How to Read a Surf Report and Get More Waves – Become a Wave Master!

Redgate Western Australia a fantastic surf spot

Ever wonder how some people seem to be in the best spot at the best time? Scoring epic waves all week long??

The secret isn’t just intuition; it’s learning to understand weather patterns and wave forecasting.

This is an essential skill for surfers to get the best quality waves, as often as possible.

Let’s run through what you need to know.

Surf Forecast For Beginners: The Surfer’s Crystal Ball


Every surfer knows that surfing is more than just a sport. If you’re anything like me … SURFING IS YOUR RELIGION. But how do you predict the ever-changing rhythm of the sea and the all-powerful Mother Nature?

The answer lies in the magic of wave forecasting.

Why Surf Forecasting is Every Surfer’s Best Friend:

Chasing Perfection: It predicts those dreamy sessions with the perfect break, the ideal swell, and that offshore wind that makes every drop and turn feel surreal.

Optimising Your Surf Time: Nothing stings like reaching a spot after a long drive, only to be greeted by flat waters. Wave forecasts are your cheat sheet. They ensure that every trip to the beach, every paddle out, is in sync with the ocean’s best offering.

“Wave forecasting isn’t just about predicting the surf; it’s about understanding the ocean’s heartbeat.”

Jake Martinez, Professional Surfer

How Do They Predict Surf?

bay, atlantic, learn how to read a surf report

Meteorological Buoys: These buoys are deployed globally to record wave details and sea temperatures, offering a real-time ocean snapshot.

Satellite Imagery: Satellites orbiting Earth provide detailed ocean data, tracking storms and even detecting underwater seismic events—key to predicting surf.

Weather Patterns: Shifts like El Niño or seasonal changes greatly influence how waves form. By tracking these, forecasters anticipate surf conditions.

Oceanographer Insight: Expert oceanographers analyse various data, blending historical patterns with current anomalies to predict wave behaviour.

These tools give us a glimpse into the ocean’s upcoming temperament. Proper forecasting ensures safety and the best surf experience.

How to read a surf report

Wave forecasts are not simply looking at today’s rating; it’s about interpreting the information and integrating it into your local surf spots. And that’s what we’re here to master today.

A Beginner’s Step-by-Step Guide to Surf Forecasting

1. Understand the Basics

  • Terminology: Familiarize yourself with the basic terms used in wave forecasting such as swell, wave period, onshore and offshore winds, etc. (You can refer to the glossary table we provided here.)
  • Wave Creation: Waves are primarily created by wind. The strength, duration, and fetch (distance over which the wind blows) determine the size and energy of the waves.

2. Start with User-Friendly Surf Forecasting Apps

  • Download: Begin with user-friendly apps like Surfline. These platforms are intuitive and often designed with beginners in mind.
  • Explore: Spend some time navigating the app. Look at the daily forecasts, understand the graphs, and watch any live cams available.

3. Observe and Experience

  • Hit the Beach: Make it a habit to visit the beach regularly. Observe the waves, note the forecast, and compare it with real-time conditions. This will help you understand discrepancies and hone your forecasting skills.
  • Document: Consider keeping a surf journal. Document the forecasts, observations, and your surfing experience for the day. Over time, this will provide invaluable insights into patterns and predictions.

4. Dive Deeper into Advanced Tools

  • Upgrade: Once comfortable, explore more advanced forecasting tools like Windy or Stormsurf. I personally love the Bureau of Meteorology. These platforms provide more granular data and advanced forecasting models.
  • Online Courses: Consider enrolling in online meteorology or oceanography courses. Websites like Coursera or Udemy often have beginner courses that dive deep into wave forecasting and weather patterns.
weather maps for surf

6. Consider a surf Forecasting Starter Kit

  • Books: Consider books like “The Complete Guide to Surfing” by Peter Dixon or “Surf Science: An Introduction to Waves for Surfing” by Tony Butt.
  • Equipment: While not essential, owning a primary barometer or anemometer can help you understand atmospheric pressures and wind speeds.
  • Workshops: Look for local workshops or classes on wave forecasting. They can provide hands-on experience and direct mentorship.

