Learning to read a surf report will help you determine if the surf is suitable for you and your family both from a safety and enjoyment perspective. We teach you how to read an otherwise complicated forecast.
As you get better at bodyboarding one of the major changes that you will notice is that you will now be looking to catch more of the unbroken rolling waves that sit out past the surf zone or the white wash.
By this time, you will be wearing a set of fins to help you get out there in the first place and give you better take off and control too.
Once you are at this stage you will no doubt want to be sure that when you go to the beach, the waves will be right for you. There is nothing worse than driving for an hour to the beach with your kit only to find it flat as a tack or choppy and no good for body boarding.
The solution to this is to familiarise yourself with surf reports.
There are many versions of these but they all have some similarities in how and what they present. There are four main variables that you will need to get an understanding about what they are and how they affect the waves that you will be riding.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to get to know the three different types of surf breaks so you can find the best spots for your skill level as well as the tidal movements.
Surf report websites get most of their data from the American agency called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They then translate it into a format that is more readable.
One great feature of surf report websites is that they tend to be global, so once you find one you like, you can just refer back to it each time you are looking for information on waves no matter where you are heading.
Also, all measurements tend to be in imperial not metric, but some do allow you to change this if that helps.
Some of the more popular websites include: Surf-Forecast.com, Magic Seaweed or Surfline.
Let’s start by having a look at the different factors that are measured by surf reports.
The height of a wave is the measurement of the distance from the top of the waves to the trough between the waves when they are close to the beach.
The size of the waves that the surf report gives you is actually an average of the waves that you can expect in a specific time period that will be stated on the report, for example, 6am-9am.
So, you will often see waves that are larger than reported as well as smaller waves.
This is important to understand because if the surf report says that the waves are going to be 1.5 meters high, you should expect to see waves that are 2 meters high as well, so if you are not comfortable in surf that size, you might need to consider another break.
Swell is the description given to waves before they get near the shore and start to break.
Most of us don’t see the swells as they are often measured way off shore past what we can see standing on the beach, however swell size and timing or periods are an important indicator of the wave height and power at the break.
Swell height is again measured from the top of the swells out in the ocean to the troughs between them. This is done using buoys that are connected to satellites and float up and down giving an average height over a period of time as well as the speed the swell is moving.
The swell height does not generally reflect what the wave height will be by the time it reaches the beach.
The swell period is the measurement of the time it takes the swell to pass a specific point. It can be from the peak of one swell to the peak of the next wave for example and it tells you how often waves are coming, usually measured in seconds.
Generally, shorter swell periods, which are called wind swell, usually lead to weaker waves at the beach. The longer the swell periods, which are called ground swell, the more powerful the wave is.
The best way to understand this is to imagine waves as large cylinders of water rolling along the ocean surface beginning at a storm somewhere out in the ocean and heading towards your favourite beach.
The bigger the cylinder of water, the fewer of them that will fit together and the longer the swell period will be. Whereas the smaller cylinders that lack power and volume can bunch up, thus you will see small swell periods.
Basically, anything below 6 seconds, you will not find many good waves at the beach. Between 7 and 12 seconds you will get some good surf which will be great for beginners.
For the experienced riders out there, that want to get into clean unbroken waves and barrels, wave periods of between 13 and 15 seconds will offer some great surf and anything over 16 seconds will normally generate beautiful long uniform waves over 6 feet depending on the break.
It is important to understand that swell measurements take place way off sure and don’t necessarily mean that the waves will be the same number of seconds apart at the beach.
This means the direction that the swell is moving from the ocean towards the beach and is often measured in degrees on a compass with 0 degrees being due North.
It can have a significant impact on the waves at the beach.
If the swell is moving front on to the beach, you will generally find waves that are perpendicular to the shore and will break all at once.
If the swell is slightly left to right or vise versa, you will see the waves breaking in that direction.
These are great for more experienced riders who love to get into the barrels and ride unbroken waves.
Swells that run across the beach will basically offer some pretty average surf and basically be unrideable for most people.
Interestingly, in some areas, swell direction can mean terrible surf at one spot and great surf a short distance away due to the shape of the beach and where it faces.
So, it’s a good idea to consider which beach is best for swells in the various directions.
Wind is an important factor when looking at surf reports as wind is what causes swells way out in the ocean. However, we need to familiarise ourselves with wind much closer to shore.
You will also notice that wind is broken down into two different elements. Direction and gusts, which can have a massive effect on the way the waves break and also the general direction that they travel.
Wind is always described from the perspective of where the wind originated. You will notice that generally winds will be described as “on shore” which means the wind is traveling from out in the ocean to the beach and tends to cause waves to become choppy.
Offshore winds means that the wind is coming from inland and blowing toward the ocean and generally provides the best conditions. There are also cross shore winds that are not that good for waves at all as the cross-shore direction of the wind tends to cause very choppy and unrideable surf.
The wind gusts are measured in speed to give you an idea of what to expect when you are in the surf. If the wind is gusting too much, the waves will most likely become choppy.
Some surf reports use a star rating system or something similar to give people a quick summary of the various factors for a particular surf spot on a particular day.
For example, magic seaweed uses a system that uses swell information to form the original assessment, then takes into account wind.
This will sometimes result in 4 stars with one greyed out for instance. This means that the swell is worth 4 stars, however the effect of the wind reduces the quality of the surf on this day.
It is worth understanding the different ways that your favourite surf report displays information.
A surf break is the term used to describe the places where ocean swells become waves that you can actually catch and ride.
The breaks are determined by the topography of the seabed and the surrounding features and the depth of the water which is called bathymetry.
There are three main types of breaks and each has its own pros and cons.
By far the most common are the beach breaks. This is what we are all familiar with and have no doubt spent many hours enjoying the surf at a beach break somewhere.
