Surfing

Knowing your field: Tides, breaks, swells, and the rhythm of the wave.

© Transworld Surf/PhotoBrent
Part two of Surfing with Wings – your guide to learning to surf.
By Cam HassardPublished on
So you’re ready to hit the swell and start riding the big ones. The ocean beckons and glory awaits… you’re staring out over the sun-drenched point… but there’s a problem: you have no idea how to read the waves.
Realisation gives way that you don’t know the first thing about tides or swells, or how to go about riding a piece of fiberglass over them. What even is a wave? What causes them in the first place? The plot thickens.
Following on from Episode One of Surfing With Wings, today we’re taking a look at the basics of the “field”: everything you need to know about tides, breaks, swells, and how to read the rhythm of the water.
Like a pro
Like a pro

Waves 101 with The Surfing Sage

First thing’s first. As lifelong surfer and resident of Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula Craig Regan will tell you… catching a wave, and riding a wave, are two very different things.
“The thing about surfing is… riding a wave is easy. Catching a wave is hard.”
Regan grew up in 1970s in Sydney, honing his skills as a young grommet on the local northern beaches. Travelling the world with his boards (repeatedly through Europe and the US in a kombi van), he also once frequented with American legend and renowned champion ‘Malibu’ Mike Doyle.
For Regan, the art of catching a wave is all to do with positioning, and timing – and for this you need to know what to look for.
“You’ve gotta know where to sit at the wave, which relates to the formation of the wave and where it’s going to break. That’s the art form. When you look at the pros like Slater and Mick Fanning and all that, they’re masters of reading the wave as it comes into the beach. They can pinpoint the right place to catch that wave – and they’ll catch it way earlier than anyone else.”
So what ingredients do we need to consider in order to get ourselves in the perfect position? Let’s start by going over some key terms.
Cyclone season
Cyclone season

Know Your Swell

We’ve all seen a wave in action, rolling in off the coast, tumbling into whitewash onto the sandy shore. But what about, say, swell. What is swell, and how does it affect our ride?
“Swell is the pulse that gets shot out across the water from a low pressure system,” says Regan. Low pressure means “a storm” or a similar weather event out in the ocean, which causes ripples that pulse energy all the way to shore in the form of waves.
“The extreme case of all that is when you watch a cyclone come off the coast of Queensland and subsequently all of Australia’s surfers fly to Noosa or The Gold Coast, where they wait for the pulse to crash into the beach,” adds Regan. “It might take a day or two, but that’s the kind of swell you wait for – you’re in for some good waves.”
Within this there are two kinds of waves – set waves, and what Regan calls “random” waves.
“Sets come in intervals that vary depending on the swell. If it’s a ‘ground swell’ (meaning it comes from far out in the ocean), it travels and forms a really nice line and wraps into the coast; a wind swell on the other hand is a junky, messy wave that gets thrown in to the coastline by a nearby storm.”
“Sets that hit the shore in intervals of five to ten minutes are the sets that you wait for – that sort of interval means it’s going to be a good swell.”
The perfect wave
The perfect wave

Rhythm of the Tides

Of course, swell responds differently depending on the volume of water on the shoreline: whether there’s more, or less, water covering the shorelines. In other words, when the tide is high or low.
Tides are formed by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun on our spinning planet. The moon exerts a strong influence, pulling at the earth and making it “bulge” at the point closest to it. Our ocean water thus draws towards that bulge, a point of “high” tide. The point opposite from this bulge, on the other side of the planet, experiences “low” tide.
High and low tides form a daily rhythm in the earth’s 24-hour rotation – there is a lot more to it than that, but that’s the gist. Sometimes there’s more or less water covering the shore, and it’s all got to do with the pull of the moon.

For deeper details, check out Coach Brent at iSURFTRIBE:

It begs the question: should we aim to surf at high tide or low?
According to Surfline forecaster Jonathan Warren, either could be better depending on the spot – when the tide is too high, the waves could easily break on themselves, becoming too slow or “mushy”. If the tide is too low, it might “suck the life out of the swell,” leading to an equally dud ride.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning other crucial variables in this mix – like how the wave actually breaks on the shore, whether it’s a point, reef or beach break.
Once you start spending more time in the ocean and understanding the different breaks that you frequent, you’ll quickly start to understand how all of these factors affect where you’re surfing – and what tide suits each wave.
We’ll be revisiting more Waves 101 in a few weeks, taking a look at how ‘breaks’ enter the mix. But first, we need to get suited up, boarded up, waxed up, and prepare to dip our toe into the drink. Up next: Gear.