Jump to the end to see a Forecasting checklist.

Surf Forecasting Terminology

Swell Size and Direction

Swell size and the swell direction will give us a clear picture of what the waves will do when they arrive at our chosen surf spot.

Swell Size:

big heavy wave - swell height

The swell height or swell size is typically measured in feet or meters. When a forecast mentions a swell size of 3-5ft, you can expect waves that range in height within that bracket.

A bigger swell size means more powerful waves, which is great for experienced surfers looking for a challenge.

However, beginners might want to opt for days with smaller swell sizes to ensure safer, more manageable surfing conditions throughout.

Swell Direction:

Think of this as the path the waves have travelled to reach your spot. The swell direction is usually given in degrees, like 270°, or cardinal points like “W” for West.

The swell direction lets you know where the waves are coming from.

This is crucial because not all surf spots react similarly to swells from different directions.

Some beaches might produce epic waves with a north swell, while others might need a south or west swell to come alive.

For example, a beach that faces the east won’t benefit much from a west-directed swell.

So, always ensure the incoming swell and the swell direction also align favourably with the orientation of your chosen surf spot. For more detailed resources on swell direction and surfing, have a look here.

Swell Period

In layman’s terms, wave period is the time interval between the arrivals of two consecutive waves at a specific point, usually measured in seconds.

But why does this matter to surfers?

Well, it’s not just about how big the wave is but how it’s formed.

For instance, a 2-foot swell moving in 10-second intervals might seem enticing, but it’ll produce a significantly lower wave height than a 3-foot swell in 5 seconds.

And here’s the magic: a 3-foot breaking wave with 15 seconds can bring the highest surge of wave energy to the shore, making for a thrilling ride.

A longer wave period, think 12 seconds and above, hints at waves born from distant storms producing ground swells.

These well-travelled waves sort themselves out over their journey, arriving at the coast organised, powerful, and offering that smooth ride every surfer dreams of.

Conversely, a shorter wave period, perhaps 8 seconds or less, suggests local storms as their birthplace. These tend to be the unruly toddlers of the wave world—less powerful and all over the place.

While decoding these wave intricacies, remember to harness technology’s power.

As you chase those perfect waves, apps like Seabreeze and Windy, especially popular among the Perth wave warriors, can be invaluable allies. They provide insights, helping you find the best spots and times to dive in.

So, next time you plan a surf session, remember it’s not just about the size of the wave.

Wind Speed and Direction

The wind is the invisible hand that shapes our waves, and understanding its speed and direction can be the difference between an epic surf session and a totally blown-out day.

When we talk about wind in terms of surfing, we’re usually interested in two main aspects: wind speed and wind direction.

Wind speed, measured in knots or miles per hour, tells us how fast the wind blows across the water’s surface.

Light winds, especially if they’re offshore (blowing from the land towards the sea), can lead to clean, glassy conditions. They gently groom the waves, allowing for those smooth, dreamy rides.

On the other hand, strong winds can make the sea choppy and rough, reducing the quality of waves and making it challenging to surf.

Now, let’s talk about wind direction.

If you’ve ever heard surfers raving about “offshore winds,” this wind direction is like the fairy godmother of surfing.

Offshore winds blow from the land towards the ocean, holding up the face of the wave a little longer, which makes it cleaner and better shaped for surfing.

Conversely, onshore winds (blowing from the sea towards the land) can mess things up, leading to crumbly, less organised waves.

Tidal Movements

Some surf spots come alive with high tide, while others are at their best when the tide is low. Hence, understanding tidal movements is crucial for anyone looking to maximise their time in the water; it’s also very location-specific.

So, what causes these tides?

Tides are primarily driven by the moon’s gravitational pull (and, to a lesser extent, the sun). As the moon orbits the Earth, it exerts a gravitational force on our oceans, causing them to bulge out in the direction of the moon.

This bulging effect, combined with the Earth’s rotation, results in the rise of the sea floor and fall of the sea that we observe as tides.

Now, how do tides affect surfing?

