How to Read a Surf Report

In the olden days, surfers would have to grab their board and head down to the beach to see if there were waves to surf. Using their eyes, can you imagine?

Now, with the magic of surf reports, you can get a pretty good idea of what the waves will look like for the next week without having to leave the house.

Surf reports are generated using information from sophisticated equipment that tracks variables like the weather and ocean activity.

Based on this information, you can model how the wind, swell and tides will behave and get an accurate idea of how surfable the waves will be. Pretty cool.

What does a surf report look like?

Surf reports take the form of charts, full of numbers that indicate the elements at play.

Above, you can see an example of a daily surf report for Playa Encuentro, taken from Magic Seaweed. The chart shows how the the day will progress in terms of wave height, wind speed and direction, swell direction and rating, and weather.

How do I interpret the chart?

Learning to interpret surf reports to accurately predict what the waves will be like on a given day takes a lot of practice.

You need to take note of what the varying factors look and feel like, what it feels like to be out in a medium cross-shore wind at low tide, so you can gain a sense of how the numbers translate into real life.

You’ll gradually learn what are the ideal conditions for you to have an epic surf session. It’s all about experience.

Having said that, there are some things that will help speed up your journey to becoming the ultimate surf report reader.

Swell height and period

You might see a wave height of 0.7m on the surf report. While this may seem small, you need to look at the period to know the power of that 0.7m wave.

A period indicates the time interval between waves. Technically, it’s the time for two successive wave crests to pass a fixed point. But you can think of it as a measure of how spread out the waves will be.

A long period, say of 15 seconds, tells you that the waves are more spaced out and were likely formed in a ground swell. They travel a large distance to get to shore and gain more speed and power on the way.

Short periods, say of 5 seconds, mean the waves are likely to be caused by wind from a nearby storm. They haven’t travelled as far and will be less powerful.

So, a 0.7m wave height with a 15s period could mean great, surfable waves, whereas the same 0.7m at 5s could spell a weak flop.

The swell direction will also affect how the waves come in and break.

Wind speed and direction

Wind is generally undesirable for surfers. A windless, glassy day is the dream.

The best thing to do to minimize wind affecting your surf is to get out early. Wind tends to pick up speed over the course of the day.

That’s why in Cabarete we surf and SUP before 10am then switch to kiteboarding and windsurfing after the wind picks up at around 11am. It’s good to have options.

As well as the speed, the direction of the wind is important to note when reading a surf report.

On shore wind blows from the ocean towards the land. Most often, these are not ideal for surfers, since on shore winds can break up the surface of the water and make it choppy and difficult. It also usually lowers the wave height and neatness.

A light off shore breeze, on the other hand, creates much better surfing conditions. Off shore wind blows from the land out to sea, and allows for nicer, better groomed waves to form.

The breeze catches the face of the wave and holds off the break a little, so the wave is smooth and is more likely to break in a barrel shape. These are the waves where you can really get slotted.

Tides

Like werewolves, tides are controlled by the moon. Unlike werewolves, tide behaviour is highly predictable.

There are two low tides and two high tides every day. The way Nature’s clock works means that these high and low points will shift forward every day by 51 minutes. Watch out for super high and super low tides under the full moon.

In Encuentro, we have a reef break which can feel a little iffy at a very low tide. The water gets shallow and you have to take care when you jump off, as the water level might be lower than your waist. If this freaks you out, watch out for low tide.

Some surfers believe it’s best to surf when the tide is on the rise from lower to high because the momentum is coming into shore. This is called a ‘tidal push’.

Others are adamant that the ideal tide varies depending on the break you like to surf, and the interplay of other conditions.

Generally speaking, if the tide is too high, waves will be slow and mushy, especially if they are not high-powered enough. They will tend to break onto themselves in a slushy mess. If the swell is low, they could end up breaking too close to the beach to surf.

If the tide is too low, though, it can suck the power out of the swell, as the water level is too low to carry enough force.

It’s a complicated science, and people definitely disagree on how tide affects surfable waves.

Get out there!

Again, the best thing you can do to become master of the surf report is to get out there and gather experience. Check the numbers, and then go feel out the conditions for yourself.

With practice, you’ll get better at knowing when is the right time for you to surf. Remember, you can always consult with the locals. They have often been surfing the same break for years and understand its behaviour.

Good luck!

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