How to Read Surf Reports
Surf reports are confusing if you don't know what to look for. Break down all the jargon, forecasters and how to read the reports so you can find the best waves.
Laying the blame of a bad surfing performance on external conditions is all too common among beginner surfers. Weather conditions, be it high tides, the wayward swell, or strong offshore winds are often the culprit. Yet, there's a way for surfers to keep such conditions under constant check: surf forecasts.
In order to have a good surf session, being able to read surf forecast reports is as equally important as understanding your equipment. That way, you'll be able to take note of key surfing conditions like swell direction, swell period, wind direction, wind speed, wave height, and wave period for your local surf spots, and act accordingly.
So, how do you read surf reports? What are the best surf forecast websites and how much can you trust their data? Ultimately, what do all these surf forecasting terms mean?
Here, we're going to answer all those questions and more, and hopefully, we’ll clear the air.
What Is a Surf Report?
First things first. A surf report is basically a weather forecast for waves. Similar to a weather forecast, it includes certain graphs, maps, and tables that inform you how the surf conditions in your favorite surf spot will be. As a result, you can decide whether the upcoming waves will suit your surfing skills, and in the long run, you’ll be able to go out on days when there are more suitable waves predicted.
In the past, these reports were being broadcast to fellow surfers through premium phone lines, but nowadays, there are so many surf report websites that you can easily find the data for your shore online.
Almost all of these sites collect their data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funded by the US government, so they're as trustworthy as any source at the moment. However, their user-friendliness in terms of their charts, graphs, and maps, and the areas they cover are another thing altogether.
The Key Terms Used in a Surf Forecast
The terms and numbers used in surf report charts include speed, direction, height, and frequency, but most of them can be gathered under the umbrella of three main forces of nature: swell, wave, and wind.
Before getting into swell-related surf report terminology, we need to discern between a wave and swell.
A wave is created by the wind's movement on the surface of the ocean. It's not far away from its origin point, it gets bigger by drawing water from the bottom of the ocean as the wind blows, and there are clear lines of trough and crest for most of the waves. Moreover, waves tend to break at some point.
A swell, on the other hand, is a wave that's too far away from its point of origin and that doesn't break; therefore, it doesn't count as a wave for surfers. Since it moved quite a distance from its origin point, it moves a much bigger chunk of water, and swells won’t be as frequent as waves.
Regardless, swell-related data play an important role in surfing and surf forecasting.
The Swell Period
The swell period is crucial for reading a surf report as it tells you whether there will be good waves or not. If the particular surf breaks you frequent (whether they're beach breaks, point breaks, or reef breaks) have a shorter swell period, it means that the waves will be quite weak, and if the swell period is long, it indicates more powerful waves.
- 1-5 seconds: You won't be enjoying yourself out there with this kind of swell period. In these conditions, the swell is a result of local winds. So, waves break quite frequently, creating lots of chop, and lacking the power necessary for a good ride.
- 6-8 seconds: Such a swell period shows that the waves are created by a regional wind swell. The wave movement is more predictable and the wave height allows surfers to enjoy themselves for a while, but not much. Depending on the surf break, it might be ideal for beginners but not so for the intermediate or the advanced.
- 8-10 seconds: Waves form due to strong offshore winds such as storms and hurricanes and travel a medium distance before they hit a break. This particular swell period also allows waves to be organized and leads to surfable waves unless you are an advanced surfer and after a real challenge.
- 10-16 seconds: Such a high swell period means that the waves are formed far away from the coast by strong hurricanes—these waves are also known as ground swell. On a beach break, the waves produced by this kind of period will close out quickly and crash. However, in a point break, it will lead to great surf conditions for intermediate and advanced surfers with groomed waves.
- 16+ seconds: As you can guess, the waves will be even more powerful as the swell energy gets higher. Therefore, proceed only if you're advanced when there's such a long period swell.
The Swell Direction
Swell direction is one of the easiest data to read on a surf report and its definition is pretty straightforward: it shows the direction of the incoming swell and it's referred to in cardinal directions like north, east, south, and west.
It's best when the swell comes at the coast directly. In other words, if the shore you want to surf faces south, a swell going north is the ideal one for you. When the swell is angled too widely for the break you're at, it mostly means that you'll get only residual and wayward waves, which will be small and mostly choppy.
