Newquay Learn to Surf | Theory Basics
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Newquay Learn to Surf | Theory Basics


In this article, we cover a few topics which come under the heading of surf theory. If you are curious about how waves are formed, why waves break and what the difference is between onshore and offshore winds then this is the Learn to Surf Theory for you.

Once you have completed reading this learn-to-surf theory why not book a surfing lesson?

Our surfing lessons in Newquay are a fantastic introduction to surfing. The lessons cover everything you need to know to keep you safe when surfing. So although the surf lessons give you plenty of information about surf safety, how to control your surfboard and of course how to stand up and ride the waves back to shore, there's so much more to surfing.



If you are interested in more in-depth surf theory you can check our Beginners' Guide to Surfing.


What is Swell?

The word Swell can be said to have two meanings.

1.  Ground swell: Created by low pressures, wind and storms far out at sea, generating energy across the surface of the ocean from downward air pressure. Thus forming swells which can then travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles along the bottom of the sea bed (ground), before they reach their destination and break into waves.

2.   Local wind swell:  Created again by low-pressure systems and winds, although, in this instance a lot closer to shore. Local wind swells are not as desirable for surfing or surf lessons as ground swells due to the local wind only whipping up the sea for a short distance (or amount of time) making the eventual breaking waves known as weak or inconsistent compared with a ground swell which can result in consistent, defined, quality waves lasting up to several days.

 Large waves are created by large low-pressure weather systems out to sea.

The larger the depressions out at sea, like hurricanes, the bigger the swell is likely to be and more often than not, generate better quality waves that last for a longer period of time.

How are sets of waves formed?

Like the ripples in a duck pond, the centre of where the storm is formed is where the energy for our waves originate.  The bigger the storm, the bigger waves stronger the wind, the bigger the waves, the better and more consistent the sets of waves will be that break on our shores.

As the energy from the centre of the storm propagates outwards into the ocean, the fast energy lines catch up with the slow ones and slowly start to form a set of waves.  Depending on the distance travelled by the swell, the various local weather systems that precede the initial low pressure, along with several other elements that all come into play will dictate how big, consistent or good that particular swell is.

There are many other complicated factors that all combine into how a set of waves is formed and cannot easily be explained in one simple answer, without referring to other factors such as “wave periods” or “swell direction”.

For more in-depth explanation about wave periods and swell direction check out our chapters in our beginners guide to surfing.

How Do Waves Break | Beach, Reef & Point Breaks

Earlier on ith this article we talk very basically about swell and the two ways that swell is formed out to sea. Now we understand how swell is formed it's important to know how waves break, or more specifically, what causes waves to break. Here we discuss three main types of surf breaks all of which can differ massively from surf spot to surf spot.

As a swell rolls in towards the coastline and its shallow shores, we start to see the swell slowly change shape and form into a breaking wave. Given desirable wind and tidal conditions, these waves can then become suitable for oceangoers to ride.

This formation of waves is due to the swell travelling from deep water into shallow water, as the sea bed becomes increasingly steeper (shallower) the closer you get to the shoreline. This water or swell has nowhere to go but up, creating the breaking waves we see on the beach. 

What lies on the sea bed has a massive effect on how the waves break. Below is a simple overview of the three most common types of surf break (sea bottom) The clue is in the name.



One of the most widely found types of surf break and probably what we all think of when referring to or surfing is a beach break.

As the name implies, beach breaks refer to the surface of the sea bed, which in this case is constantly changing due to underwater currents shifting and moving the sand around.  When a build-up of sand is formed this creates a shallow area in the sea bed and forces swell to break into waves above.  Surfers refer to this build-up of sand as sand banks.

One of the many plus sides of a beach break is the flat friendly sand bottom which often lends itself to surf lessons as well as learning to surf, and beginner and intermediate surfers looking for fun surf with no real danger of rocks underneath the water

Beach breaks are known to be the least consistent in the way that the waves break due to the sand being able to move around, meaning waves will break or peak in many areas of the beach.  A common phrase that is used when referring to a beach break is “shifty” due to the unpredictable nature of the way that wave breaks.