They can influence the waves’ shape, size, and power.

For instance, a particular reef break might only start working when the tide is just right, filling in enough water over the reef to create those epic, barreling waves.

My personal experience at Desert Point in Lombok demonstrated the importance of low tide.

I paddled out at high tide, greeted by modest 3-foot waves. The conditions were fun, with full waves that offered a relaxed session. Within an hour, those friendly 3-footers transformed into proper, pumping 6-foot waves.

Desert Point, Lombok

Lesson: Tides influence the wave’s shape, size, and power and can turn a familiar surf spot into a new playground.

Some spots might have a short window of optimal surfing conditions during a specific tide, while others could offer great waves throughout the tidal cycle.

Understanding and anticipating these tidal movements allows you to time your sessions to coincide with your local’s best surf conditions for more resources on tides and their effects on surfing, click here.

Mastering Surf Forecasting: Ground Swell vs. Wind Swell

satellite map showing large storm activity

Ground Swell and Wind Swell – Both types of swells shape our surfing experiences, but they come from different origins and bring distinct wave patterns to our shores.

Ground Swell embark on long oceanic journeys, delivering powerful, long-period waves that consistently roll in. The image above shows some large cyclonic storm activity -sure to produce large waves and some epic swell. They offer longer, smoother rides and the kind of waves surfers dream about.

Look out for longer swell periods (typically 12 seconds and above) and a consistent direction, indicating a solid groundswell.

In contrast, Wind Swells form quickly, bringing shorter-period, choppier waves.

They might not always offer the dreamy waves of groundswells, but they can still provide a fun surf with the right local conditions.

Wind swell-dominated forecasts will show shorter periods (often under 10 seconds) and can be influenced by shifting local winds.

If you haven’t seen the show “Storm Surfers,” you should definitely take a look. It shows some cool insight into the world of big wave surfers as they chase monster waves generated by intense storms.

Why Local Knowledge Matters

  1. Spot-Specific Nuances: Every surf spot has its quirks – a particular rock that affects wave shape, a reef section that only works at specific tides or channels that offer safer paddle-outs. Locals are often well-versed in these nuances, making their insights priceless.
  2. Adapting to Changes: Beaches and breaks are dynamic, with sandbars shifting and underwater terrains changing. Local communities are usually the first to notice and adapt to these changes, providing real-time feedback that might be reflected in forecasts after some time.
older man with surfboard over head

Types of Surf Spots

1. Beach Breaks:

Where waves roll in, crashing straight over sandy terrains. Often the go-to for many, beach breaks are perceived as beginner-friendly. Yet, not all beach breaks are made equal.

While some offer gentle hugs, others can deliver a powerful punch, especially if the local beach itself has a steep profile.

2. Point Breaks:

Wrapping around a headland, breaking sideways along its contours. While they offer an extended ride, they also demand respect, especially if breaking over rocky terrains.

3. Reef Breaks:

Waves break over coral or rock reefs, often creating well-defined wave patterns. While the very mention of ‘reef’ might send chills down a beginner’s spine, not all reef breaks are treacherous. Some can be quite inviting with their gentle waves and deeper sidelines.

4. River Mouth:

While they can offer fantastic waves, they are also notorious for unpredictable and robust currents. Tread with caution!

But Wait, There’s More…

While decoding these surf locales, always factor in the crowd. You might find yourself in a sea of fellow surfers, especially at point and reef breaks, where the take-off zones can be compact.

As a budding surfer, space is your best friend. Seek spots that offer room to breathe, learn, and occasionally wipe out without the fear of bumping into another surfer.

If you’ve been surfing in a place as crazy as this, let us know in the comments! And if you have, I bet this article on ding repairs would help, haha. If you need help fixing up some dings on your board, I have reviewed the best ones here.

El Niño and Its Impact on Surf Forecasts

The oceans and atmosphere constantly dance, each influencing the other’s movements. One of these dances’ most prominent and impactful is the El Niño phenomenon.

What is El Niño?

