Beginners guide: Checking the Surf

You’ll see it at every break on almost any day: the surf check. Non-surfers may be perplexed by the act, and ask, “What’s there to look at?” The more time you spend in the water the more nuanced your surf check will become. A solid surf check will set you up for a better session! Here are some tips to get you started checking the surf.

1. Before you go… There are a couple of things that can save you a lot of gas and energy, usually these things can be checked easily in your local newspaper or online.

  • Tides- check to see if the tide is pushing in or backing out. Get a rough idea of the direction of the tide, and it’s hight, by using a tide chart.

  • Swell size- Usually newspapers will report buoy size. This doesn’t translate exactly to the size of the surf due to factors like islands and points; these block swell energy. Chances are however, if the swell size is gigantic it is not the best day for a beginner to hit the surf.
  • Swell Direction- Is usually noted with an abbreviation like North West (NW) South (S) or South West (SW) depending on where the swell originated. Take notes of how this direction effects conditions at your local break. Many surfing guide publications will tell you what direction works best for a break.

Tip: Has it rained lately? Heavy rains lead to a large amount of runoff. Surfers should pay attention to this as it can have drastic effects on water quality. Poor water quality=greater chance of getting sick! If a heavy rain hits try to wait at least 48 hours before surfing, especially near creek and river mouths.

2. Arriving at your break… From the size of waves to the action of currents, pay special attention to how other surfers interact with conditions.

Hey bros, where's the party at?

  • Is the parking lot full? If this is the case the surf may be especially good. You can often “guestimate” what conditions are like without even leaving your car!
  • How tall are the waves? Surfers often refer to wave heights in terms of human sizes. A “head high wave” is about 5ft tall. A “waist-chest high wave” is 3-4ft tall and so on. See the chart above for more info. “Double” and “triple” overhead waves are 10ft and 15ft tall respectively. These are to be avoided by beginners!
  • Check for rip-tides and long-shore current action. For safety info check out this post on rip-tides. Long shore currents move parallel to a shore, they can be as strong as rivers. Can other surfers sit calmly outside the break, or are they paddling as if they were on a conveyer belt?
  • Where’s the party? Usually surfers will gather into “packs” where the best waves are breaking. However, sometimes it is best to avoid the pack if you don’t feel like competing for waves.
  • Who’s the party with? Is the pack comprised of casual long-boarders or ripping shortboarders? This can say a lot about conditions. Search for a vibe that suits you best.

If you’ve got any tips for checking the surf let us know on Facebook. Check out this Nice Rack post to learn the effects of tide-action on surf conditions! Enjoy your next trip to the beach!

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