Go Surf is a surf school. So it’s not only our aim to teach our students the art of surfing, but also to transfer knowledge about the beach and ocean environment.
One big aspect of surfing is the spotcheck. You've probably seen surfers analysing the ocean from the lookout point or running up to the top of dunes to have a look at the waves. This is exactly what we want to talk about. After a while you will be able to check the conditions almost subconsciously, but when learning to surf it makes it a lot easier if we stick to an itinerary.
So, what’s the whole point of checking conditions before we paddle out? Well, the main reason is safety! You want to determine the best spot to surf depending on your abilities.
First of all we want to have a look at the wave height. There are several way of measuring how big a wave is. Depending on where you go in the world surfers measure waves in terms of meters or feet, and they will either look at the front or the back of the wave.
So to keep it simple we want to measure the wave height in body height. Imagine an average adult standing on top of the water in the trough of the wave, now we can estimate the wave height by comparing the crest of the wave to man standing in it. For example, a wave could be chest-height or ankle-height or even over head-height. Take your time to have a look at the wave height as it can take up to 10 minutes or more for a bigger set of waves to come through. After estimating the wave height you want to look at the type of wave you’re dealing with. There are two main types of surfable waves:
1. Plunging wave
This type of wave appears when the incoming wave experiences a sudden stop, such as due to a shallow sand bank or reef for. A classic synonym is “dumping wave”. It jags up very quickly and breaks very hollow and powerful. This type of wave is fairly hard to surf in the beginning of your surfing career.
2. Spilling wave
This type of wave is often described as a roller. They appear when the incoming wave meets a sand bank or reef that becomes very gradually shallower. So instead of experiencing a sudden stop the wave will decelerate slowly which results in a very mellow breaking wave. This type of wave is a lot easier to surf.
You want to look at both the wave height and the type of wave as this determines wether you want to paddle out into the line-up, stay in the whitewash or maybe even give it a miss all together. The reason is that a rather big wave of the spilling type can be easier to surf whereas a small wave of the plunging type can be very intimidating, dangerous and even counterproductive for your development.
The wind has a massive effect on the waves we want to surf. The two major types of wind are offshore (blowing out to sea) and onshore (blowing towards the beach).
During an onshore the wind blows from the sea towards the land. This results in a very messy wave situation. To understand this we have to talk about where the waves we want to surf actually come from... on a beautiful windless day there are still waves in the ocean. The reason is that those waves were created by strong winds (big storms) thousands of kilometers out to sea. The waves created by this wind travel towards our shores similar to the ripples created by rocks thrown into a pond. By the time those waves reach our coastline they are in a clean order and got grouped into sets of waves. These waves are very clean, powerful and distinct from one another. When there’s a strong local onshore wind on our coast it creates little waves similar to the storms out to sea. This results in the clean swell waves coming from thousands of kilometers away mixing up with messy wind waves. This is why waves with an onshore wind look completely messy and out of order which makes it a lot harder to find a good wave to surf.
But not everything about an onshore wind is bad. It actually favours the spilling type of wave because it pushes the wave down from behind causing the wave to break earlier and mellower.
During an offshore the wind blows from the land out to sea. This wind cleans up all the little wind waves and leaves nothing but the clean swell originating from miles away. So waves will be very distinct and easy to read.
The downside is that this wind favours plunging waves as it blows into the face of the wave causing it to stand up longer and steeper before it finally breaks.
If the wind comes from the side you might find a mix of these two scenarios. Very often there will be a strong lateral current pulling along the coast with the direction of the wind.
To sum it up the most favourable wind is a light offshore wind or no wind at all (glassy conditions) because it makes it easier to read the incoming waves and minimizes the lateral current pulling along the shore.
A rip is a certain type of current, or a body of water going out to sea. In order to understand rips we have to understand what causes them: when unbroken (green) waves travel towards our shore they don’t transport any water, it’s simply energy moving from one water molecule to the next. This is why ships floating on the surface only move up and down but not forward. When those unbroken waves meet an obstacle like a sand bank they get slowed down and build up. As soon as they break (whitewash) they actually push water towards the beach. This water doesn’t just disappear, it has to find a way back out and it does this by finding the way of least resistance. So the body of water moves along the shore until it finds a deeper part in between two sandbanks and rushes out to sea. It acts essentially like a bottle neck.
Since rips get fueled by waves the strength depends on the size and period of the swell and other factors such as the tide, the continental shelf etc.
But why do we look out for rips while doing our spot check? Obviously as a novice surfer rips can represent a hazard we try to avoid. By spotting two rips we can determine the safety of the sandbank which is right in between the two currents.
If you ever get caught in a rip remain calm, stay on your board and paddle perpendicular to the rip along the shore in order get out of it. If you are already quite exhausted you can wait on your board until the rip took you out behind the last breaking waves. This is where the rip will stop and you can make your way around it back to shore.
As an intermediate or advanced surfer who is chasing unbroken waves we want to look for rips to find the easiest way out into the line-up. So we basically do the opposite of what the novice surfer wants to do and jump straight into the rip to use it like an elevator to get out into the line-up.
You can see rips are not a bad thing at all, as long as you know how to handle them.
The tide is the constant change of the water level caused by the moon and the sun.
Depending on where you are in the world there is different types of tides: Daily tide, half-daily tide and mixed tide. All of those tides consist of a high tide (highest water level) and a low tide (lowest water level).
Here in WA we have a mixed tide which is the most complex type of tide. This means that there is no regular pattern in the tide, and the water level as well as the time from one tide to another can vary a lot. This means we always have to look up what the tide is currently doing, a tide chart comes in handy here.
But why is it even interesting to check the tide?
One reason is safety, especially when it comes to surfing rather shallow reefs you want to know how much water is on top of it. Furthermore a wave can be a lot better at a certain tide or might not even break if the tide is wrong. Besides that depending on the amplitude of the tide currents such as rips can be a lot stronger around mid tide which represents a potential danger and can also effect the quality of waves.
The last thing to check is potential dangers and hazards. These can vary depending on the spot and daily weather conditions.
Simply the size of the wave can present a danger when finding yourself accidentally in the impact zone.
You also want to be aware of other surfers, especially at very busy beaches. Try to avoid being behind another surfer at all times and make sure your board is never between you and the wave.
As soon as the water is very shallow we are dealing with the possibility of hitting the bottom. In particular nose diving can be a very risky way of wiping out since you can pierce straight through the water and into the sandbank/reef. If you can control your fall always try to fall flat onto your belly or back and protect your head when resurfacing in case there are others surfing behind you or the wind blows your board back towards you.
Marine life can be another danger you might want to consider. Most people instantly think of sharks - which is not wrong, but very unlikely. Way more likely are cobblers when there's a lot of seaweed or blue bottles after big winter storms.
Furthermore there are other classic beach dangers such as fisherman, boats or jet skis, sunburn, dehydration and cars driving on the beach.
As mentioned above, non of these checks replace talking to locals or life guards as currents can be quite different in some spots or other dangers might not be obvious such as submerged rocks.
Try to go through this check list whenever you visit the beach and you'll be sure to have a fun, and safe, surf.