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October 25

How To Read A Surf Report: The Ultimate Beginners Guide…

TUTORIALS

So you want to learn how to read a surf report, right?

If so, then you're in the right place.

We know how damn confusing the sight of a surf forecast can be as a beginner - with arrows here, there and everywhere...

So we're going to break it ALL down for you.

In a simple, easy to understand way even your Nan could understand!

In this article you'll learn: 

💥How to look at a surf report, and understand exactly what it means.

💥How to break down the surf forecast to know where, and when the waves will be firing.

💥How all the elements combine to make good waves - and what to look for.

And a whole lot more...

We've got a lot to cover, so let's go!


WHAT IS A SURF REPORT AND WHY DO YOU NEED IT?

A surf report or forecast is much like a weather forecast, used to predict the surf conditions at a future date.

These surf reports help to preempt where the best waves will be and when.

Understanding these forecasts is super important for scoring quality waves more often.


WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A SURF REPORT

Surf reports pull in data from a number of different sources to build out an accurate forecasting system, one that can be used to predict the surf quality in the future (usually accurate up to about five days).

There are a lot of variables that go into a surf forecast, so lets take a deep dive into the major factors that effect the waves you surf:

*FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS POST WE'LL BE USING THE POPULAR SURF FORECASTING WEBSITE MAGIC SEAWEED AS OUR GUIDE*


SWELL VS WAVE HEIGHT


SWELL HEIGHT

Swell height refers to the average wave size within a swell. We're talking here about a swell when it is still a long way from shore. 


HOW IS SWELL HEIGHT MEASURED?

Swell height is measured by buoys floating on the ocean’s surface. 

A buoy records the distance it moves up and down on the ocean’s surface as waves move under it, this gives us an accurate swell height reading. 

There are thousands of these buoys dotted around the world and are most notable when located close to popular surf destinations. Advanced surfers use these to get live readings of waves as the largest swells develop. 


WAVE HEIGHT

Wave height is the size of the breaking wave and refers to the actual wave size that surfers ride. 

Wave heights are significantly lower than swell heights as this is the measure of a wave as it starts curling over to break. Meaning it is significantly smaller than the swell out to sea.  


WHAT IS A GOOD WAVE HEIGHT FOR SURFING?

There is no definite answer to this question, as a good wave height for surfing is going to depend on your ability and the type of waves you enjoy riding. 

However a  rough size guide would be; 

  • BEGINNER - Knee to waist high
  • INTERMEDIATE - Shoulder to head high
  • ADVANCED - Head high plus

SWELL DIRECTION

Swell direction is where a swell is coming from and is measured using traditional compass points (in the form of degrees).  

Direction massively affects wave size because it determines if waves hit a beach directly or have to wrap into a bay or around a headland. 

When a swell hits directly, the waves will be larger, whereas a swell that comes from an angle, and has to wrap around a large headland, will dramatically reduce the wave size. 


SWELL PERIOD

The period of a swell is a crucial factor in wave forecasting. Period means the gaps between the waves. 

This is calculated by measuring the mean (average) time between waves within a swell and is recorded in seconds. 

The longer the gap, the more powerful the waves are. Long period swells are created by huge storms in the middle of the ocean and travel crazy long distances to reach the shore. This type of swell may have a period of 12 seconds and above. 

These long period swells are the most sought after by surfers. 

On the other hand, a short period swell, is a storm created close to shore, often combined with short choppy waves and strong onshore wind. You’ll see swell periods here with numbers below 10.

This is exactly what you don’t want, especially on your day off...


HOW DOES THE SWELL PERIOD EFFECT WAVE HEIGHT?

The longer the swell period, the larger the waves will be! 

For example a 2ft swell moving at a 10 second interval, will produce significantly smaller wave heights than a swell of 3ft at a 15 second interval.

This 3ft @ 15 second swell is more likely to be producing waves in the 3-5ft range when they hit the shore.


WIND DIRECTION

One of the most important factors when it comes to good surfing conditions is wind. 

Wind is the bane of most surfers existence and as soon as you start to become a surfer who knows their forecasts. You’ll never think of wind in the same way again. 

Wind in surfing can be split into three different categories. 

Onshore, offshore or cross-shore. 


ONSHORE

Onshore wind refers to wind blowing from the ocean towards the land. 

The worst type of wind for surfing, causing waves to crumble as they break, producing choppy, unpleasant surfing conditions.


OFFSHORE

Offshore or glassy wind conditions are prime for surfing! When you feel the wind blowing from land towards the ocean, you’re probably in for a good day of surfing (providing there’s swell to match it). 

Having  no wind at all or wind blowing lightly against the waves, grooms them to create smooth clean surfaces to ride across.  

CROSS-SHORE

Cross-shore or side-shore conditions are when the wind blows directly across the beach, from either side. 

It’s a mixture of good wind and bad, and depending on how strong the wind is, can still make for reality fun surf conditions.  


WIND STRENGTH

In addition to direction, the strength of the wind is also really important! 

For example, you can have an onshore wind, but if it’s super light, it’s not going to affect the waves that much. 

