Billabong Clothing » Tips » Surfing

Surfing Conditions

By: Evan Finneke

Published: October 5, 2006

How far would you go to find ideal surfing conditions? Would you wake up at four in the morning and brave the cold before work, or walk a mile down the beach? Would you travel by van four days outside any major tourist city, or be pulled out to the sea, miles from the coast or any sign of civilization? Or, would you prefer to just stay inside on the couch under the comforts of a nice safe blanket?

The extreme endeavors surfers will undergo to find the ideal weather conditions just goes to show how important place and time can be when searching for the perfect wave. For some, this search lasts their entire lives, always hoping to find that one wave with their name on it. Others dig and claw their way to find the most secluded and prime shores possible. Whatever the case, the criteria for riders is usually similar, and surfing style's withstanding, most veterans know how to sniff out waves when they are around. 

It is important however to understand a bit of surfing and oceanic vocab if you wish to paddle along the sport of kings. There are several factors that go into the process of making ideal waves, the most important being wind. Without this element, it is almost a lost cause. Even if the beach seems overwhelmingly breezy, you may still have the wrong winds for your surfing purposes. The three types of winds you can come across are onshore, cross, and offshore winds. Of these three, only the offshore contribute to perfect riding conditions. With the offshore breezes, air is pushed from off the coast towards it, rolling over the top of the waves and also pushing air up underneath them. Onshore winds will always crush and flatten any waves present, while crosswinds simply cut across the top of the water. If you can recognize and tell these three apart, you have a good start for finding the right surfing weather.

Other factors that contribute to surfing wave sizes are the wind speed, duration, and fetch size. The greater the speed and longer the duration, the greater the wave size will eventually swell to. Also, the larger the fetch (the area of water the wind is blowing over) the larger the wave as well. These conditions will decide whether or not the waves present will really be worth surfing or not.

Besides the wind alone, other natural elements can affect the conditions you attempt to surf in.
The swell direction, the shape of the ocean floor, or its topography, and the area's tide can also determine how worth while a wave's swell will be. The swell direction determine where a wave moves the conditions it will undergo, while the ocean floor, whether sloping or flat, will factor in to how close to shore the wave can be rode and how the wave will slow. Tides play a monumental role because even with the perfect winds and topographic conditions, waves are at the whim of local tides, and if an area is only ripe for a few hours a day than no weather, save a tsunami, will overbear this.

Surfers can also judge conditions by gauging wave size visually in both length and width, and reading the shape of waves to determine how they will break. Waves can break in generally three different ways: the beachbreak, reefbreak, and pointbreak. The beachbreak is simply when the waves break onto the sandy sea bed, while reefbreak drop over coral, and pointbreaks occur over a rocky area. The waves usually break either right or left, but can sometimes break in both directions allowing for two riders to split the wave.

The attention given to the posting of surfing conditions around the world is first rate. Countless sites can be found with up to the minute, full week, satellite pictures, call in commentary, and real-time photos of areas known for the surfing appeal. Anyone can just as easily find out how the swell is in the Canary Islands as they can for the surfing in Newport Beach. Storm watchers, swell reports, and computer models can now let surfers know exactly where to head for what they are looking for, although, any serious surfer holds dear the ability to read the ocean for themselves.

Surfing conditions are a critical part of a sport that requires cooperation with nature. If the conditions are poor or sub-par, the effort of surfing may not be worth it. Competitions can be interrupted or even delayed depending on conditions, and sometimes the most determination in the world is not enough to make up for the hand of Mother Nature. Very much like the culture, the practical side of surfing also centers on working together with the ocean, and anyone who's worth their board will tell you there is no sense in fighting the flow.

Surfshot. 2006. Surfshot Media. 4 October, 2006.

Press Release. Surfing Setback in Spain. 4 October, 2006. Nine MSN. 4 October, 2006.