How To Read A Surf Report For The Best Riding Experience

Posted on August 19, 2019 by Doug Robichaud

What You Need To Know About Reading A Surf Report

Understanding how to read a surf report is key to knowing when and where the waves are going to be good for surfing or SUP Surfing. Often times, the difference between an average and a legendary surf session can be determined by checking the surf report before you head to your local beach or point break. At ISLE Surf & SUP, we believe there are a few things you should know before hitting the water. Aside from learning proper surf etiquette and how to care for your surfboard, you must also be able to understand a surf report. Just remember this: knowledge is power.

Reading a surf report can be confusing at first for beginners, so today I’m going to explain the key elements of a surf report. After reading this, you will be more confident in reading a surf report, and in return, you will be able to better gauge when an epic swell is coming to a beach near you.

how to read a surf report

What Is A Surf Report?

A surf report is a visual representation that predicts what the conditions at your local breaks are going to be like. This report is usually presented to you in a series of tables and graphs that includes elements like wave height, swell period, swell direction, wind forecast, and a tide chart (I will go over all of these elements later on). All of these factors will give you a very good idea of what the surf will be like for the next week. Luckily for you, there are a handful of surf forecast websites you can access online that have amazing teams of surf forecast specialists for every coastline across the globe.

The Best Surf Report Websites 

Before we get into the anatomy of a surf report, you should familiarize yourself with some of the best surf report websites. As mentioned previously, there are many websites that offer free and paid surf reports for the region in which you live. Some are more robust and reliable than others, so it’s important to know which surf report websites are the best. Keep in mind that all surf report websites are not entirely accurate. However, they can forecast surf conditions with a fairly high degree of accuracy.

Surfline homepage

1. Surfline

Based in Huntington Beach, CA, Surfline is the best and most popular surf report website on the web (receives over one million visitors each month). They offer the most accurate and reliable surf reports for almost anywhere imaginable in the world. Aside from the surf conditions, they offer HD surf cams for almost every surf spot which is ideal for checking the surf from the comfort of your home.

In addition, they have teams of experienced surf forecasters who focus on specific surf regions, giving you the confidence to know when surf will be firing or poor. They offer a premium membership that will allow you to stream surf cams indefinitely (instead of 10 seconds) and view your local spots with 17-day extended forecast (instead of 4 days).

Key Takeaways Of Surfline:

  • User-friendly 
  • Simplified surf reports
  • HD surf cams for most surf spots
  • Massive volume of surf spots across the world
Magic Seaweed Homepage

2. MagicSeaweed

MagicSeaweed is another popular surf forecast website used by hundreds of thousands of surfers and SUP surfers alike. They are based out of Devon, England and have an in-house team of oceanographers and meteorologists working hard to provide you with the most comprehensive surf forecasts. MagicSeaweed has surf reports for over 5,000 beaches and point breaks around the world.

MagicSeaweed rates each day of surf by a star rating system. Five stars means it will be epic and 1 star means it will be very poor. This site does have live surf cams, but not as many as Surfline. All in all, Magicseaweed provides the same surf report elements that Surfline does but just isn’t as accurate when it comes to predicting swell height and overall conditions in every part of the world.   

Key Takeaways Of MagicSeaweed:

  • Easy to read surf reports
  • Over 5,000 locations across the world
  • Star rating system for every hour of the day

How To Read A Surf Report

Are you ready to read a surf report like a pro? There are four key elements you need to know: wave height/swell period, swell direction, wind direction/speed, and tides.  

Below, I’m going to discuss every element cleary so you can easily understand what purpose they hold in a surf report, regardless of which surf report website you choose. Keep in mind that no single element holds more importance than the others. All four elements need to align correctly for the waves to be great.

The 5 Key Elements Of A Surf Report

surf height how to read a surf report

1. Wave Height And Swell Period

One of the first questions any surfer wants answered when learning how to read a surf report is: how big the waves are going to be for the daily surf session? Will there be strong winds? Is the weather forecast ideal for getting in the water? When looking at a surf report, this information is provided to you in the form of wave height and swell period. Wave height and swell period are interpreted together because the true size and power of a wave are dependent on the swell period (see below for examples). 

