Types of Surfing Waves


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There are many types of waves and surf breaks. Waves break in different directions with different personalities and for a myriad of different reasons. Wind and swell directions as well as bottom contour all contribute variables to the nuanced formula that equals the complexity that is a surfable wave.

Winds that blow over a large surface area of the ocean (or any large body of water) begin to push the water in tiny concentric circles that cause a bump in the water. Those bumps act like little sails that catch the wind more and more as they get larger and larger. The duration, speed, and size of the area over which wind blows make up the complex birthing process of waves, but as they approach the shore, things get even more interesting.

Reef Breaks

Reef breaks are waves that break over a coral reef or even a rock slab. Reef breaks are great in terms of quality. They generally peak up and break in the same locations depending on each swell direction. For instance, surfers can predict where and how a wave over a reef will behave on a north swell in contrast to a west swell. Reef breaks normally break hard over shallow water and the hard and often sharp rocks and living reef can be at best intimidating or at worst deadly. Some great reef breaks include Pipeline, Teahupo, and Velzyland.

Many reef breaks break into a channel that was made by the discharge of sand from a river mouth that covers and kills the reef. This can be helpful for surfers as it makes for an easy paddle out to the lineup.

Point Breaks

Point breaks can be sand or reef, but they are characterized by long and winding walls that, after curving around a point of land, hug the shoreline perpendicularly. Point breaks make for dreamy surf experiences. Point waves can break for minutes and miles. They are truly a surfing miracle. Some great examples of point breaks include Rincon, Jeffery’s Bay, and Bells Beach.

Beach Breaks

Beach Breaks are waves that break (sometimes haphazardly) over a sandy bottom. Sand bottom beach breaks move and change due to prevailing swell and wind patterns and can change throughout the year. Beach breaks sometimes stop breaking altogether due to factors like dredging and new jetties. Some great beach breaks include Blacks Beach and Ehuki Beach Park in Hawaii.

Beach breaks are often made by the discharge of sand from a river mouth where a bar builds up and causes waves to break hard over the shallows. Breach breaks are characterized by short, steep, and powerful waves.

Different Parts of a Surfi​ng wave

  • The peak is the highest point of the wave and where the surfer should try to begin his/her ride.
  • The face/wall of the wave is the area where the surfer rides.
  • The trough is the bottom of the wave.
  • The lip is the falling edge of the breaking wave.
  • The tube/barrel is the open space between the fallen lip and the open wall. Pulling in under the falling lip and getting a long tube is one the most classic and satisfying moves in surfing.
  • The shoulder is the least steep part of a wave and farthest from the pit.

How Winds Affect Surfing Waves

When wind is blowing from the land towards the ocean, this is termed an “off-shore” wind and is optimal for longboarding and big wave surfing. In medium sized surf, surfers prefer the off-shore wind because it makes for a clean, smooth wall for extended carves and holds up the falling lip to make hollow barrels for tube riding. However, modern surfers have begun to enjoy choppier “onshore” winds as well (wind that is blowing from the ocean to the land) for the abundance of ramps for aerial maneuvers. Chops and bumps and soft whitewater landings are all positives for today’s above the lip antics. “Cross-winds” usually make for mixed up waves that are difficult to predict and thus make for the least preferable winds.