Time to get in the water again as the ground has thawed and there have been some nice clean waves rolling in with the sun shining.
Time to head out to surf as the temps. are record breaking right now for this time of year. Small clean waves and full sun make it a great time to learn to surf or get out there and get some rides for the more seasoned surfers.
This time of year we pull out the extra thick wet suits, hoods, booties and gloves when we head out to the beach. Whether you are learning to surf or are a seasoned pro, you know that the storms roll in each fall and bring beautiful waves and smaller crowds to your favorite local surf spots. It’s a treat to be out in the lineup in the cold weather yet be fully protected from the cold and elements by having the right wet suit and surf accessories.
The Wave Period, which is reported by every major surf condition reporting web site, tells the time it takes for two wave peaks to pass by. Essentially it’s telling how far apart the waves are, but it’s measured in the time it takes for two to go by rather than the true distance between.
So why is this important? The wave period, rather than the wave size, really defines the quality of the wave. The longer the period, the faster the wave is moving. The faster the wave is moving, the more powerful the wave is and the “deeper” the wave is beneath the surface of the water. As “deep” waves approach land, they are pushed up, making a larger wave.
So for example, a wave that is 2 feet tall and a 4 second period will likely have about a 2 foot face when it hits shore. But give a 2 foot wave a 10 or 12 second period and it will likely have more like a 4 foot face when it hits the shore.
The wave period is also a rough measure of how far the wave has travelled. If you look at your local wave buoy on a windy day you’ll likely see what the “normal” wave period for wind waves created by local winds is. To look for good waves to surf, you’ll want to look for waves with a longer period than the “normal” waves. This indicates that the waves are likely to be coming from a more powerful storm further away.
So, a good rule of thumb is that it’s more important to look at wave period than wave height to see if there is some surfable swell coming through.
Ok, so we all know that wind makes waves. But you’ve probably noticed that wind can make really messy, choppy waves or nice, clean, glassy waves. Ideally you want there to be a TON (like hurricane strength) of wind VERY far away from you and no wind or at most moderate winds blowing offshore (toward the face of the waves) where you’re surfing. High winds far away generate waves that are strong enough to travel the long distance to you. Having no wind where you’re surfing makes these big, powerful waves glassy.
These strong waves from far away are called “swell” or “ground swell” whereas waves generated from local winds are called “wind waves”. While wind waves are sometimes surfable, they’re definitely not the conditions you want to surf if you have the choice.
The impact of Offshore vs. Onshore Winds for Surf Conditions
As I mentioned above, the only thing better than no wind locally is to have offshore winds. Offshore winds tend to stand the waves up and hollow them out but still leave them relatively clean. Since winds blow from areas of high pressure (nice weather) to areas of low pressure (crummy weather) you can often get really nice offshore winds if there is a powerful storm offshore generating strong waves, but nice sunny weather at the beach.
Onshore winds tend to knock the waves down, but also generally will make the waves very choppy and messy.
Surfing Hurricane Bill waves in August 2009
On the Sunday when Hurricane Bill went by the northeast coast the NOAA buoys were reading 12′ with a 16 second period (we’ll talk about period in another post). This translates into a 16′ to 18′ wave face when it hits the shore. Plus it was great weather on land generating very strong offshore winds. It was a spectacular day! It was the closest thing to a Pacific wave that we’ve seen in the northeast in a long time!
Having the right waves to learn in will largely determine the likelihood of success or failure for your surf session. When you get a day with the right waves you’re going to feel like a hero. When you go out on a day with the wrong waves (which you will at some point) you’re going to say “oh man, I was doing so well the other day. what happened to me?”
So, here are the conditions you generally want to learn in:
Small waves (knee high or so)
Low winds, preferably blowing offshore
Long period – this will depend on your spot, but if you watch the wave periods where you are, try to get waves that are longer period than the norm for your location
More on why these are the right conditions in later posts.
When I was first learning to surf, I wasted a trip to Hawaii paddling for dozens of waves and catching none before I figured out that where you’re lying on the board when paddling for a wave makes ALL the difference in the world.
Picture a surfboard and rider on a wave being like a see-saw. In order to catch the wave you have to tip the see-saw down the face of the wave. If you’re too far back on the board, although you’ll avoid “pearling” (burying the nose) you won’t tip the see-saw down the wave and the wave will just pass you by.
One way to tell if you’re too far back is to notice the position of the nose of your board when you’re missing a wave. If you’re paddling like crazy but not catching a wave, most likely you’ll notice that the nose of your board is sticking straight out into thin air rather than pointing down the face of the wave. This means you’re not far enough forward on the board to catch the wave and/or you don’t have enough paddling strength to catch the wave.
The bottom line is that you want to be as far forward as you can without pearling. This also means that on different waves you need to be further forward or back. If the wave is closer to breaking, you’ll want to be slightly further back. If you’re trying to catch the wave early, well before it breaks you’ll need to be further forward.
The shortboards look awfully sexy and fun watching the pros rip cutbacks and airs don’t they? Just remember that most of them probably started on long, high-volume (wide, thick, long) boards, then worked their way down.
If you want to learn FAST, you want a board that is plenty floaty for your height and weight. For most adults that means a longboard, at least 9′ long. And when you’re looking at longboards, remember that you should choose a longboard that has plenty of width and thickness to it.
We also recommend starting out on one with some rocker in the nose. It’ll make it easier to keep from burying the nose and it’ll make it easier to learn to turn too.
Longer boards paddle easier (meaning it’s easier to catch the wave), and aren’t as tippy once you’re up, so they’re easier to balance. And once you get good enough to move down in length, there is a really strong market for used longboards since there are always a lot of people trying to learn to surf.