At a beach break, the swell comes in from the ocean and as it hits the shallow areas close to shore, the water is forced up and forms the waves.
Beach breaks are an excellent place to learn how to bodyboard. You will generally find waves close to shore for beginners as well as waves further out for experienced riders who like to catch waves before they break.
One thing to be aware of is there are almost always rips at beach breaks. The rips are channels that the water in the waves that are breaking on the beach travel in as it returns to the ocean.
Rips can be lethal and if you are not sure how to spot a rip, as a lifeguard. You should always choose patrolled beaches and stay between the flags unless you are an experienced rider. (See our link on rips).
Another thing to be aware of with beach breaks is that they can change with the tides and the seasons. Surf reports don’t specify this as its often-personal choice and can vary depending on your experience level. The only real way to figure this out for your favourite beach is to spend time there and get a feel for what is best for you.
A point break happens when the swell wraps around a point of land or rock formation for example. The waves then generally break either left or right and are often very consistent.
These breaks are great places to improve your boarding levels as you will know where the waves are breaking and the direction that they will break.
It is always important to be aware of rocks and other obstacles in the water and the effect of the tides, rips and currents when body boarding.
The reef breaks are formed when the swells hit reefs or rocky sea beds and force the water up which makes the waves. These can often be off shore and require some paddling to get to so may not be suitable for all body boarders.
They can however provide some great waves. Tides can play an important part in the formation of the waves on reef breaks and they can be very dangerous for beginners.
At low tides the waves can be breaking into less than a foot of water or onto the reef itself.
The oceans tides have a massive impact on the waves that we will be catching so it’s good to get familiar with which tide is best for the places you regularly visit.
Every 24 hours there are two high tides and two low tides.
This obviously affects water volume at the beach and also where the waves will break. Due to the varying topography and movements in the sea beds, the different tides can create very different wave patterns.
Some breaks are best at low tide, others high tide and some are better at the mid tide. Surf reports will give the tide times and the levels for each cycle.
The oceans tides are a result of the gravitational forces of the moon and the sun and vary depending on the relative position to earth. The closer they are the stronger the effect.
Thus, on a full moon, there will be larger variations in the water levels as the moon is closer to earth. The good thing about tides is that they are very consistent. We know tide times in advance. Tides generally move by 50 minutes each day meaning if high tide was at 1pm today, tomorrow high tide will be at 1.50pm.
There is a lot of information to take in when reading a surf report and it can be like reading a different language in the beginning.
However, in the long run, some understanding of what surf reports say can make your body boarding journey so much more enjoyable.
They add some predictability and allow you to decide which beach to go to or even if it is worth heading out at all.
We still do a quick recce of the local beaches each morning. More out of habit than anything else, but we use the surf reports as a guide to help inform us of which spots are more likely to be the best for our family.
Frequently Asked Questions
The most accurate and widely used surf report in the world is Surfline. According to Surfline: “powered by a 35-year data set; proprietary swell, wind and weather modelling; an expert team of meteorologists and scientists with more than 120 years of combined experience, live HD cameras at over 600 locations worldwide, and award-winning editorial content.”
Try Windguru, Magicseaweed (MSW) and Wisuki.
1-2ft waves are a great start for a beginner bodyboarder. Small enough to learn how to bodyboard but big enough to give you the thrill you need to convince you that bodyboarding is such a fun sport!
Surf reports don’ tell you what’s on the seabed. It may delivery all the information you need about wind, swells, waves and tides but they don’t tell you if the seabed is filled with rocks, unexpected dips, useful sand bars or clarity of the water.
So just because the conditions may be perfect according to the surf report, you still need to be vigilant and know that there are other things afoot.
Surf reports are complicated to digest and sometimes they are not 100% accurate, just like a weather forecast. Doing a quick recce before heading out with your family is always a prudent idea. Especially, if you have the luxury of a few beaches to select from. Find the best and safest beach to suit your bodyboarding needs.
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We’re Andrew & Amy and we are a small blended family that love to bodyboard! We’re here to share everything we know to help you with your bodyboarding adventure as a beginner, with your family or if you’re transitioning onto intermediate level. Let’s go!
16 thoughts on “How to Read a Surf Report”
This is so informational and so interesting. I had no idea and I love learning new things. You certainly know your stuff. 😉
Thank you! Well, we didn’t always know our stuff and we had to learn a long the way. Its been a few years now so we’re getting better at reading surf reports because we’re always after the best waves around!
That’s so interesting! If I ever need to know how to read a surf report, you’ve explained it so well.
Thank you! Glad you found it interesting!
I’ve never heard of this before but it sounds like a great tool. I have a friend that lives in Hawaii and surfs daily. I’m definitely gonna pass this along to her.
Wow I’m so jealous! Imagine being able to surf everyday! And Hawaii too! Thanks for passing it along.
Man, I wish I have read this when I went on a holiday to Yucatan, Mexico. We did some classes for kite surfing. I did not even know surf reports even existed. Awesome, thanks for the information. Very useful for my next beach trip.
I would love to try kite surfing one day! Did you enjoy it? Was it hard?
I’ve never surfed, but this report was able to give me a great break down of a surf report for me to understand.
Great! Maybe one day it will be useful for you:)
Wow I have no idea that there are so many factors involved in reading a surf report. This is such an interesting read.
Thanks Neha. Yeah, we didn’t know at the start either but after years of reading it, we’re much better at it and now we can chase the waves we want when we go bodyboarding.
Wow! Thanks for this! So informative. Now, I can read my own surf report without any difficulties. Thanks so much!
You welcome! Yup, bookmark this page so you can refer to it all the time:)
Damn! The things I learn from here, each week….it’s so interesting. Thank you for today’s class, Amy and Andrew!
Awww…. you’re most welcome!