Surf Reports and Swell Forecasts

Information for new surfers for basic Surf Reports and Swell Forecasts

The Important Variables for Basic Surf Reports and Swell Forecasts – What to know and how to use it

There is a lot to factor in when professionals are putting together their Surf Reports and Swell Forecasts. It is much more than just looking out the window and seeing what the wind is doing, whether the sun is shining and if there are waves breaking.

Surf reports are more about the conditions prevailing at the time of reporting with maybe a very small amount of prediction for the short term, maybe for whats probably going to happen through  the morning, the afternoon or for the rest of the day. Generally, the reporter will use his or her knowledge of the area, the swell that is coming through, the winds and predicted winds for the period, what the tides are doing and the local idiosyncrasies of the area. The bigger the area, the more varied the area the surf report is being made, then the more chance there is of the report not being applicable to all the areas within that surf report.

We are going to go through some very simple basic information for those new to surfing who have never had to think about these things before and give the novice a little assistance in being able to work out a little bit more for themselves and be able to use some basic information to start to make some more informed predictions themselves.

For those who have more knowledge of this, Craig Brokensha from Australia’s premier Surf Reports and Swell Forecasts website SwellNet (www.swellnet.com) has written a fantastic and very in depth article about the importance of periods in swells and how the oceanography and shape of the bottom of the ocean will affect the resultant wave size on the beaches.

Here we try to provide some basic foundations to help learn a little bit about surf reports and swell forecasts and all that goes into it, the basic variables and how you can start to learn to use them for yourself for your own location.

With the swell, it is important to know not only the swell size but also the swell direction. The direction of the swell is going to have a huge impact on how different areas are affected by the swell and how much of this swell an area will pick up and the resultant wave size. The amount of swell and size of the waves that an area receives is dependant on the direction of the beach in relation to the direction of the swell.

Using the Gold Coast as an example, our coast line is shaped a little like a backwards “J”.

When we have a southerly swell or a sou’ easterly swell, the southern end of the Coast and protected southern corners and points will pick up far less of the swell than the more open and exposed locations towards the northern end of the coast. This is due to the swell not ‘getting in’ as easily, while there should still be waves at these locations, due to the wrapping and loss of energy of the swell to wrap around into these protected areas, it is generally going to be far smaller.

When there is a southerly predominant swell, you will probably hear or read about ‘southerly swell magnet’. This refers to beaches that have a southerly facing aspect and pick up a majority or all of the southerly swell. A ‘magnet’ simply refers to that beach or location being ideal for that swell direction and therefore picking up all or most of that swell energy. D’bah is renowned as being a swell magnet because of its openness and versatility to have swells from all directions sneak in and can, more often than not, generally be bigger than around the corner from Snapper through Rainbow Bay, Greenmount and Kirra.

Winds are also a very important factor for surfers. Firstly, these are the driving force of producing swells on a bigger picture. On a more local picture, what do winds do, why are they important and what do we need to know.

Like swell, we need to know a couple of variables when thinking about the wind. We need to know the wind strength and also the wind direction. Not only how strong the wind is or is forecast to be but also the direction that it is blowing is really important. Both of these factors will influence how the wind affects the surf at locations. Generally, a light offshore wind has always been the most sought after and preferred wind for surfers. It keeps the ocean surface and wave face clean but can also help hold the wave face up and help it to break better. However, with the growth of progressive surfing and the inclusion of aerial manoeuvres into the repertoire of many surfers, the preference for winds has shifted slightly. An onshore/cross shore wind can be preferable for these as it can help push the board back up under the surfers feet and help push them back into the wave face. To keep it simple though, a light off shore provides the cleanest conditions and is most ideal for most surfers.

The next factor to take into account are the tides. The tide will affect how much water is over a bank. This will therefore affect how the wave breaks and where and when it breaks. This will have a direct relationship on the type of wave that is produced and therefore how that wave can be surfed, what manoeuvres and what style of surfing are most suitable.

Once you know all these factors, you then need to relate how all this information and how all these variables will work together at your location of choice. Depending on your location, these variables will combine to deliver a unique wave and conditions. Knowing your break will help you in your deductions as to how the waves will be and whether you will have suitable conditions or not.

To work out how the prevailing or forecast conditions will suit your local or preferred break you need to then know such things as

  • what direction the beach faces. This is to know what swell directions are optimal and good for that location and what swell directions might miss. It is important to know for the optimal wind directions and what winds are off shore, onshore and cross shore.
  • whether the bottom is for example sand bottom, rock or reef and how permanent are the banks. If they are sand bottoms, how quickly does the sand and banks change, how much sand movement is normal, have there been recent conditions that could have affected the sand movement and banks
  • what tides do the banks prefer more water or less water, that is higher tides or lower tides
  • what is the land topography like and how does this affect the winds. Again using the Gold Coast as an example, when we have southerly winds, the protected southern corners can be completely wind free with very clean conditions while the rest of the Coast can be ugly and blown out but then as soon as it turns northerly or nor’wasterly then Greenmount cops bad winds and can be very wind affected while the northern end of the coast can have good winds that those locations can like.

There is a lot of information here and this is just the start and the very basics. We haven’t spoken about other variables such as primary, secondary and tertiary swells nor the very important ‘period’. Then there is the oceanography, this is not only the shape of the bottom of the location itself but the bottom of the ocean floor as it extends away from the location’s shoreline out to the depths of the ocean and how the resultant waves hitting a locations is dependant on the relationship of the swell period and shape of the ocean floor extending miles out to see.

Luckily there are many surf reports and swell forecasts on the internet as well as on the radio and television. There are also surf cameras on many of the main surf reporting sites. This all makes it much easier for the average surfer to be able to jump on line, check the current surf report, read the forecasts and get both picture and video feeds of breaks all over Australia’s vast coastline as well as for a plethora of surf spots around the globe. The site we recommend for you to look at is Australia’s SwellNet – www.swellnet.com

Craig’s article on this is a great read and well worth the read to gain greater insight into how so many factors come into play and affect the waves that we ride at our local break

Hopefully this helps all those new to the sport and new to the huge task of surf reports and swell forecasts!

To see the latest SwellNet report and forecast for Australia’s Gold Coast, please click here

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