Have you ever wondered what those colorful floating balls you see out at sea are for? Well, they’re called buoys, and they are used to detect the water conditions such as how big the waves are, the wind speed, the weather and temperature.
These data points are what makes up a surf report. The many variables can seem daunting at first, but once you get a head around some key topics, it will all start to make sense and you’ll better be able to use these tools to determine your surfing plans.
Surfers and other ocean goers rely on surf reports to judge whether they should go out on the water or not.
Once you understand how to read a surf report, it will change your experience at sea for the better, not to mention it will keep you safer too.
This article will break down the different elements of a surf report and how to decode them, so you can get the best out of your day out on the waves. Keep reading to find out.
Understanding wave activity
If you’re a surfer, the most important thing to you is likely the size of the waves in determining what kind of waves can be expected.
So, the first thing you should do when you check a surf report is look at the swell height as this will tell you the average size of the waves, which will be measured in feet.
Once you’ve chosen where you want to get your surf report from, you will notice it tells you the average vertical height of the waves.
You will likely notice that once you’re out of the surf, you might get a lot of waves at the recorded height, but there’ll be a lot of fluctuation either side of that measurement.
If you’re not a particularly strong surfer, you’ll benefit from sticking to smaller waves of about three feet in height. Anything much higher than this will probably be too challenging and likely not very fun for you.
On top of the swell height, you will also be able to check other swell measurements such as the swell direction and the swell period.
The swell direction will let you know where the waves are coming from. This will likely be measured in degrees and should be read similarly to degrees on a compass.
If it’s a particularly easy surf report to read, it may just show the swell direction using an arrow.
Don’t get confused as to what the swell direction is describing, though, as it only describes the direction the waves are coming from and not the direction in which they are heading.
Each surf spot has its own characteristics and therefore a certain swell direction will work better at one spot compared to another nearby. The difference could be the way that the beach is orientated (eg. facing north or facing south), or the type of surf break – eg. a point break which works when larger swells wrap around a headland or other natural or man made formation, or a beach break which will tend to work better when a swell is arriving fairly well straight toward the beach.
Next, the swell period will tell you how long the distance is between each wave in a swell, which is measured in seconds. So, if it is measuring the swell period as short this would generally indicate messier, less quality waves which are mostly created by nearby storm events (known as wind waves/ wind swell).
If it reports long wave periods then the waves will have been created great distances away (these swells are known as ground swells) and as such they arrive to the shore as better formed and more powerful waves.
Sometimes this report will be presented in accordance with the swell height too, so keep an eye out for it there.
A nice swell period for surfing is at least 10 seconds.
The tide height is measured in feet like swell height and this will affect how the waves move throughout the day, but again this aspect is quite location dependent. Some surf spots will work well at high tide for instance, while others will not.
Every day there are two high tides and two low tides and generally, the ideal time to surf is when there is a medium-high tide.
In fact, low tides can be pretty dangerous and put you at risk of injuring yourself and/or breaking your board on sharp objects beneath the water in some locations such as reef breaks.
Understanding wind activity
How fast locals winds are travelling and in which direction can have a huge impact on the size and swell period.
Checking the wind speed
How fast the wind is travelling can actually have a big impact on the waves and the success of your surf trip.
Wind is measured in knots and in short, the higher the wind speed, the more choppy and messy the waves will be.
So, if you’re a beginner or a less confident surfer, you want to go at times when there are lower wind speeds because this will make it more likely that the waves will be smoother.
Checking the wind direction
The wind direction will be reported using an arrow to tell you which direction the wind is travelling in, and this will either be away from or toward the shore (also known as onshore vs offshore winds).
The best case scenario for a surf is when the wins is moving away from the shore which is referred to as offshore winds, as this generally creates better waves. Onshore wind equals messier surf conditions.
Navigating weather conditions
On top of all that handy information about the waves and the wind, a surf report will also note the weather conditions. This is typically shown using symbols to say whether it will rain, or be sunny etc.
While it’s useful to know if your trip to the beach will be hot and bright or grey and rainy, the weather report won’t have a huge impact on the surf, although it might affect your vision out on the water, especially foggy conditions.
This section will also likely tell you the average temperature near the beach and how much daylight there is left of the day, which is actually pretty important because you don’t want to be stuck out at sea when it gets too dark to see your way back in.
Don’t be put off by the numerous symbols and measurements to get your head around. Reading a surf report just takes practice and a little help at first, but once you understand it, it will have a major impact on your surfing experience and keep you safe.