Famous Beach Break: Fistral Beach, Newquay, Cornwall


A reef break typically means that the sea bed is made up of various rock slabs and coral reefs and is known to be more consistent than the wave count of a beach break due to the immovability of the reef, allowing the swell to break in a similar spot or fashion over and over again.  Often these reefs can be covered by shifting sands that can affect the shape of a breaking wave but still usually produce a better quality and more readable wave than of a beach break.

A plus side of surfing a reef break is the predictable nature of how a wave might break, allowing surfers to easily distinguish where to sit when waiting for a wave.

Famous Reef Break: Popoyo, South Nicaragua


A point break refers to an area where swell comes into contact / hits a point of land or large rock that is jutting out from the coastline at a particularly favourable angle.  This “point” of rock or headland interrupts the swell's direction of travel and forces it to break into a bay.  Fabled for long leg-burning rides point breaks can offer pealing waves in a predictable area allowing the surfer to almost pick his or her depth of take-off or length of ride.

A plus side of point breaks can be the ease of paddling out to the area where a surfer wishes to catch waves, this is due to the bay-like nature of this type of break where catching waves will often be found.

Famous Point Break:  Anchor Point, Morocco

What's the difference Between Onshore & Offshore Winds

In this section, we briefly cover the effect that wind has on green waves in the seas that we surf.

Wind is hugely important to surfers, not only does it generate the waves we eventually ride but it will also have a massive effect on how the waves break on the shore, the quality of the waves we ride and ultimately how often we get surfed.

Offshore wind

Surfers will prefer a light offshore wind, this means that the wind will travel from the land out to sea. This is favourable for beginner surfers and lessons because the effect on the breaking wave is minimal, as the wind blows up the face of the wave (smoothing the area between the trough and peak) thus holding the wave up and making the surface of the sea groomed or smooth. This action gives the surfer an extra few precious seconds to decide on his or her manoeuvre as they surf the wave.

A common phrase used by surfers when describing an offshore wind is “clean”., meaning the waves are easier to predict or read. This is due to the short distance the wind travels on the sea before it reaches the breaking waves.

  Outer Reef, Popoyo – Nicaragua

Onshore winds.  

Onshore means the wind is blowing from the sea onto the land.

This onshore wind can affect waves by forcing the crest of a wave to “crumble” or break before the wave would naturally. The stronger the onshore wind the quicker this action happens. Making judging or selecting a good wave harder to spot or read, as this wind affects the whole shape and quality of a wave.

Generally, this is bad news for surfers as it is now harder to predict where a wave will break or peak, and once up and riding this wind makes the wave face bumpy and uneven, giving birth to the term “messy” or “mushy”.



When a surfer paddles to catch and ride a wave, he or she is attempting to read or anticipate how a wave might break before a wave peaks or breaks. This decision leads on to the surfer’s choice of direction to travel and can affect the range of comfortable manoeuvres that he or she may attempt on that wave.

Step 1.  Spot the peak early.

Step 2.  Match the pace of the wave before it peaks.

Step 3. Keep your eye on the wave

Step 4. Take control



  • Look both ways before popping up.
  • Show direction of travel when paddling for a wave.
  • Always read the direction of travel as if it was you surfing the wave. This is opposite from when standing on the beach.
  • When paddling back out to the line-up, paddle to the opposite direction of travel from the oncoming surfer.


Learning to surf

Embarking on the learn-to-surf journey often begins not on the crest of a wave, but with an understanding of surf theory. While the allure of the crashing waves may seem irresistible, grasping the fundamentals of wave dynamics, ocean safety, and board handling will prove indispensable in the future. Surf theory lays the groundwork, teaching aspiring surfers the science behind wave formation, whilst our surf lessons help bring the physical movements into play all helped by our seasoned surf coaches.

If you are thinking about learning to surf in Newquay you can book your lessons online or get in touch and we can help arrange an itinerary to suit your needs.