Where do I surf? Understanding Surf Reports
One of the hardest parts about learning to surf, aside from the actual standing up and riding
the board, is knowing when and where to go for your next wave. Understanding how wind
and tide affect the surf is an awesome skill to have when doing a surf trip on the East Coast
Wind, Swell size and tides all affect surfing conditions. Learning to know what makes
favourable conditions will help you find the best place to go in any area.
The direction and power of the wind can make or break a surf day. The most favourable
wind direction is offshore. Meaning the wind blows from land out to sea. On the east coast,
light westerly’s (10 knots or lower) is the favourite for many.
Onshore winds are winds that blow from the ocean towards land. These types of winds can
make the ocean messy, choppy and unsurfable if over a few knots.
Cross-shore is when the wind is cutting horizontally across the waves.
Generally, anything under 8 – 10 knots is ok to surf in. But this depends on the spot, the
direction of the wind and what is happening to the swell out at sea.
When looking for somewhere to surf you will be looking for a beach, which the swell can get
into, but is sheltered from the wind.
There are some great surf reporting websites available which provide the wind and swell
conditions. They have loads of information to help you choose a good surf spot, as well as
cameras for the some of the more popular destinations.
As well as websites there are also some apps which can be purchased from iTunes and the
The two most popular and accurate are:
Surf Stich Surf Check powered by Coastal Watch
Local newspapers and radio stations will also provide surf reports.
The downside of relying on apps and the radio for the surf conditions is that everyone else is
also checking in on them and they can at times, not be 100% up to date. They also don’t
always include every beach in an area and finding waves off the beaten track is what a good
Aussie surf trip is all about.
Also keep in mind, a great spot recommended by an old dog who has been surfing for 20
years won’t necessarily be good for someone just starting out. Always stick to the limits you
feel safe and comfortable in.
So you’ve pulled into a town, you’ve checked the surf report, and it’s 7 knots from the SE,
the swell is coming in from the NE at 2 – 3 foot. What does this mean?
7 knots from the SE – The wind is blowing from a South Easterly direction.
NE Swell – the power/energy which creates the waves is coming in from the North East.
2 – 3 foot – the set waves will be between 2 to 3 foot in height.
So how do you pick your spot from here?
Open the maps on your phone or google maps on your computer and make sure north on
the compass is clearly identified.
First, look for any headlands or points and make note of which way all the beaches face.
In the above conditions, we will be looking for a spot that is slightly protected from the
south/southeasterly winds and open to the northeasterly swell, like a point or headland.
In the example in the map below, we have marked in the swell coming in from the North
East in Green and wind coming in from the South East in Red. There are two spots which suit
our ideal requirements. They are circled in blue.
If available on your maps app switch to satellite view. Satellite view will help you determine
if there is rocks, reef or any other elements you need to be aware of.
After doing this a few times for various conditions it will become quick and easy.
*** Note, in large swells, spot sheltered from the direction of the swell will offer up smaller,
and possibly more beginner friendly waves.
Finally, tides will also affect the conditions of the surf in a particular spot.
High tide, where the tide is at it’s highest point for the day, is when there is the most
volume of water pushing into a beach or point. This can make the waves fat, meaning they
have don’t rise up into distinct vertical walls of water and can be difficult to catch. However,
high or close to high tide can be good for someone who has a big board and has just started
surfing green waves.
Low tide, where the tide is at it’s the lowest point of the day, is when there is the least
amount of water pushing into a beach or point. At low tide waves tend to suck up more,
creating vertical walls and sometimes barrels. At rocky points and reefs, low tide will expose
more of the rocks and reef and extra care will need to be taken.
If unsure of how the tide affects a spot aim for mid tide, the halfway point between high
and low. If you’re in an area for a few days keep checking the same spots at different tides
and you’ll soon know the best time to go.