The Traveler Beginners Guide to Riding Waves; Part 2.1  Reading the Sea

The Traveler Beginners Guide to Riding Waves; Part 2.1 Reading the Sea

We’d all be better surfers if we started every session by sitting on the sand, taking a deep breath, and staring out at the sea for bit.  Add in a good cup of coffee and you’re on your way to a perfect day.

If you’re new to surfing, chances are you don’t see much when you stare out at the ocean. No matter how strong that coffee is, your view probably just looks like waves, surfers moving around in seemingly random patterns, and the occasional aggressive seagull. But in the following sections, we’ll help you make sense of everything else that goes unseen by non-surfers. A wave is the termination of natural energy that has traveled hundreds, if not thousands of miles to break on the shore in front of you. 

All waves are created by wind on the surface of the ocean, often from storms out at sea. The wind transfers its energy to the water, creating choppy little waves that ripple outward on a journey toward shore. On their journey, those little waves will combine to form larger waves, and slowly drift further from the other waves over hundreds of miles. Once that energy hits something physical, like the shore, or a reef, it has no place to go, so it explodes. When you see a breaking wave, you’re witnessing this explosion of energy. Come on, that’s amazing!

Type of Swells

It helps to know a bit about the kinds of waves you see in front of you so that you can understand how these conditions might affect your surfing.

Groups of waves are called a swell. There are a few different types of swell that you should be able to identify when you’re looking out at the ocean:

  • A groundswell is a swell that started far out at sea. Because these waves have longer to travel, they have more time to combine, get organized, and gain power. This generally creates what we like to call “clean” wave conditions where waves look smooth and more collected. Here in California, our groundswells usually come from big storms off the coast of Alaska in wintertime.
  • A windswell is created from winds that are much closer to shore. Because these waves haven’t had all that distance to combine and collect themselves, windswell waves are usually weaker and more erratic looking.

The distance or time between waves is called the “period”, and is usually measured in seconds. So a short-period swell will usually be a windswell where all of the waves are close together. And a long-period swell is where you’ll see waves spaced further apart.

There are no wrong swells to surf - it all comes down to personal preference. If you have a particularly fun day surfing, we recommend that you go home and look online to see what direction the swell was coming from, and what the period was. Then if you see those conditions coming in the forecast you can clear your calendar!

  • Sets are a group of waves that break together. Usually a set has 3-5 waves. So if you see a wave break, it usually means it will be followed by a couple more.

  • Lulls are the period in between sets when there are no breaking waves.

Types of Surf Breaks

A place where people go to surf is known as a “surf break.” There are a few different types of surf breaks, defined mostly by what’s on the ocean floor. The way the waves break at any given spot changes greatly based on what they’re breaking onto, which is why it’s important to consider what kind of break you are surfing before you paddle out.

There are four main types of surf breaks, and you should do your best to surf them all over time!

Beach break: A beach break has a soft, sandy bottom, created by a sandbar (essentially just a mound of sand that the waves break on top of). You’ll often see waves breaking quickly and closer to shore at a beach break. They tend to vary the most day-to-day because these sandbars are easily pushed around by waves and tides. So the ideal spot to surf can change more quickly than other types of breaks. Anyone can have fun at a beach break, but they are most loved by short boarders

who appreciate the hollow and fast waves, and beginners who enjoy the soft bottom (less scary wipeouts) and rolling whitewater as a training ground for catching waves.

Reef break: A reef break has ... you guessed it ... a reef bottom. The great thing about reef breaks is that the reef is completely stationary and makes for a “consistent” wave that breaks in the exact same place every time. We recommend reef breaks for intermediate to advanced surfers. Taking a bad spill into the reef is an easy way to ruin a great day.

Point break: A point break is created when waves have to wrap around a part of the coastline that juts out, like a point or peninsula. These outcroppings make the wave break in a peeling motion cleanly from one side to the other, making for ideal surf conditions.

Cobblestone bottom: Why we don’t call these “cobblestone breaks” we couldn’t tell you, but they’re very similar to reef breaks in that the heavy, rounded rocks that make up the bottom make for fairly consistent surf and multiple peaks. Big storms can move these rocks around though, so they’re not quite as consistent as reef breaks.


Types of Wind

Especially smart surfers always keep an eye on the wind direction and know the ideal wind conditions for their favorite breaks. After a while you’ll never look at a tree branch blowing in the wind without envisioning exactly how that wind is affecting the surf.

There are a few different wind directions that you should be aware of:

Onshore winds flow from the ocean toward the shore. Because the wind is pushing the waves from behind, it can chop them up and cause them to break prematurely, causing less than ideal wave conditions.

Offshore winds flow from the shore out to sea. These tend to be the ideal wind condition for surfing because these winds hold up the face of the wave and create longer rides for surfers.

Cross-shore winds go either south to north or north to south. These tend to be more rare and should be evaluated on a break-by-break basis.

It’s important not just to look at the direction of the wind, but also the speed.

Howling wind conditions rarely make for good surf conditions. Wind is measured in knots and easily tracked on any weather or surf app. Again, it all depends, but generally wind between 1 and 8 knots are ideal. The next time you’re watching the waves and see favorable conditions, make note of the wind direction and speed so you can identify those conditions for future sessions.


The tide might play the biggest role of all in making or breaking optimal surf conditions. This is because it affects how much water covers the bottom of the ocean, and we already know that waves break differently based on the conditions of the bottom.

Tides are affected by the moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth. A full moon means more dramatic changes of water flowing, so tides tend to be more extreme during these periods. The closer you get to the equator, the more extreme the tides get because the Earth’s surface is closer to the moon at those points.

Didn’t think you’d need to know astronomy to surf, did you?

There are three basic tides here in California - and the time between tides tends to be about 6 hours.

  • High Tide: This is when more water covers the beach. A helpful trick is to look for the line on the beach where the sand becomes darker and wet. This is the “high tide line” and it will help you gauge where the water is currently, relative to where the tide is highest during the day. If you don’t see a line, you might be looking at high tide. High tide tends to make the waves break closer to shore, and is ideal for beach breaks.
  • Low Tide: You’ll know it’s low tide when the waterline looks pulled back. There will usually be more dark, wet sand to walk on, and waves will look like they are breaking further out.
  • Mid-Tide: This is simply the time in between high and low tide. As a general rule of thumb, you don’t want to surf at the extreme high or low tide periods. At high tide, most of the water fills in and the beach becomes “flooded” and waves flatten out and become hard to catch. At low tide, the water recedes out and the beach will become exposed, giving waves less opportunity to break over the available surface and making them break quickly. So for many breaks, including reef breaks, the mid-tide is the safest bet for good conditions.


Ready to Get Wet?  Book a lesson with us HERE

Want all this knowledge in one place? Snap up a copy of our handy Beginners Surf Guide Book!