El Niño is a periodic climatic event characterised by the warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

It’s not a random occurrence but part of a larger cycle known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). While El Niño represents the warm phase, its counterpart, La Niña, signifies the cool phase.

Why Should Surfers Care? The warming waters of El Niño have a cascading effect on global weather patterns. For surfers, this means:

  1. Altered Wave Patterns: Some coastal regions might see an increase in wave size and frequency, turning previously calm spots into a haven for surfers. Conversely, traditionally popular surf spots might experience flatter and less consistent waves.
  2. Shifted Wind Patterns: El Niño can alter prevailing wind patterns, influencing wave quality. This might lead to more days with favourable offshore winds in some areas, while others might suffer from choppy conditions due to onshore winds.
  3. Changed Storm Tracks: The paths of storms can shift, leading to unexpected swell sources for different coastlines. This can mean surprise swells hitting areas that usually don’t benefit from them.“During an El Niño year, the ocean’s rhythm changes. It’s like a familiar dance with unexpected turns.” – Kai Brennan, Surf Competition Judge

Decoding El Niño’s Influence on Your Surf Spot Every region interacts differently with El Niño conditions:

Australia and Indonesia: These areas might experience drier conditions, leading to fewer cyclone-generated swells.

El Niño is coming to Australia this year, 2023! It’s the first time in 8 years.

US West Coast: This region often sees increased rainfall and storm activity, which can lead to larger and more consistent swells.

Hawaii: The islands might see a decrease in the consistency of the north swells but an increase in swells from the western direction.

Common Mistakes and Misinterpretations in Wave Forecasting

It sounds simple but can be riddled with pitfalls that can trip up even the most seasoned surfers.

Some common missteps that many of us make:

  1. Over-relying on Swell Size Alone: Many surfers, especially beginners, get hung up on swell size. While it’s crucial, it doesn’t tell the whole story. A massive swell doesn’t always equate to epic waves, especially if other conditions aren’t favorable.
  2. Neglecting Local Factors: It’s easy to get caught up in the broad strokes of a forecast and forget local nuances. Factors like local wind patterns and specific breaks can drastically alter wave quality.
  3. Misreading Wind Information: An offshore wind can groom waves beautifully, while a strong onshore wind might mess everything up. Some surfers misjudge the impact of wind on wave quality, leading to unexpected choppy sessions.
  4. Ignoring Tides: Not every spot works well at both high and low tides. Failing to factor in the tidal movements can mean missing a spot’s prime time or even being skunked entirely.
  5. Trusting a Single Source Blindly: No forecast is perfect. It’s always a good idea to cross-reference a couple of trusted sources to get a well-rounded view.

“The ocean has its own rhythm, and sometimes we just get the beat wrong.”

Different Surf Report Apps and Surf Forecast Websites

When diving into the world of online surf report apps, you’ll quickly realise they’re all cut from different cloths. Many lean on weather prediction algorithms to gauge conditions at distinct locales.

Meanwhile, some advanced forecasting apps harness the power of tools like the Australian Community Climate and Earth-System Simulators (ACCESS-S) or Adaptive Forecast Systems.

Here are the Top 4

App NameProsCons
SURFLINEUser-friendly interface. Offers live cams for real-time visuals.Some premium features require a subscription. Limited coverage in less popular areas.
SURF is known for offering detailed surf predictions for locations worldwide. This can include swell size, wind patterns, and tidal information, making it a valuable resource for surfers planning their sessions.Interface to be a bit cluttered or not as intuitive as some other modern surf forecasting platforms, potentially making it slightly challenging for newcomers to navigate and interpret the data.
SwellnetSwellnet provides live streaming cameras for many surf spots, which allows surfers to visually check conditions in real-time. This, combined with daily surf reports written by locals, offers a very tangible and immediate sense of the surfing conditions.While Swellnet offers valuable free content, some of the advanced features, like ad-free browsing, extended forecasts, and access to all live cams, require a Swellnet Pro subscription. This might be a deterrent for those not wanting to pay for surf forecasting services.
WindGuruWindguru offers a plethora of data points, including wind speed and direction, wave height, temperature, and more. It is especially detailed in its wind forecasts, which is crucial for wind and kite surfers. Some users find its interface to be cluttered and not as intuitive as it could be, especially for first-time visitors. The density of information can be overwhelming for those unfamiliar with meteorological data.
YeeewYeeew’s surf report offers a comprehensive breakdown of expected surf conditions for multiple days, catering to both immediate and future planning needs.The data presentation can appear cluttered, potentially making it challenging for users, especially beginners, to quickly interpret the information.
Top Surf Forecast Apps