Whereas if you have a 40mph onshore, it’s a completely different story.  


HOW TO READ A SURF REPORT USING MAGIC SEAWEED

Magic seaweed is one of the most popular surf forecasting sites on the web. 

It’s also my personal favourite and a website that takes up way too much of my time. Seriously, It’s ridiculous! 

MSW is a surf forecasting site that uses buoy data to predict surf conditions for spots all over the world. 

It can give you an accurate surf forecast for the next 7 days, although accuracy decreases the further out you’re looking. 

Simply type in your local beach and you’ll be provided with a tonne of forecasting and spot information. 

At first glance the forecast page can look like a terrifying jumble of arrows and numbers. But once you know how to read it, your surfing life will never be the same. 

Here’s a breakdown of how it all works... 


WAVE HEIGHT

The first column is wave height. This is how big MSW predicts the waves to be at a particular spot. 

As surfers we use feet to measure wave height and this is displayed in the first column of the forecasting area. 

I wouldn’t pay to much attention the the predicted wave height on MSW as it is often inaccurate. 


STAR RATING

Next to your wave height, you have the star rating.

The star rating will tempt you into believing the waves are going to be amazing. And more often than not, the star ratings on MSW are wrong. 

In fact, I'd disregard the star rating section altogether.

We've got way more important forecasting details to look at than fancy blue stars...


SWELL HEIGHT (PRIMARY SWELL)

Now we're into the important columns.

Swell height is more important than the wave height on MSW, as it gives you a real reading of the swell heights. (not a wave height prediction). 

(Wave heights can often be inaccurate on MSW as their algorithms don’t take into account other factors that affect waves such as, sea floor, shape of beach and other geographical features).  

I would use swell height as a good wave size indicator and after a few surfs, you’ll get an idea of the exact breaking wave heights produced by each swell.

  

SWELL PERIOD

As we move across the page, you’ll see the swell period column. 

Always take into account a swell period and as we discussed earlier, it has a massive effect on wave heights. 

Swell period will be displayed in seconds, with 10-11 seconds being the average for most beaches. Anything below this will produce weak, gutless waves, whereas anything 12 seconds or above will produce larger more powerful ones. 


SWELL DIRECTION

In the next section, you’ll see a little arrow indicating swell direction. 

Unfortunately, swell direction can be overlooked, especially when you're new to reading the surf forecast. 

To produce the biggest waves, you want this arrow to be facing directly towards the way your local beach faces out at. 

Swell hitting directly means waves come in uninterrupted and don't lose any of their power.

If this arrow is facing at an angle (more parallel to the direction of your beach) the waves will be a great deal smaller and weaker. 


SECONDARY AN TERTIARY SWELL 

Next up, there are the other swells in the water. These are different swells that buoys pick up out in the ocean and most of the time they will be unimportant as the primary swell overrides them. 

It’s always worth keeping an eye on them however, as sometimes a secondary swell can actually be facing your beach more directly than the primary swell and MSW doesn’t pick it up.

If you're onto this, you can sometimes get good waves with no one around! 


WIND STRENGTH & DIRECTION

The last important columns we need to look at are the wind strengths and directions . 

On MSW, wind direction is indicated by an arrow (direction of where the wind is coming from). 

The strength is then clearly indicated numerically and also colour coded (green for light, offshore wind and and red for strong, onshore wind) so it makes for super easy reading.

I usually find MSW’s wind predictions to be very accurate!  


EXTRA CONSIDERATIONS WHEN READING THE SURF REPORT

In addition to what we've looked at above, there are a few other things we should consider before planning a surf in advance...


TIDES

Tides are major in surfing and can be the difference between having waves or not. Do your research and make sure you know which tide your local spot works best on. 

This is another factor you’ll find yourself working around as all spots work better on different tides. 


GEOGRAPHICAL FEATURES

Something to occasionally consider, depending on the beach you’re surfing, are geographical features. These are things that could potentially block swell from coming in or protect you from larger swell. 

Features such as rocks, hedlands, patches of reef or sandbars can all change how waves break and their size. 


HOW ACCURATE IS THE SURF FORECAST?

By using all of these forecasting elements, we can get a pretty good idea of what the surf is going to be like over the next few days. 

However, it;’s important to take everything you see on the forecast with a pinch of salt and remember, they are still only predictions. 

Although MSW is pretty accurate most of the time, I would never 100% rely on it. Use it to get a good idea of what the surf will be like, but always go check it for yourself anyway!


WRAPPING IT UP

Learning how to read a surf forecast is a crucial skill for any surfer. 

A good way to think about surf prediction is to use it as a guide to get a rough idea of what the conditions will be like. This way you're never going in completely blind for a surf. 

It’s also fun to try and align your free time with when you think the waves will be good as you become better at reading the forecast. 

So jump on a computer, open up MSW and start looking at the charts for the next week at your local beach. Then try and plan some surfing time around this… 

Any questions, leave them in the comments section below 👇

DAN HARMON

Dan is officially a surf nut, in fact you'll be hard pushed to find anyone that surfs more than this guy.  
A lover of all things travel, in the rare time he spends out of the water he'll be researching his next trips.

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