The Swell Height
Swell height is not as important a term as the two above, but it's still worth defining since it's included in the reports and it's sometimes confused with wave height.
It basically refers to the swell size you can expect in the ocean. As the swell travels long distances, its measurement can be a little bit complicated. It involves comparing the swell’s peak with the one before as well as after it. The height of a particular swell, which is measured between its crest and trough, is also taken into account.
For a surfer, waves need no introduction, but we can at least introduce you to the wave-related concepts you'll encounter when reading a surf report.
Some of them are quite easy. For example, the wave period is the same as the swell period; some call it the former and the others the latter. The interpretation is the same as well: the best waves are those that come in long wave periods, and short periods will lead to smaller waves.
However, most surf reports give the spotlight to wave height, and that's with good reason because it's the data that tells you whether you can surf on a particular day.
Wave height refers to the average wave height expected in a certain surf spot and it's generally measured in 20-minute intervals. However, it doesn't say anything about the wave quality by itself.
Most of the time, it's read along with the swell quality. If there are short period swells (i.e, those that last less than 10 seconds, or wind swells), you'll get low-quality waves no matter the height. On the flip side, if there are long period swells (i.e, those that have a period of more than 10 seconds, or ground swells), you can expect waves that are more surfable in your local breaks.
When looking at the wave size data on surf report websites, you need to be wary of what measurement system they use, especially if you're traveling. As length measurement systems vary from shore to shore, even if they are all measured by feet, there will be some difference: A Hawaiian measurement will not be equal to a Kiwi measurement even though both expect 2-foot waves, and so on.
As we said before, the waves are created by the wind on the ocean. Therefore, experienced surfers check the wind forecast even at their local beach or reef break that they know as well as the palm of their hand.
Here are the aspects that matter when reading the wind forecast.
You probably have a couple of surf mates who constantly blame their bad sessions on the wind. Well, by learning how to read wind direction on a surf report and what it means for surfing, you can prevent yourself from becoming one of those.
Wind direction simply implies the way the wind blows, and there are two wind types that you need to know of: onshore winds and offshore winds.
The origin point of onshore wind is the ocean and it blows towards the land. Therefore, when you're on your board trying to make it to the shore, it'll be behind you. Moreover, onshore winds create poor, small, and choppy waves, which are not ideal for surfing.
Offshore winds blow from the land towards the ocean and produce clean, nicely shaped, and quite surfable waves. As long as you frequent your local surf spot when offshore winds blow, you'll have no reason to blame the wind and have a pleasant session (all the other conditions allowing, of course).
No surfer would like to be washed over because of strong winds. Therefore, no matter the direction the wind blows, you need to check out the wind speed data on surf forecasts as well.
The threshold between a strong wind and a light one is generally near 7 mph. If it's below 7, it shouldn't present much of an obstacle for a nice session. If it's above 7, on the other hand, it can throw you off balance.
More often than not, the winds on the coastline are lighter in the early morning hours. There'll be one or two wind gusts that gently caress you and your board, but that'll be about it. That's why relatively experienced surfers prefer early hours for practice.
In the afternoon, the winds get stronger, but there's also a chance that they'll start dying down before sunset.
High and Low Tides
Being able to make sense of a tidal chart is another important aspect of how to read a surf report as tide activity basically refers to the rise and fall of the ocean surface.
As the moon orbits around the earth and the earth spins around the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun creates changes in the flow of the water and sometimes results in bulges due to water being pulled in different directions at once. This means that there are four tides because of these two gravitational forces on any given day.
Two of these four tides are high tides and the other two are low tides. Yet, which one is good for surfing depends on the specific surf spot. In some surf spots, a high tide can only make a difference of a few inches because the water is already shallow.
In other surf spots, a low tide can result in better beach breaks because the water goes up higher than your head. Regardless, the tide range is mostly consistent in a particular surf spot, so you don't need to worry about a change once you figure out which works best for you.
The best surf forecasting websites will include what kind of tide is best for the waves at your home break.
The Best Surf Forecasting Websites
Now that you learned about all the important terms to make a better decision whether to go out surfing today or not, you're ready to go and check out surf reports all by yourself. However, in this age of online chaos, you may not know where to start your adventure and accidentally end up buying an aquarium because online advertising miraculously nailed just what you need.
If you don't want to say, "So long, and thank you for all the fish," to that aquarium, keep on reading as we're about to briefly review the five best surf report websites that might help you a great deal.
Don't let all the talk about serious and scientific matters such as data, forecasts, and reports fool you or put you off. Magicseaweed is run by a group of excited surfers, and when you head to the website, you’ll find the usual data charts, but also wave-related news stories. Moreover, there are live webcam shore streams from countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and Australia, where surfing is quite popular.
Those are some of the reasons why we love them, but they’re not the only ones. The surf forecasting website offers data on almost all the best surf spots from all over the world in good and comprehensible detail. Furthermore, they have live data based on wave buoys and weather stations set all over the UK.
If you want some extra-curricular content, they provide that, too. You can find surfing hardware recommendations like which wetsuit employs the warmest rubber and why we should wear plastic-free shoes to preserve the ocean's habitat. In addition to those, there are documentary-like interviews and photo galleries, tips to improve your surfing, and lots of video features covering almost every aspect of surfing.
All that combined, only a few can argue that Magicseaweed isn't an essential website for surfers whether they're looking for surf reports or not.
For surfers who'd like to constantly check out how the surfing conditions are going to be, Surfline might be the best option since they update their data on an hourly basis. The comprehensive presentation of those data and the up-to-date look of the interface of the website are also giant pluses.
Like Magicseaweed, they also publish news and articles on what to expect in popular surf areas and inform you of the swell and wind coming your way. In addition, they offer ample surf-related content for training, equipment, and travel.
Surfline is a project kicked off by surfers almost 35 years ago and quickly found followers and supporters from almost every part of the world. These followers and supporters are not all surfers, either. There are anglers, fisherpeople, cruisers, and boating enthusiasts on their team, all of which are passionate about the ocean.
So, even if you're not going to surf, you can find relevant data for whatever enterprise or hobby you are about to set out.
Well, you don't want any extra-curricular content in your surf report website because OMBE is quite enough for you on that front? We will not try and convince you otherwise! We'll just suggest that maybe WindGuru is the website you're looking for your surf data.
The WindGuru forecast just has numbers and graphs that give you all the essential info about swell direction and period, wave height, wind, and tide. Moreover, once you choose your location, you can learn about the expected wind gusts, current sea temperature, and cloud cover.
Yet, there's something that the runners of the website warn of and you should be careful about. The forecasts generally cover the upcoming 7 seven days in detail; however, the accuracy of their forecast starts decreasing after the first 2-3 days. Therefore, basing a whole week on the data you saw on the first day might not always be the best idea. Make sure you check out the updates as well.
Okay, you don't want to read other surf-related content but you don't want to just look at boring numbers and graphs, either? Although it's not really designed for surfers, Windy might help you better than the others on our list.
It's basically a map of the world in which all the essential surf data like the swell and wind direction, wave speed and strength, and other natural forces such as temperature, rain, and thunder are shown in amazing colors and animated movements. It doesn't require you to do a lot of reading or looking as the interface is just able to show you what it is.
Of course, the fact that it doesn't directly tell you "Go surf at the Portugal coast on Tuesday morning!" or the way that it leaves all the interpretation to you might not be ideal for some, but once you're able to navigate the site, we're sure you'll find it amazing too.
NOAA and UK Met Office
The opinion that the official sources never lie and have an esoteric path to the one and only truth might be an illusion (or even a delusion), but there might be some surfers among you who prefer official data nonetheless. For those, the USA's government-funded NOAA and the UK's Met Office might prove helpful.
Similar to many official websites, their interfaces might seem quite outdated and the data somehow incomprehensible. Yet, both are efficiently versatile websites that can help surfers no matter where they want to surf.
Being able to read a surf report will elevate the efficiency of your training and surfing. You'll know when there's going to be a wind swell or ground swell, and decide if you should train accordingly. You'll know what kind of waves and wave breaks you'll get; as a result, you can focus on improving a surfing aspect in line with the kind of wave you'll get. You'll know which way the wind will blow and how strongly, so you won't risk being ailed by it.
In the end, by picking the right time or point break to surf on, based on your surfing abilities, you'll be able to make the most of the waves. To that end, we explained all the surf forecasting terminology you need and listed the best websites so that you can find one suited to your purposes and location. Even though all the numbers and graphs you'll encounter on those can confuse you at first, you'll grasp it in due time and start making all the best decisions.