Surfing 101: How to Read a Wave
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Do you find yourself staring at surfers in the line-up, waves rolling in the distance, wondering how on earth do they know when to start paddling and catch that perfect peeler?
They must know a secret formula or possess some kind of superpowers, that’s the only logical explanation. Actually, it’s not! There’s no secret recipe for learning how to read the waves. It takes practice and experience, courage and many failed attempts. After all, reading a wave in an unpredictable and ever-changing environment is somewhat like predicting the future.
Reading, assessing, and anticipating a wave is perhaps the hardest aspect of surfing that progressing surfers struggle with. But you can know whether a wave is a right or a left, whether it’ll be fast, long, or good enough for some neat tricks.
Follow me and learn how to read a wave. The right way.
What are the different parts of a wave?
Can you identify and name the different parts of a wave? On their first surf lessons, beginners often face the same problem – almost nothing of what the surf instructor says makes any sense.
But you, my friend, can be smarter than that and learn the lingo before hitting the surf. Or just come back to this guide whenever you’ve forgotten the anatomy of a wave.
Read on and you’ll be on your way to talking like a surfer in no time!
The highest point of a wave. This is the first part of the wave that breaks. Finding the peak is key to reading and predicting how a wave will break.
The upper part of a wave that appears to be ‘pitching’ from above as the wave is breaking. A lot of a wave’s power is located at its lip.
Or face, is the part of the wave that has not broken yet. Surfers ride from the area that is breaking towards the unbroken section of the wave.
Also named pocket, it is the concave part of the shoulder and is usually very steep. This is the section of the wave where those neat maneuvers you often see in surf videos are performed. To give you a better picture, this part of the wave is often compared to a skateboarding ramp.
This is the area where the wave crashes onto the flat water. This is where the wave is most powerful, and you’d want to steer clear of being in this area. Being caught in the impact zone when surfing or paddling can result in nasty wipeouts.
The section of the wave that has already broken. When the wave breaks, it transforms into a ridge of foam, otherwise referred to as whitewater. This is the more forgiving part of the wave, where beginners take their first steps on the surfboard and learn the basic skills.
Some waves form a ‘cylinder-like’ section when they break, allowing surfers to ride inside the curve of the wave. Also referred to as a barrel, it is one of the most coveted things in surfing. Surfing inside a tube is called ‘getting barreled’ or ‘tube riding’.
Ready to catch your first waves? Go on a surf camp for beginners and let the instructors lead the way!
Right-hand vs. left-hand waves
What is the difference between a right-hand and a left-hand wave? This is one of the first questions that beginner surfers ask.
You see a lump in the distance and hope for a wave. That lump will slowly turn into a wave that will break either left, right, both left and right (A-frame), or is a closeout wave. Let’s have a closer look at all four scenarios:
Or simply a left, it is a wave that breaks (or peels) to the left from the point of view of the surfer riding the wave. This means that, when looking from the beach towards the ocean, the wave will appear as breaking towards the right. Sounds confusing, right?
Not if you keep this in mind: wave directions are always identified from the surfer’s perspective when facing the shore.
On a left-hander, the surfer rides the wave to his left. Hence the name – left.
Or a right, it is a wave that breaks to the right from the surfer’s vantage point. If you look at it from the beach, it will appear as breaking towards the left.
On a right-hander, the surfer rides the wave to his right, which would look like the left from the people on shore.
Or a split peak, has both left and right waves on either side of the peak. It has an even angle on both sides of the peak, and looks like an inverted ‘V’.
If you’re positioned on the peak when it starts to break, you can choose either one of the two shoulders to surf. This means that two surfers can catch this wave at the same time, each going in the opposite direction.
This is a wave that closes all at once, and can be ridden neither right nor left. The wave simply crashes over its face and the line of the wave is almost parallel to the skyline.
How to read and catch a wave
“Should I stay or should I go now? Yeah, The Clash song perfectly describes that feeling when you’re out there in the ocean, waiting on your surfboard, not certain whether you should go for that net set of waves or not.
So, how do you read a wave?
- While sitting on your surfboard, look at the horizon line. Once you’ve found a lump, identify the peak. The wave will start breaking from the peak.
- Compare the angle of the wave with the skyline.
- The side of the wave with the steepest angle is the direction in which the wave will break, and that’s the direction in which you will ride.
- If there is no distinct angle on either side of the peak, then the wave will most likely close out.
And, after you’ve identified and assessed the wave, how do you catch it?
- Once you’ve identified the peak, you need to be fast and paddle towards it. In an ideal situation, you’ll make it to the peak before it starts to break. Remember to make sure you don’t drop in on someone.
- If you were not able to make it to the peak before it started to break, the ideal take-off spot is close to the peak, on the curl (pocket) of the wave.
- Once you’ve made it to the take-off, turn around so that your surfboard faces the beach and position yourself in the direction in which the wave is breaking.
Other useful tips for reading and catching a wave:
- The steeper the angle of the shoulder, the slower the wave will break. So, if you want to ride a faster wave, go for the straighter angle. If you don’t have enough experience yet, go for the steeper shoulders, as they give you enough time to follow the wave before it closes out.
- If you’re too close to the peak when it’s breaking (or too inside), you will not be able to stand up and the wave will break on you.
- If you are too far from the peak, on the shoulder, the wave will not have enough power to carry you as much.
- If you don’t want to catch a particular wave, the safest place to position yourself is behind it, in deep water.
A few more things to keep in mind
Before anything else, find out what are the ideal swell and tide conditions for the spot that you are planning to surf – does it work with more or less swell, a low tide, high tide, incoming or outgoing. The way a wave breaks can be affected by the swell size and tide.
Take your time. Sit on the beach or on your surfboard further away from the line-up and watch the other surfers. Observe which waves they choose to catch and which ones they avoid. Even if they’re new to a surf spot, experienced surfers can identify the direction in which a wave will break and anticipate its behavior. Therefore, they only go for the quality waves.
Surfing involves a lot of observation, patience, and practice. Once you’ll master reading the waves, you’ll have more fun in the water, your sessions will become more enjoyable, you’ll catch more waves, experience fewer wipeouts, and gradually improve your technique and start riding more challenging waves.
Ready to put your newly acquired knowledge to the test? Go on a surf camp and practice, practice, practice!