June 1

How To Read Waves: An “All You Can Eat” Guide For Beginners!

SURF

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You can have all the skills in the world, but if you're unable to read waves well then you're going to find it very difficult to improve.

The ability to tell where a wave is going to break, how it's going to break, which way its going to break, and what the wave is going to do once its broken, all help to make sure that you're in the right place at the right time more often.

The result?

You're able to catch higher quality waves, and ride out of them successfully more of the time.

The tricky part is knowing what to look for, but the good news is that by the end of this article you'll know how to read waves like a pro 👊


HOW DO YOU PICK THE RIGHT WAVE?

The type of wave that you'll classify as 'good' will depend on your level.

For a beginner a good wave is a nice small, clean whitewater. For a pro it might be double overhead and barrelling!

But for where you're at right now there are very certain things that you should be looking out for:

💥 Soft Breaking: This means that the waves aren't really thick, heavy and dumping. Instead you want to look for waves that are breaking softly, that don't have too much power.

💥 Not closing out: A closeout is a wave that breaks all at once, and these are the types of waves that you're looking to avoid.  Instead, look for waves with a clear peak and a soft shoulder to surf on.

The above 👆 are really the two main things that you need to be looking for right now.


TO READ THE WAVES, YOU MUST FIRST UNDERSTAND THE PARTS OF THE WAVE...

PARTS OF THE WAVE
  • PEAK: The spot closest to the breaking part of the wave
  • FACE/SHOULDER: The clean, unbroken area of the wave away from the whitewater.
  • LIP: 
  • POCKET/CURL: The zone right next to where the breaking part of the wave, and the unbroken wave meet.
  • BARREL/TUBE: The area inside a breaking wave.
  • IMPACT ZONE: The area where the lip of the wave hits the wave trough.


HOW DO YOU TELL IF A WAVE IS A LEFT OR A RIGHT?

In surfing, we always relate to the wave direction from the perspective of the surfer riding the wave itself, rather than the perspective of the viewer from the beach.

What does a left wave mean?

A left-hand breaking wave will look like this 👇


left-hand breaking wave

And what is a right wave 🤔

A right-hand breaking wave will look like this 👇


right-hand breaking wave

As a wave approaches the shore and begins to take shape it provides visual clues as to how it will break - which direction, and where.

Reading these clues in the waves shape as it begins to form enable surfers to predict if a wave is going to break left or right in advance.

And this advanced knowledge will help big time to make sure you're positioned in the best spot to catch the wave when it arrives.


THE A-FRAME

An A-Frame is a wave with a clear defined peak, which breaks both left and right simultaneously. 

These A-Frame waves are coveted in the surf community as they give surfers the option of riding both left and right, giving you the opportunity to practice forehand and backhand surfing at the same break.


A-FRAME BREAKING WAVE

WAVE SELECTION: HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT WAVES

As a wave peaks up you'll often notice that the wave will taper slightly differently in each direction.

It's this change in the tapering of the wave that is a clue as to what the wave is likely to do when it breaks.


TAPERING WAVES


If a wave has a steeper tapering effect (ref image above) the wave will break down the line at a slower speed.

Likewise if the wave has a shallow taper, it will break down the line quickly and will often close out on you.

As a beginner surfer the waves you want to select are those with a steeper taper that break slowly down the line, giving you ample time to pop to your feet and set your line.

These visual cues will help you to read the oncoming waves and help you to select the right waves more often. 


DYNAMIC WAVE SELECTION: SPOT X

We refer to Spot X as the ideal position to be located to catch a wave at exactly the right moment - the spot whereby if you were mind surfing, you'd put yourself in every time.

That's Spot X right there 💥


WHY SPOT X IS IMPORTANT

Spot X is important as a concept as it takes you out of the role of a passive surfer waiting for the waves to come to you, to instead having an active awareness about how the waves are breaking around you - giving you a game plan to position yourself more effectively.


HOW TO READ SPOT X

Every wave that breaks has an ideal take-off spot, and the goal of identifying Spot X is to ensure that you're in that ideal spot more often.