Embracing the Rhythms of the Ocean

super clean fun barrel

Wave forecasting, in essence, is our bridge to understanding the ocean’s moods. It equips us to ride the waves confidently and deepens our bond with nature.

As we stand on the brink of a new era with advancing technologies and increasing awareness of our environment, we must ask ourselves:

How will the future of wave forecasting evolve? And how can we, as surfers, adapt and contribute to these changes?

Your experiences, challenges, and insights matter. So, as you dive into the world of wave prediction, remember every surfer adds a unique perspective to this vast ocean of knowledge.

Have you ever encountered an unexpected wave scenario despite a forecast? Or perhaps you’ve discovered a local nuance often overlooked in general predictions?

Share your wave forecasting stories with us. Let’s ride these waves of knowledge together.

Your Wave Forecasting Exercise

  1. Daily Swell Analysis:
    • For one week, make it a habit to check the surf forecast every morning.
    • Note down the predicted swell size, direction, and period.
    • At the end of the day, compare your observations if you’re at the beach or check a reliable surf report to see how accurate the morning forecast was.
  2. Wind’s Effect on Waves:
    • Choose a day with varying wind conditions.
    • Observe or check how the waves change with shifts in wind direction and speed.
    • This will give you a firsthand understanding of how onshore and offshore winds impact wave quality.
  3. Tide Tracking:
    • For a few days, monitor the tides and correlate them with the quality of waves.
    • Note when the best waves occurred — was it during high tide, low tide, or somewhere in between?
  4. App Test:
    • Download two of the recommended surf forecasting apps.
    • Compare their forecasts for the same day and spot.
    • Over time, you’ll get a sense of which app resonates more with your local conditions.
  5. Engage with the Community:
    • Join a local surfers’ group or online forum.
    • Engage in discussions about wave forecasts, share your insights, and learn from others.

Your Forecasting Checklist

Before heading out for a surf session, run through this checklist:

  • Swell Analysis: Check the size, direction, and period.
  • Wind Conditions: Ensure it’s favorable for your chosen spot.
  • Tidal Movements: Is it optimal for your surf location?
  • Local Factors: Are there any events, disruptions, or local nuances to be aware of?
  • Safety First: Always inform someone about your surfing plan and ensure you’re surfing within your limits.


SwellA series of mechanical waves that propagate along the interface between water and air.
Swell SizeA measure indicating how tall the waves will be, typically provided in feet or meters.
Swell DirectionIndicates the path the waves have travelled to reach a particular location, usually given in degrees or cardinal points.
Wave PeriodThe time it takes for two consecutive waves to pass a fixed point, usually measured in seconds.
GroundswellLong-period waves born from distant storms, offering smoother and more powerful rides.
WindswellShort-period waves generated by local winds, typically choppier in nature.
Offshore WindWind blowing from the land towards the ocean. It can help in creating cleaner and well-shaped waves.
Onshore WindWind blowing from the ocean towards the land, which can lead to choppy conditions.
Tidal MovementsThe periodic rise and fall of sea levels caused mainly by the gravitational forces exerted by the moon and the sun.
El NiñoA climatic event characterized by the warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, impacting global weather patterns and surf conditions.
Meteorological BuoysFloating devices placed in oceans to record various data like wave height, wave period, and sea surface temperatures.
Point BreakWaves breaking along a headland or point, offering longer rides.
Reef BreakWaves that break over coral or rock reefs.
Beach BreakWaves breaking directly over sandy terrains.
Forecasting Terminolgy

If you’re interested in learning more Surfing terminology, I think you’ll find this article helpful.

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