Welcome to the beginner’s guide for surf forecasts. Taking the time to learn and understand the basics of how to read a surf forecast will help you piece together what you can expect when you arrive on the water. Here we take a look at what makes up a surf forecast and how to read it.
WHAT IS SURF FORECASTING?
Surf forecasting is a collection of meteorological data that has been put through complex algorithms and swell models to predict local surf conditions in advance.
WHERE DOES THE INFORMATION COME FROM?
All surf forecasting websites use at least some of their data from the same source. This source is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
This is a US government funded service and provides the data for free, allowing surf forecasting websites to collate the data and combine it with their own algorithms and swell models. These tools allow them to display it in a way that is useful for surfers.
LEARN THE BASICS
There are a host of surf forecasting websites to choose from. A good place to start is taking a look at a few (see below), and finding one you like the look of. You should choose a site that suits you based on your location and the depth of knowledge you want from it.
Take look through the list below and find a site you feel comfortable with. You should find the layout easy read, even if you don’t quite understand it all yet. How each website displays its data is key to the user understanding what the surf report actually means.
HOW TO READ A FORECAST
KEEP IT SIMPLE
For now, concentrate on the three main areas which will provide you with the most valuable snippets of information.
These bits of information will only prove their value when you can relate what you see on the screen to what you see on the beach; so keep that in mind while you’re reading any forecast.
Once you understand these three basics you can start digging deeper, but we’ll get to that later.
Not to be confused with swell height. Wave height is the average size of the waves you may expect to see at the beach.
Wave height is typically measured in feet although most forecasting sites will allow you to switch between feet and meters.
See a separate guide where we discuss using body parts to measure wave height for easier and often more accurate wave height assessment.
Wind direction is shown by an arrow icon. The direction of the arrow represents the direction the wind has travelled from.
Learning the difference between what a favourable wind direction is (and what isn't) plays a massive role in the quality of the surf.
Wind strength can be just as important as wind direction. Each spot will handle various wind strengths differently. Some areas will be better suited to strong off-shores, others may be protected or sheltered at certain stages of the tide. Generally speaking little or no wind is ideal.
For each 24 hour period there are two high tides and two low tides. Understanding which tidal state suits the beach best, or favours the shape of waves you like to ride, will allow you to plan when to surf.
Some people may prefer waves which are steeper, faster and break quicker. These waves may only occur in certain tidal states.
If you can remember surf sessions where you found the waves hard to catch, too fat and lumpy or waves that did not peal well despite ideal conditions, the tide may have been the influencing factor.
Understanding these three basics and relating what you see online and what you see on the beach is key to managing your expectations and getting to grips with accurately reading forecasts.