Spot X is the ideal take-off spot on any given wave.  Usually the spot right on the peak of the wave just before the wave begins to break.

To identify Spot X on a wave the first step is to pay attention to the environment around you.  That means focusing on the way the waves break, where they break, and how they break. 

It also means studying how often the set waves come, and how many waves come each time.

It may also involve looking at the footprint of broken waves to see how they broke: did you expect the wave to close out? or did it hold open?

All of these factors will go into reading the waves, so that you can pre-empt where Spot X will be for the waves that you want to catch.


THE FOUR STAGES OF THE WAVE

The hardest part of learning how to read waves is understanding the mechanics of the waves - how they break and where you need to be to catch them.

To help with this, we've broken down the breaking process of the wave into four stages to help better identify which types of waves you should be trying to catch, and when to start paddling.


the stages of the wave
  • STAGE 1: At stage 1 the wave is still a swell out to see, visible to the eye but not yet near ready to break.
  • STAGE 2: During stage 2 the wave is beginning to pitch up as it hits the sandbank.  At this stage the wave is starting to take shape.
  • STAGE 3: At stage three the wave is steepening up to a level whereby it's now possible to catch.
  • STAGE 4: At stage 4 the wave has broken, and is now moving through the ocean as whitewater.

WHY IS THIS WHOLE 'FOUR STAGES OF THE WAVE' THING IMPORTANT?

Breaking waves down into different stages creates a visual guide to help you know which waves to catch and when, and how to position yourself in the right spot to catch more waves more often.


CATCHING THE FOUR STAGES


STAGE 1

A stage 1 wave is still just a swell out to sea that's beginning  to take form as it hits shallower water.

WHAT TO DO AT STAGE 1

Stage 1 is where you identify the wave that's coming, and begin to make positional changes to get yourself in the right spot.


STAGE 2

At stage 2 the wave is beginning to take shape and is nearly at the stage where it's possible to catch.

WHAT TO DO AT STAGE 2

This is where you need to begin building momentum with your paddling to match the speed of the wave, with the goal being to get on the wave as early as possible.

Why?

Well, the earlier you're able to catch a wave the less steep and critical the wave will be giving you more time to pop up early and set your line.


STAGE 3

A stage 3 wave is starting to pitch as it gets ready to break.

WHAT TO DO AT STAGE 3

Ideally - if you've followed along with the points above - you should be up to your feet and riding as the wave transitions from a stage 2, to stage 3. 

It's at this point that the wave is at its most user friendly, making getting to your feet a breeze.


STAGE 4

A stage 4 wave has already broken and is now just a whitewater.

WHAT TO DO AT STAGE 4

If you're still surfing whitewater waves then this is fine, if however you're now a green wave warrior you'll want to avoid these types of waves and concentrate your efforts on better positioning and paddling to help get yourself into waves earlier.


COMMON MISTAKES

  • SEEING A WAVE AND NOT MOVING: A lot of people will see a wave at stage 1, yet simply sit and wait for the waves to come to them. Instead, this is the time to make positional changes - laterally and longitudinally - to get in the right spot.
  • PADDLING FOR STAGE 3 WAVES: All too often people will start paddling for stage 3 waves, and by the time the wave reaches them it's pitched right up, ready to break on their backs.
  • NOT ENOUGH PADDLE POWER: Not being able to generate enough drive and speed in your paddling will force you to catch waves that are too steep.  Improving your paddle strength will go a long way to mitigating this.


WRAPPING IT UP

Understanding how to read waves as a beginner surfer can be difficult at first, with the ocean appearing to operate in a chaos, without any order.

But, with time and experience you'll begin to see the order in the chaos, and you'll learn how to read the waves - and how they'll break - long before they ever even hit the shore.

Having this awareness of what's going on around you - and making positional adjustments to compensate - will have a big impact on you being in the right place at the right time more often .

Surf domination here we come 💥


ROWAN CLIFFORD

Rowan is the nerd behind the scenes.  But when he's not knee-deep in code, you'll find him immersed in the crypto-world or sending it at his local beachie.


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