Surfing wave types

Know your reef wave break from your point break

If you′ve just started out in surfing, it might be hard to work out the difference between a point, reef or beach break wave, and how each occurs. If you don’t know, look no further than this guide to some of the more common surfing wave types.

Types of surfing wave

With a few rare exceptions, you don’t get surfable waves without a swell. As that swell approaches the shore it’ll be travelling at about 15 to20mph, and as it ‘feels bottom’ it will start to ‘drag’ on the sea floor.

Surfing wave types

This shortens the wavelength of the wave, which in turn increases its steepness on the shoreward side, making it less stable. This is the prelude to it actually breaking – theoretically this will occur when the wave moves into water with a depth of 1.3 times the wave’s height. So, for example, you could expect to find a 6ft (1.83m) wave breaking in water just under 8ft (2.44m) deep. This won’t always be the case though, especially on reef breaks where the swell comes out of deep water into very shallow water – but more of that later.

Once a wave actually does break, it can release a phenomenal amount of power – large waves have been recorded exerting a force of 6,000 lbs per sq ft in the impact zone, which is bad news if you happen to be in the vicinity at the same time.

A breaking wave will generally take one of three forms — surging, spilling or plunging …

  • Surging waves. Pretty useless when it comes to surfing, this type of wave comes in out of relatively deep water onto steep beaches, and rather than break it will surge up the beach. It can happen at high tide when the beach profile is too steep to enable the wave to break properly.
  • Spilling waves. The most common type of wave to be found in Britain, these are produced by a gently sloping sea floor, which causes the wave to peak gradually. The release of energy from the wave is relatively slow, so the crest ‘spills’ down the wave face.
  • Plunging waves. These are the best type of waves for surfing, and occur where a swell moves out of deep water into very shallow water, such as on a reef. This obstructs the forward momentum of the wave, resulting in a peak, which jacks up quickly to throw the lip out ahead of the face and give the elusive tube we’re all searching for.

Wave breaks for surfers

Right, that’s types of waves dealt with, but we still haven’t hit on types of break (there’s a subtle difference). There are beach breaks, reef breaks and point breaks …

1. Beach breaks. These are the most common breaks in the UK and Europe. Provided there’s a swell and you’re not too choosy about what you surf, any half-decent beach break will allow you to get wet even when the wind’s onshore. However, the best waves are to be found in offshore conditions where a well-defined sand or gravel bank has formed. As the swell moves towards the beach it will peak on this bank and ideally peel both left and right. Unfortunately these banks are always shifting due to the effects or rips, currents and storms which can remove or dump sand, so most beach breaks will vary in quality over the seasons.

If the banks are in bad shape you may find the waves backing off (when the water is not quite shallow enough to allow the wave to peak and break properly), or closing out (when the bank is at the same depth along the length of the beach, causing the entire length of the wave face to break at the same time). Good beach breaks include those around Hossegor in France, and Croyde and Fraserburgh in the UK. When these are working well their waves can be almost as hollow as a reef break. Generally, however, beach breaks will produce ‘spilling’ waves.

2. Reef breaks. A reef break will occur when any underwater obstruction rises suddenly above the sea floor causing a swell to peak dramatically and often throw out a pitching lip to give a hollow, or tubing, wave (the above ‘plunging’ wave). The obstruction, or reef, can be in the form of a rock shelf, a coral reef or even a submerged wreck. In Britain it’s most likely to be a rock shelf – in fact it’s almost 99 per cent certain to be a rock shelf unless coral has suddenly started sprouting in our none-too-balmy waters. Good examples in Britain include: Porthleven, Thurso East and Kimmeridge. The example, of course, is Pipeline.

3. Point breaks. These are the things upon which overpaid film stars get 'tubed', two weeks after first picking up a surfboard – amazing how talented they are. For mere mortals, a point break can often provide long, regular and predictable waves even if we can’t get straight into the barrel.

Under ideal conditions a swell hitting a promontory or headland will wrap around this natural projection (although it doesn’t have to be natural — breakwaters and harbour walls can have the same effect) and break on the inside as it encounters shallower water. This shallow water occurs as a result of a build up of rocks or sand alongside the headland, and the wave will peel off into deeper water inside the headland, often for hundreds of yards.

Good examples in Britain are pretty rare, but Downend Point in Devon is a good point break for experienced surfers. A much better known example is Kirra in Queensland, an absolute screamer of a wave when it’s on.

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