How to read a surf report

There are a few things you must understand in order to predict what the waves will be like at your home break. This includes, geography, tides, wind, and waves. Each of these will differently impact how the waves are at the beach.


Additionally, you need to really understand the weather – Weather is important to surfers.  The weather determines if there will be waves, what they will be like, and fun it’s going to be.  Surfers need to watch their local weather and also check the ocean weather to monitor storms, hurricanes, or other factors that may affect the surf conditions.


Type of surf reports:


Cameras – Are great because they let you see if there are waves, although they can be very misleading. A wave on a camera can be much smaller or larger than it appears in the water. But overall cams do a great job of giving you a good look at the ocean.


Computer generated – Much like predicting the weather, these reports, from various websites attempt to determine what the waves will be like for you. They are very useful but rarely exact because they do not usually take into factors at your local break. I always try to look at several to triangulate the data between them. Keep in mind all of these reports are taking data from the same place – NOAA and interpreting it.


People/Visual Reports – These are reports from people who have visually looked at the break and/or are interpreting the report for you. These are the best reports because they are live someone is telling you exactly what it’s like.


Things you will find in reports and how to interpret it:



The wind can make waves large or small, usually referred to as wind swell.  In general, ideal surfing conditions can be described as a calm ocean, with 4-5ft waves, and light offshore wind that is usually less than 7 mph.  Strong offshore winds (10mph and above) tend to make wind swell waves smaller by blowing them down but still keeping them clean.  Onshore winds can make the ocean very rough and dangerous. Even 10mph winds can make the ocean choppy with a moderate amount of rip currents.  Most surfers will not surf when there are very strong onshore winds due to the choppy conditions and dangerous currents.  Winds can make a surf spot good or bad depending on the geography of your beach. For instance, if your beach is facing east, like most spots in the U.S. east coast, you would want offshore or west winds. However you need to learn the geography for your break and how the wind affects it. Just as an example, a light north wind to make my local break choppy but 30 minutes up the road will be extremely clean from that north wind and its vice versa on a south wind.



Storms can affect the waves. Hurricanes, cyclones, and even regular storms can significantly affect the waves. Only experienced surfers should go into the water when there is a hurricane or storm swell. When there is large storm swell, the ocean will do some crazy things and create weird currents, thus you really need to understand a surf spot before entering the water during these conditions.


Wave size

This can be measured in feet or measured by body parts, i.e. waist, stomach, chest, head. These give you a general idea of what the waves will look like. When looking at wave height, you have to remember that each beach break will react differently to swell sizes, so if a buoy is reading 2 foot waves, waves at your beach could be 0-4 feet depending on the way your break handles 2 foot waves.



Each break is different and has different types of waves based on the tide. Tides can be low, high, or mid (slack tide). Low tide sometimes produces very shallow water that can be dangerous and high tide is sometimes too deep for the waves to break or they break too close to shore. However, some breaks have good waves no matter what tide it is. The ocean tides are affected by the moon. When there is a full or high moon, the high tide is the highest and the low tide is the lowest. Thus waves can be affected by the depth of the water or tide swing.



You must know the geography. You should be aware of rock, jetties, sandbars, etc. These will help you pick the best surfing spots. In the east, sandbars are usually our best option, or near certain jetties. In other parts of the world reef creates waves that tend to break very consistently.



Longer periods usually mean good waves. Longer periods are 8+. Short periods, such as 4-6, usually mean junky waves. However, each break responds differently to periods. The longer the period the more energy is built up by the wave so longer period usually = bigger and better.


Putting it together….

In order to understand the reports, you need to put everything together for your local break. For instance, the cams can show you if there are waves. Next I usually look at swell size. 2ft waves can mean different things at different spots, so you need to know how your beach handles those types of waves. But in general, if they are 2ft or thigh high, there are waves. Next I look at the wind. If the wind is offshore, that is a good sign. I also look at its speed. If it is strong, say 10 miles an hour and onshore, then I know it will be choppy and not good. If it is 2mph and onshore, the onshore winds will have little effect and it may be good. Next I look at the tides. I generally try to go out in between tides, but low tide is ok too if is a deeper low tide and high tide is ok when the waves are bigger – please note this is for my break only. Next I look at other reports and any reports made by people observing the break. If everything meshes together, I have a really good idea of what to expect, what boards to bring, etc. Although, even after all of this I have still been surprised when I gotten the beach, and sometimes even more surprised when I paddled out. The best reports are by those who are out there surfing. And unfortunately for those of us in the east coast, the waves can change in minutes from good to terrible.

Check out the following links to learn more about how to read a surf report. The sources do an excellent job providing the nuts and bolts to reading a report. Having said that, the best way is to check out your home break every day and learn how different variables (swell size, swell direction, wind, tide, etc) affect it.

Learn to read a surf report: