How to Read a Surf Report

by Mike McDaniel on December 30, 2011

Farewell, Mr. Collins.
On Monday, the day after Christmas, I was just starting to rough out a draft of this blog entry. At that time, the working title was ‘How To Read a Surf Report’ and it was going to be exactly that. But an unfortunate and oddly coincidental thing happened. The news that Sean Collins—founder of Surfline, the world’s most widely used wave forecasting vehicle—had passed away earlier that day hit my screen. Mr. Collins was only 59 years old and suffered a heart attack while playing tennis. He was well respected and well loved, and considered to be one of the most influential surfers of the past several decades. So, our deepest sympathies go out to his family and friends.

And that changes the nature of this entirely.

I did not know Sean Collins personally, but as a fellow surfer, he’s had an impact on me personally. I started to think about how many times I’ve declined to go looking for waves because ‘the report’ wasn’t good. All that driving around, spared. And then I thought about all the times that I’ve checked the Surfline app on my phone, or the website on my computer—usually within minutes of waking up—and made a fast dash for the beach because the report said, essentially, “waves are going off, better get moving!” I wondered how many individual waves I had surfed simply because the surf report said it was good, or great. I have no idea how many, but it’s more than a thousand. Way more.

So, lets give credit where credit is due, and honor the man who trained himself in meteorology and forecasting, pioneered the concepts of surf forecasting and surf cams, and brought precious information to the surfing masses. His legacy and Surfline will remain, but Sean Collins will be missed by many.

Now About Those Surf Reports
The Ocean is a complicated gal, manifest in her moods and appearances. The factors that determine whether the waves are fun for surfing are many. Just to name a few: swell direction, swell strength, wind speed and direction, wave height, and ‘fetch’. Then factor in localized wind and surface conditions, multiple swell directions and tide, and you have a proper atmospheric mystery to unravel.

But as surfers today, we have it comparatively easy. Most of the information that tells us whether the waves are fun now—or later today—is just a click or two away. Just as fast as it was for you to click open this page, detailed swell forecasts and weather models are just beyond your fingertips. But what you are about to see requires some interpretation.

By The Numbers
For now, we’ll keep it simple and concern ourselves with three main factors that determine the quality of surfable waves for a given location. They are swell direction, swell size, and fetch. Fetch is also known as ‘period.’

Swell direction is pretty straightforward; this is the direction that wave energy approaches a coastline, and is represented by degrees, such as 210º (or SSW). Direction is important because most surf spots favor a certain direction, or several directions, and that’s when the waves will be best there. So, you want to find out what direction your surf spot “likes.”

Swell size seems straightforward, but when you see numbers like 12-17 feet, that doesn’t necessarily mean 12 to 17 foot waves are breaking on the beach. They could be much smaller… or even bigger. It depends on the bathymetry of your surf spot and the location of the buoys that take and deliver the readings. And because of this x-factor, you have to learn to interpret what these numbers mean for YOUR surf spots, over time.

Finally, fetch (or period) is represented as a measurement of time, such as 14 seconds—the time in between the rise and fall and rise again, of a buoy. But for us surfers, it’s an indication of swell strength and quality. A short period, say less than 5 or 6 seconds, usually means choppy conditions and disorganized waves. The longer the period, the higher quality and more ‘organized’ the waves are likely to be. Very long periods of 15 seconds and more generally indicate a powerful, well organized swell with enough energy to maximize the surf potential of a given surf break.

How It Works
All this data is available to forecasters via an elaborate network of buoys and electronics. The data is collected and sent to various government agencies, and then made available online. And then third party forecasters, such as Surfline, reinterpret the data for surfers, giving us an amazing, simplified tool to help us decide when and where to surf, and to anticipate what an unpredictable mother ocean has in store for us.

Surfline app… FREE in iTunes
Also available for Android phones
Our three main factors are presented graphically on websites and smart phone apps, such as the Surfline app. If you check on them regularly, as many of us do, then over time you begin to zero in on the numbers that work for you, your surfing and your favorite spots. Depending on how much time you want to spend online, you will also see more straightforward information presented in simple text. For instance…

Forecast Recap:
Slow fading SSW swell was still good for waist to head high surf and better sets at well exposed spots on Monday, while some new NW groundswell started to show at best exposures of North-Central Mexico.

At Las Olas Surf Safaris, we pay close attention to the forecasts. And when we see a report like this, as we often do—WNW 3-5 feet @ 11 seconds—we know that it’s going to be a fun week at surf camp!

And this week, we are forecasting a fabulous new year of warm waves, good times and new friends in 2012. Come surf with us and you’ll see. Here’s to great waves in 2012!

Mike McDaniel is the Las Olas Surf Safaris Operations Manager and fifteen year veteran of surf travel. With surf missions to Baja, Costa Rica, Japan, Hawaii, Fiji and over 70 safaris in mainland Mexico, Mike’s insights on air travel, surf culture and coastal geography have kept Las Olas’ surf safaris on course for a decade.

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