard down. 

If you smell a closeout wave, try to pop up as quickly as the conditions allow and make a dash straight for the shore. 

The swell is an unpredictable beast at best, so always take a look at how a wave develops and crashes. Mind the shoulder of the wave. Where is the crest line? How is it coming undone? Does it look like it’s going to collapse at a moment's notice, or can you see it coiling apart gradually? In time and with experience, these things will become second nature. It will be like recognizing a color among a row of clothes. 

But as a beginner, you can very easily misread the signs. This can be very dangerous and lead to serious injuries. So, when you’re starting out, have a more experienced friend go with you. There is no shame in taking caution. No matter how eager you are to get out there, if you see that the waves are crashing, lay low for a bit and refrain from paddling out. 

It’s a good rule of thumb to take a look at the tide before getting into the ocean, as low tides are known to produce more closeout waves. 

It’s the shallowness of the water that cannot support the wave’s pull that stands as a fork in the road and has the whole thing coming down. Is the wave too parallel to the shore? If it is, you're probably looking at a closing wave. 

Closeout Surf Spots

If you want to stay away from spots that produce closeout waves on a regular basis, then you should stay clear of Wedge and Puerto Escondido, to name a couple. 

Remember, avoiding closeout waves will not help you when you are faced with one, so it’s much better to prepare for one than try to avoid them altogether. 

Spotting Closeout Waves

spotting closeout waves

By now, you’re probably wondering what causes this phenomenon? How do waves get to crumble in an instant and not disperse gradually? 

The answer lies in the swell. When the swell direction is so direct that it positions itself parallel to the shoreline, there are a lot of clout waves. However improbable this might seem, because of the uneven terrain and winds, it’s a lot more common than you’d think because some spots are literally predisposed to these conditions. 

You have to size up the waves as well. Even when you are in the water, take a look back and see how the waves are breaking. If there are other surfers in the ocean, watch how they are reacting and if they are kicking out their boards on waves. 

In reality, it doesn’t really take that much. It all comes down to the swell and the direction that it sets out in. The interesting thing is that the swell drastically changes depending on the season. Experienced veteran surfers know this, so they are able to anticipate the changes and closeout waves in regard to the seasons. 


The backwash phenomenon is the action that takes place after the wave reaches the shore, and the ocean takes what it rightfully belongs to it. 

A lot of novice surfers tend to take rip currents for backwashes. Not all backwashes are rip currents. In fact, most of them aren’t. If the current is not pulling back the water in a violent manner, then there is no rip current to speak of. As with most things in surfing, there is no clear line in the sand, and different surfers might assess the situation slightly differently. 

An untypical backwash occurs when the pull of the swell is strong and collides with an incoming wave. Depending on the force of the swell, they might go head-to-head, and the backwash might end up causing the wave to close out. 

This phenomenon is often referred to as refraction. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there has to be an incoming wave on the other side of the pulling backwash. Any object that gets in its way and disperses its energy and direction can cause the wave to refract. 

Navigating the Swell

It’s very important for surfers to learn to navigate the swell and recognize what the swell is telling them. 

The first thing that surfers need to establish is the basic direction of the swell. Remember the old wet finger in the sky technique? Well, this is similar. In order to recognize the direction of the swell, surfers need to read their surroundings: which way is the beach facing in regards to the waves? Is the wind blowing consistently and in a constant direction? Where is the swell originating from? North? West? East? 

Surfing a Closeout Wave 

Alright, so you did your best to read the terrain and avoid the closeout wave, but for one reason or another, you are caught in one. What can you do, and what should you do in order to get to shore unscathed?

The best and most secure option is to just go down and dive through it. This might be a bit of a challenge for novice surfers because they might end up head over heels, but if you know what you are doing, this is your best bet for safety. 

Another way to manage a closeout wave is to perform a flickout. A flickout is nothing more than a bottom turn that flicks the surfboard above the incoming wave. We suggest that you practice the move a good deal before performing it on a vicious closeout wave. 

Of course, you can always surrender and go for a ball. In order to perform a ball, when the wave is very close to you, simply slide the board off your feet and fall into the water. 

The main thing to consider here is that you land flat and not get dragged into a whirl at the ocean floor.

We recommend that you refrain from taking this approach if you are surfing with other people that are nearby because you might collide with them and cause them serious harm. 

Straighten Out

Or in other words, make a run for it. Straighten your board towards the shore and make a quick dash for the beach. You will have to make a good assumption on whether you’ll be able to go the distance before the wave catches up to you though. 

If it’s already too late, you’re better off weathering the closeout wave where the water has a bit of depth to it. If the wave catches you at shallow water depths, it will most certainly drag you around in the sand. 

A Few Words Before You Go…

And at the end of the day, only hindsight is twenty-twenty. There are waves that give every indication that they’re going to close out and then don't, and there are waves that look like they will gradually come undone and fall like a curtain after the final bow. You have to live with the fact that you won’t get all of them right. That’s why preparation is key. 

These are the moments when the magic happens, when you thought that you were done for in a closeout but somehow managed to pull off an amazing move and stay afloat. These are the moments that will stay with you long after the day is done. 

No matter how many surf lessons you take or how many big waves you ride, you will never surf the same wave twice. So, surfing beginners should recognize when a wave closes and head straight for the beach. 

Just ride forward, or instead of riding the wave out, fall gently backward. There will probably be a good wave that’s a non-vertical wall pretty soon on the horizon, and you’ll be able to paddle back in.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching