Waves are the lifeblood of surfing, delivering the ride of a lifetime. But where do waves come from and how are they created? Understanding the elements that shape surfable swell helps surfers find and anticipate the best breaks. Here is an overview of how different forces come together to form waves perfect for surfing.
Wind is the primary energy source that initiates wave formation:
- Wind blowing across open ocean creates ripples on the surface through friction
- Stronger and more sustained winds like storm fronts generate larger swells
- The fetch length (distance of water wind blows over) determines swell height
- Longer fetch and duration allows for bigger wave growth
Consistent offshore winds are the spark that starts open ocean swells.
As wind blows over the sea surface, waves gradually increase in size:
- Ripples become chop before forming organized lines and crests
- Swells lift up from the surface when wind pressure exceeds gravity
- Wave height is determined by wind speed x duration x fetch length
- Swells continue growing until wind input drops
Given the right conditions, ocean waves can reach massive proportions.
After the wind dies down, waves begin propagating through the open ocean:
- Swell moves through deep water in the direction the wind was blowing
- The time wind blew (duration) gives the number of wave crests (period)
- Longer period swells travel faster and with more power
- Swell energy radiates out transferring from one wave crest to the next
Well-organized groundswells can traverse thousands of miles.
As long period swell approaches land, behavior changes:
- Shallow seafloor makes swell speed up and wave heights increase
- Waves become unstable and break as depth becomes equal to half the wavelength
- Swells bend and refract around points, reefs, and channels
- Converging open ocean swells create peaks and closeouts
Interactions with the seafloor modify swell approaching shore.
Surfable Wave Qualities
For quality surfing waves, certain swell conditions are ideal:
- Height of at least shoulder high for sufficient push
- Long wavelengths between 10-20 seconds for smooth rolling waves
- Consistent swell direction focusing wave energy
- Offshore winds for clean wave faces
- Sandbars, points, and reefs to shape hollow barrels
When swells with these features arrive, get ready to surf!
There are a few types of breaking waves suited for surfing:
- Spilling waves peel smoothly crumbling gradually down the line
- Plunging waves pitch forward then break with intensity
- Surging waves jack up then break all at once with little shape
The seabed layout controls how incoming swells break.
Optimal Surf Spots
Certain spots consistently produce epic surf thanks to their geology:
- Pointbreaks – waves wrap flawlessly around protruding land
- Reef breaks – coral bottoms make hollow barrels
- Beach breaks – sandy bottom channels focus swells
- Rivermouths – discharge currents shape lined up waves
Finding where factors come together equals great surf.
Rarely, massive waves called rogues can form in the deep ocean:
- Caused by coinciding swell lines constructing a mega wave
- Wind opposition may also spontaneously build rogues
- Towering height from crest to trough
- Remaining mysteries about when conditions create them
Surfing rogue waves requires expert skill and experience.
Modern technology helps provide wave forecasts:
- Weather satellites track developing storm winds
- Buoys measure period, height, and direction of existing swells
- Wave models input data to predict surf
- Apps and reports assist surfers in planning sessions
Quality forecasts lead surfers to the best breaks as conditions unfold.
Understanding what makes waves gives insight into being at the right spots as swells arrive. While surfers can’t control nature, knowledge of how waves are formed helps maximize time riding the world’s best breaks.
Frequently Asked Questions About Surf Forecasting
Surf forecasting has progressed remarkably in recent years. Here are answers to common questions about predicting when and where rideable waves will arrive.
How far in advance can quality surf be accurately forecasted?
Generally 5-7 days is the max range for reliable swell forecasting. Models can indicate storms possibly creating surf 2+ weeks out but with less precision.
What technology is used to forecast waves?
Weather satellites, wave buoys, and wave modeling software assimilate data on developing storms and existing swells to predict surf.
Which has greater impact on wave size – wind duration or wind speed?
Duration has more influence. A storm blowing 40mph for 24 hours creates larger swell than one blowing 60mph for just 6 hours. Long duration allows more wind energy transfer.
How can I know if a surf spot will be good during a swell?
Check historic conditions at the spot during similar swell sizes, directions and tides to estimate break potential. Local surf cams also help assess what different breaks are doing.
Why do some big swells arrive but produce poor quality surf?
Factors like poor swell direction, close intervals, and onshore winds can ruin big surf potential. Swell energy must also focus on specific spots through favorable sea floor and land contours.
How do hurricanes produce surf if winds blow circularly?
Though spinning, hurricanes move forward allowing the trailing side to blow one direction steadily off the ocean surface. This drives powerful swell ahead of the storm.
Can I surf when no quality swell is forecasted?
Yes, small crafty windswell peaks that evade forecasts can occasionally yield rippable waves. Search out protected coves that concentrate leftover energy.
While nature can be fickle, modern surf forecasting allows riders to strategically seek out surf. Dialing in forecast interpretation helps ensure you score epic sessions when swell arrives.