Learn more about how to surf before your first lesson or surf camp. Tasty Waves will be publishing a “how-to” guide on our blog with helpful tips & tutorials. This weeks blog will be about finding waves. Stay tuned for more posts.

Obviously the most important element of surfing is the actual wave. If there are no waves, then you are not actually surfing. But where do waves come from and how do we know when they are going to be good?
Large storm swell in Oceanside California

Surfers use a variety of forecasting tools and years of local knowledge to find good waves. They also surf a lot of really terrible days if they are dedicated. Great waves are tricky to find, and often times conditions can be disappointing and not consistent with what was forecasted. Forecasting is extremely challenging because conditions can change minute by minute and many different factors play into finding a truly perfect day. We will discuss a lot of those factors in upcoming blogs, but conditions don’t mean anything if there are no waves. Which brings us back to our main subject…

Where do waves come from?

The short answer is wind. But a lot of people misunderstand the exact relationship wind has to surfing. Many times I’ve been asked if the surf was good because it’s a locally windy day. But the origins of waves are often times hundreds to thousands of miles a way.

Swell

Wind creates a collection of waves called swell. If you remember as a kid blowing across a pond, or bathtub and seeing ripples race across the surface of the water, then you are aware of the concept of swell. When wind from low pressure systems moves across the ocean it will begin to create similar ripples, however unlike the small ripples you saw go across a pond, low pressure systems create large 30-45 foot “ripples” in the ocean called swell.

Learn to surf Swell period chart

South or North Pacific Swell

For surfers in Southern California there are two main locations where swell generates. Swell that is created from low pressure systems in the south Pacific is called “south swell” or “southern hemi swell”, likewise swell that is created in the north Pacific is called “northern hemi” or “north swell”. Typically northern swells occur during the California winter, while southern swell occur during our summer, or the southern hemisphere winter. The waves created by storms far away travel through the ocean until they reach California. When the waves first form during the storm, they are choppy and messy, but the further the wave travels from it’s origin the longer the period between the waves becomes. As the wave period increases the waves become smoother and more consistently shaped. Long period waves are typically from far away and are called “ground swell.”

Learn to surf swell window chart for Oceanside California

Local Windswell & Hurricanes 

Locally in Southern California you can also see “windswell” from local storms blowing offshore. These windswell storms are generally choppy and rough and not very surfable. You can also see “mid-period” swells from Hurricanes circling off of Baja and Central Mexico. Hurricane swells can be some of the most fun days becuase they have incredible consistency and come from a unique “swell-angle” of south by south east.

How do I know what the waves will be like in the morning?

Tracking swells, conditions and surveying local breaks is done by many different surf forecasting apps. The most well-known of these is Surfline. Surfline offers forecasts and daily reports, but one of their most important features is there buoy readouts. Buoys will tell you everything you need to now about the current swell conditions, from angle, period and size. Here is what a typical readout looks like for Oceanside, Ca. For this particular readout you can see that the most significant wave height is 2.0 feet with a period seconds. This 2′ swell is coming in at an angle of 193 degrees or generally from the southwest. This would indicate that this is a southern Pacific swell. Generally southern swells will have a period of 18 seconds to 22 seconds because they come from very far away. However as they fade away the periods will decrease. You will notice the swell below the 2′ swell has a longer period, that is because this is a new swell. Interestingly enough, if you went out to surf today you would probably notice the larger sets coming from the 1.3′ swell, not necessarily the 2.0′ swell.

Below the swell numbers you can see a multi-colored chart. This chart indicates the timeline of each swell in the water. It notes the swell periods in the colored numbers, as well as the total height average in the darker black line.  The darker black line will dip when I knew swell is in the water or general swell direction changes significantly  You can see the Surfline buoy data live here. 

surfline buoy data for oceanside california

How do different swells affect my local break?

Each swell angle and swell period will affect each break differently and some breaks are only exposed to certain swell angles. The two charts below demonstrate how a north swell and a south swell would affect Oceanside. Each swell will uniquely affect the pier and the harbor. During a south swell the north side of the pier tends to get less of the swell along with the north side of the jetty. During a north swell the south sides of the harbor and jetty would get less of the swell. Depending on how big the swell is, each break will be affected differently. Waves refracting of the pier and harbor can also play an important factor in the waves shape and consistency.

  learn to surf swell window chart for oceanside california learn to surf swell window chart for oceanside california

What’s The Best Swell To Learn On

For beginner surfers in Oceanside, CA I’d recommend surfing on a smaller swell. Ideally you’d like the buoy reading to be somewhere between 1′ to 2.5′. Any smaller and finding waves will be trickier, any bigger and there might be too much swell in the water. Don’t forget that because waves increase in size before they break, the buoy reading doesn’t indicate the actual wave size. A buoy reading of 2′ might equal waves in 3-5′ range close to shore.  As far as swell angle and direction goes, north or south will be fine.  Keep in mind that south swells tend to be more walled up and because of their longer periods, there tends to be a lot of time between sets. North swells and wind swells will be more consistent and broken up.