Reading Surf Charts And Forecasting Waves

By Owen Pye

Of the myriad ways the internet has improved our lives (such as allowing you to buy a new board and have it delivered to your house before breakfast tomorrow, or watching endless clips of pro riders putting on a clinic) surf forecasting is surely one of the most important for any waveriders.

For years, we had to make sure we caught the TV weather report each night to catch sight of any creeping low pressure systems out at sea, before trawling through Ceefax for the daily reports. (Don’t know what Ceefax was? You can Google that now.)

But the nature of reading the charts and understanding the relationship between distant storms and the size and shape of the waves at your local break in three days’ time hasn’t changed.

In a nutshell, wind powers waves. Ripples over the surface of the water merge into other ripples, and as they move, they form order. These sets of ripples gather size and power the longer and harder the wind blows, becoming travelling swell. These swell lines take on a powerful energy of their own, rolling silently through open ocean, ready to strike land.

Long-distance swell, known as groundswell, has a longer period and generally a greater height. These swell lines can travel thousands of miles and pack a punch when they hit the coast – each wave has more water in it, and can either produce all-time conditions; close-out an entire beach as it can’t handle it; or miss tucked-away spots altogether, as they’re less able to find nooks and crannies which may be hidden from the prevailing swell direction.

By contrast, windswell is shorter-period swell, created locally to where you are, generally creating peaky, less powerful but more plentiful conditions. These can find all parts of the coast, and while not stacking the beach with swell-lines to the horizon, can still provide excellent bowly waves on beaches with good banks.

Throw tides into the mix too, and you’ll soon have all the ingredients you need to get good at reading how your local beach will be breaking.

It’s a combination of understanding the charts, seeing how swells develop, where they develop, the direction they’re travelling, the period they’re running at, and the size they’re reaching. How this then reacts to your coastline, which beaches can handle it, which can’t, as well as lining it up to the best tidal range for any particular spot, and you’ll soon be scoring far more consistently.

It’s basically doing your homework – the greatest racing drivers don’t rock up at the track on the day of the race to figure it out, they’ve analysed it ahead of time and know what they’re looking at.

To help, check out this YouTube video [insert link] with US bodyboarding legend Jay Reale to understand how to read the charts.
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