Assessing Surf Conditions

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Basic how to’s, good surfing practice & understanding common errors & misconceptions in surfing.


In this guide to surfing and self coaching we cover surfing best practices, how to’s & tips for new & developing surfers. Learn techniques used by our surf coaches, delivering surf lessons in Newquay, & discover common errors and clear up misconceptions. Each chapter of the guide highlights different key areas that enable surfers to develop From how to catch more waves to understanding how to judge wave height or how to duck dive, each chapter is crammed with actionable detail to help you understand and improve your surfing. In this chapter, we cover: How to assess surf conditions.


When looking out to sea you are faced with three sections of the ocean in front of you. Whitewater waves, the Impact Zone and the Outback.

Surfing and navigating your way through these distinct sections can be difficult for those not understanding the cycle and role that each section plays.

The White Water – This area is where your fledgeling surfing days begin. Whitewater waves are the first waves that you will notice when looking out to sea and typically are the first waves you will catch when learning to surf.

These aerated white water waves result from larger waves breaking further out to sea and provide consistent, uniform lines of water perfect for getting to grips with the basics of board control, popping up and basic steering.

Here in the white water, surfers will feel safe and within their perceived comfort zones as they practise catching waves from waist height in towards the beach. Perfect for an easy and enjoyable introduction to surfing where new surfers need to form muscle memory through repetition.

With beginner surfers only needing the broken section of the wave, local weather conditions do not have as much of an effect on the quality of waves, making this stage of learning to surf a great deal easier to put in the time and practise.

The Inside or Impact Zone – This section of the surf zone is where all waves turn from green unbroken waves into white water waves and is a place surfers do not want to spend much time. The Impact Zone gives birth to the Giving birth to the classic surfing phrase:

“When the wave breaks here, don’t be there”

The dangers here are obvious as crashing waves break into shallow water, finishing a surfer’s green wave or landing on top of an unsuspecting learner surfer who has ventured out too far.

Always aim to spend as little time in the impact zone as possible!

Outback – The outback is the terminology given for the area of the sea where surfers sit and wait to catch oncoming waves from behind the impact zone. Also known as the ‘backline’ or the ‘line up’, this is the optimum area to sit on your board and catch waves.



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Knowing how to read the surf conditions will help you decide on what surf is suitable for you and your skill set. It’s important to push your boundaries in surfing – but not so much that you scare yourself or what’s worse – feel like you are in the way of other surfers.

Ideally, surfing with a friend that is a further advanced surfer than you will help to build your overall surfing knowledge base and confidence in the surf through providing feedback and coaching tips on your surfing.

When making the decision whether to surf or not, use these questions below to help you assess and remember what the surf conditions are before each surf session.


In this stage, it is important to take some time to assess what the waves are doing and to not just listen to friends or guess.

Building up a memory bank full of different surf conditions and being able to descriptively compare one surf session against the other gives you a very useful mental tool to use each time you head out for a surf.

If put into practice before you venture out for a surf – even if this process takes a matter seconds for you to do, it’s an important process that you will use for many years to come in your surfing life.


Taking a good look at the size of the waves and being able to give them an accurate measurement is possibly the most important question to answer and is often the first question on surfer’s minds when arriving at the beach.

More experienced surfers will use the measurement of feet to describe wave height. This method, when used by new or developing surfers, can create unnecessary confusion and incorrect wave hight guesstimates.

‘Keep it simple and use your body as the measure for realistic wave size guide’

Example: From the trough of the wave to the top of the wave – What height would the top of the wave realistically be level with? Waist high, chest high, head high, overhead? Remember modesty is a virtue.

This method of describing wave height is far more accurate than using feet, as one surfer’s interpretation of a 3ft wave can be very different from the next. Much like fisherman’s tales, surfers love to exaggerate.

Further reasoning for using body height to measure wave height is that most new or developing surfers will typically only surf waves that are head height or under and will find describing waves within this range more practical to their personal surfing.

The benefit of accurately describing wave height allows you develop a set of standards and understanding of what size waves you are comfortable in and what you are not comfortable in. Something that will mean a lot to you as you progress through your surfing career.


Knowing what the tide is doing is vital for many reasons. For this section, we are concentrating on how the tide will affect the form and shape of the waves.

High tide waves are generally fatter and more rolling.

Low tide waves are generally steeper and faster.

(Check out more about tides and how they affect waves in our Guide to Tides)

Understanding what kind of waves you might expect because of the current tidal state or forecast tide prior to being in the water is often something that is overlooked by new or developing surfers.

Example: If it is high tide, waves are fuller or fatter and so you may need to paddle a little harder to get into the waves, maybe there is less of surf zone at high tide and so you will expect to fight for your waves more.

Thinking of the effects that the tide may have on the waves is useful for judging current surf conditions and expected conditions that may change as your surf session progresses.


As you look out to sea try to place the wind direction, it’s strength and how it is affecting the waves.

When describing the wind and its effect on the sea surfer’s use the wind strength descriptive followed by the wind direction.

Wind strength – How strong is the wind? Light, moderate, strong or even gusting. Give the wind a strength description to help you build up a pattern of conditions and how they affect the surf.

Cross-shore – This means when looking out to sea the wind is blowing across the beach from either the left or the right.

Depending on the strength of the wind this will have a ruffling effect on the sea and the tops of the waves as they begin to break, causing them to deform or break uncharacteristically making waves harder to read and surf.

Cross-shore wind may also have an effect on your positioning in the lineup. A cross shore wind may blow you out of position whilst waiting for waves. If the wind is moderate/strong this can be worth factoring into where you will position yourself in the surf.

Onshore – This wind direction means that the wind is blowing into your face when looking out to sea. Not particularly favoured by the majority of surfers as a moderate onshore wind will force the waves to break sooner than they would naturally, pushing the waves flat before they can break than if there were no wind, making surfing very hard or not possible.

Offshore – Perhaps the most favoured wind direction for surfers, offshore wind will be blowing from behind you as you look at to sea. Offshore winds will have a positive effect on the waves by grooming or smoothing the wave face and holding the waves up due to the opposing directions of the wind and the waves, making waves easier to read and to surf.

Once you have some good answers to your three questions you will be able to describe the waves accurately, have a good level of expectations and draw some meaningful conclusions for your surf session.


Before you step out into the surf, always ask yourself: How big are the waves, What is the tide doing, What is the wind doing.

For example, if the waves are head high, it’s high tide and strong offshore you can expect to be on the edge of your wave height comfort zone, will need to sit closer into the inside as the waves are fatter and paddle hard to overcome the strong offshore wind.

Action: Repeating this exercise so that you build up a memory bank full of different surf conditions will give you a confidence boost and is a great mental tool to use when faced with a particular set of conditions that you know will challenge you.

By having the memory to recall similar or more challenging conditions will give you assurance and settle your nerves when paddling out.

Combine the answers to these three questions along with commonly used surf terms and you’ll be able to give an accurate description of the surf conditions in a way that makes sense to your surf session and other surfers.

“The waves are around waist to chest high, it’s mid to high tide, the waves are little bit fat with a light onshore wind”

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