|Trends in surf height help to identify potential days to surf. As a beginner, 2 to 3 foot waves are ideal conditions for learning. Be sure to remember surf height is a prediction and can vary widely from what you read online and what you see at the beach. Because surf height is a prediction and often inaccurate, you also want to pay attention to the swell height, period, and direction.
Swell is measured by NOAA and thus more accurate. The larger the swell height, the bigger the waves generated at the beach. Also, the longer the period the bigger the waves and more importantly the more powerful the waves will be when breaking. For example,
- “2 feet at 4 seconds” is an insignificant wave.
- “4 feet at 10 seconds” may be surf-able and could create beginner friendly conditions depending on the break.
- “5 feet at 16 seconds” is surf-able and could be tons fun depending on the break and your skill level.
- Add a large swell to a large period (16 feet at 20 seconds) and you can anticipate massive surf – think Mavericks!
If large, long period northwest or west swell is predicted for the coast of California. A good beginner break will be one facing south. By the time the swell wraps in from the northwest or west, much of the energy will have dissipated and the size of the waves will be smaller. Alternatively, if the swell is coming from the southwest a good beginner break may be one that faces northwest.
Wind direction and strength impact conditions. Two quick definitions:
- Onshore wind – wind blowing from the ocean toward the shore
- Offshore wind – wind blowing from land toward the ocean
An onshore wind often creates chop and small wind waves degrading conditions. An onshore wind can also make waves break earlier. Alternatively, a gentle offshore breeze (less than 10 knots) can remove surface chop and slow a breaking wave making it easier to surf. Be aware that a strong offshore wind can make it difficult to catch waves. I prefer to surf in winds less than 10 knots and stay home if the forecast is for winds stronger than 15 knots.
Conditions vary with the change in tide. When you are starting out, mid-tide is a safe bet for decent conditions. Low tide can be shallow and rocky, while high tide often flattens out the surf. The ideal tide height for optimal waves depends on the break.