Wave Height: The average wave height (measured in feet) of all the waves during a 20-minute period.

Swell Period: The amount of time it takes a wave to pass a certain point. There are short period swells (1-9 seconds) and long-period swells (10-20 seconds). Short period swells will result in poor quality waves which are known as wind swells. Long period swells offer the best, most powerful waves known as ground swells.

Examples of wave height and swell periods: 

  • 3 feet @ 5 seconds would be considered a short period swell (stay at home)
  • 3 feet @ 15 seconds would be considered a long period swell (go surfing!)
swell direction how to read a surf report

2. Swell Direction

Knowing which direction a swell is coming from will tell you if it will hit your region correctly. The swell direction is usually expressed in cardinal points (N, E, S, W). As a general rule of thumb, a beach facing directly west will get bigger and better waves if the swell comes from the west. The swell direction is important -- if the swell doesn't hit your region correctly, you will not receive good waves. 

Example of swell direction: Every summer, Southern California receive many southwest swells. Since San Diego county predominately faces west, they will miss out on most of those summer swells. On the other hand, Orange County will benefit from southwest swells because they have many southwest facing beaches, which means they will receive bigger and better waves during those swells.

wind direction

3. Wind Direction And Speed

Knowing which way the wind blows is crucial for surfing. It's one of the most important parts of learning how to read a surf report. If it were a perfect world, there would never be wind in the surf weather forecast. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often. In fact, most of the time, there will be wind. The wind can royally ruin the surf conditions if it's blowing in the wrong direction at a high speed. When looking at a weather and surf report, it's important to know the difference between onshore winds and offshore winds. 

Onshore Winds: Onshore winds blow from the ocean toward the shore. These winds aren’t good because they cause choppy, poor conditions. 

Offshore Winds: Offshore winds blow from the land to the water. These winds are ideal for surfing conditions. Offshore winds help to create clean and perfectly shaped waves. 

Example of wind direction: If you’re a surfer from New Hampshire, the ideal wind direction will come from the west. West winds mean the wind will be blowing offshore because the New Hampshire Coastline faces east. If the wind is blowing in any direction toward the east, that means the winds will be onshore and will cause the waves to be choppy. 

Once you learn how to read onshore and offshore winds, it's now time to look at the wind speed on the surf forecast. As a general rule of thumb, the winds are typically lighter in the mornings and stronger in the afternoon. This means the best time to surf is generally in the morning. If you’re lucky, the afternoon winds can die down for a glassy sunset session. Light winds are typically in the 0-7 mph range; heavy winds are typically in the 8-20 mph range. 

How to read a surf report tide chart

4. Tide Chart

The ocean’s tide plays a major role on the surf break at a certain surf spot. Some surf spots work best on a high tide, some on a low tide, and some on a pushing tide (mid-tide). Knowing which tide is best for each of your local surf spots will take some time surfing at each spot. An easy way to figure out the best tides to surf your favorite beaches or points is to ask your local surf shop or any friends who surf in the area. Unfortunately, surf report websites do not offer this information for each surf spot. If you know the best tide for a surf spot, you will be able to score the best waves when a swell comes through. 

Ocean tides are very predictable because the moon controls their movement. There are two high tides and two low tides every day. Surf reports will give you the exact times and levels (feet) of both high and low tides each day. Each day the tides will increase by about 50 minutes. Example: If low tide was at 6:30 a.m. today, then it will be around 7:20 a.m. the next day. Tide levels will change each day with the phases of the moon. On a full moon, tides will be at their highest and lowest. On a new moon, the tides will show little change in the tide range.

person surfing on a SUP

Wrapping Up 

Learning how to read a surf report can be overwhelming at first. But once you understand the four key elements listed above, you will be able to decode it like a mad surf scientist. Understanding every aspect of a surf report will take some practice, but it will all be worth it when you’re scoring epic waves. There are many websites that offer surf reports, but the best two for beginners are Surfline (best paid features) and MagicSeaweed (best free features). Stick with one of those and you will be set. 

To learn more about the history of surfing and other useful surfing tips, check out our blog at Isle Surf & SUP today.

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