The ocean is definitely finicky when it comes to waves. If you’re a longtime surfer you’re familiar with that.
If you’re new to surfing, it’s probably one of the first things you realized out on the water. The surf report can change everyday, even multiple times in the day.
It can be frustrating when you really want to surf but it seems like there aren’t any good waves.
But what makes a good wave anyway, and how big do waves need to be to surf? Can you surf two foot waves? While you may prefer bigger waves over smaller, you can absolutely surf 2 foot waves. Although 2 foot waves may sound tiny, they’re perfectly surfable.
In fact, what’s called a 2 footer may technically be 3 or 4 feet due to the way surfers measure wave height. It depends on if the surfer is measuring the face of the wave, or the back of the wave etc.
Small waves are great for beginners to learn on and also great practice for more advanced surfers.
A smaller wave will have less force behind it making it great to strengthen your paddling ability. While big waves do a lot of the work to pull you onto the wave, you have to paddle much harder to catch small waves.
They also take more energy to keep the wave, requiring you to pump harder down the wave.
Small waves do better with different boards than big waves. You’ll find it more enjoyable if you use a board with greater volume, such as a longboard or foamboard.
If you don’t use a longboard, you can still ride small surf but it takes a little more technique. This can be a fun challenge in your surfing ability.
Small surf is actually more common than big surf in most places, so it’s important to know how to ride. If you’re just waiting for huge swells, you may not get out much.
Part of what will make you a great surfer is practice, so learning to ride all types of waves is important.
In addition to size, all waves are not created equally. Things like wind, swell and where the waves break all matter in terms of creating surf.
Table of Contents
Measuring Wave Height
When it comes to measuring wave height, there are a few different ways to go about it. The Hawaiian Scale, the Bascom Method and Body Measurements.
Depending on your location or preference dictates what method you use. Since there’s multiple ways to measure, you should make sure you know how someone is determining wave height when talking about the surf.
The Hawaiian Scale is a form of measuring waves using the back of the wave to determine height.
Developed, obviously, in Hawaii, this way of measuring tends to underestimate how big a wave really is. A 2 foot wave using the Hawaiian Scale may really be a 4 – 5 foot wave.
This method isn’t very popular outside of Hawaii.
How are Surfboards Made?
How are Surfboards Made?
This version of measuring wave height works by measuring from the trough, or lowest point of the wave, all the way up to the peak.
Developed by Willard Newell Bascom, it’s the opposite of the Hawaiian Scale and often seen as an overestimation since the trough goes down below the horizon line.
Surfable Wave Method
This style strikes a balance between the Hawaiian Scale and the Bascom Method. The Surfable Wave Method is determined by measuring the face of the wave, or the part that a surfer actually rides.
Body Height Method
While not a formal way of measuring waves, this method is an easily identifiable and common method.
With the body height method, waves are labelled as ankle high, knee high etc up to overhead and double overhead.
It’s not entirely accurate as all surfers are different heights, but is generally based on a 6 foot tall surfer. This is probably the easiest way to communicate wave height in an informal setting.
How Waves Form
Waves are formed in several ways.
The most common way is by wind. Referred to as surface waves, these are created by the wind blowing over the surface of the water.
The wave is made by the friction between the force of the wind against the surface of the water.
Waves are also made by the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon, called tidal waves. Tidal waves are not to be confused with tsunamis which are caused by underwater disturbances like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Most waves surfers ride are created by the wind.
Three factors come into play in creating a wave. Wind velocity, fetch and duration.
Wind velocity is the speed of the wind. Fetch Is the distance the wind can blow over the water uninterrupted. And duration is how much time the wind blows over that water.
These three factors are almost like puzzle pieces that fit together in creating waves. The greater the velocity, fetch and duration, the greater the waves.
However if you have little speed, but great fetch and duration, you’ll still end up with small waves.
Storm energy creates the best waves for surfing as it drums up the most wind energy along with a travelling fetch as a storm moves over the ocean.
This results in waves that travel a long distance, picking up energy as they go.
After the wind creates the energy to make waves, these waves travel over the water and organize themselves into sets. This process is referred to as the swell and there are two types, groundswell and windswell.
Groundswell is when waves are created far offshore by storms or strong wind velocity blowing over a long distance.
These waves move through the ocean picking up speed and power as they roll over the ground.
Groundswell waves tend to be much cleaner and more powerful than their counterpart due to the distance they travel. This type of swell can travel over 2,000 miles.
They’re also characterized as having a greater wave period between them. A groundswell period can be 10 – 20 seconds.
The best and most desireable from a surfing perspective are groundswell.
Windswell is when waves are created closer to shore. These localized winds tend to produce choppier, more unstable waves since they have less distance to travel than groundswell.
They also tend to be created by onshore winds. Windswell is characterized by shorter wave periods, less than 10 seconds.
Since these waves are less powerful and much messier, they’re less suitable for surfing than groundswell.
In addition to swells, the break where you surf creates totally different types of waves. After the swell travels over the ocean, the topography of the seafloor at your surf spot begins to change.
This causes the waves to start to break, thus the term surf break. There are four main types of breaks, the beach break, reef break, point break and river break.
A beach break is when the waves are breaking over sand and are the most common.
Since the sand is always moving and changing under the water, it creates very different waves from week to week or even day to day, depending on the beach.
Some beach breaks create powerful, hollow waves, while others are known for long, gentle waves. Beach breaks are generally seen as the best place for beginners.
Reef breaks are when the waves come in over a rocky seafloor or, out in the tropics, a coral reef.
Since the topography is fixed, the waves only change dependent on the swell and wind direction. Most big wave surfing spots are reef breaks.
When the energy of the wave rolling in hits the rocks, it creates strong, powerful waves. Reef breaks can be dangerous for beginners, largely due to the rocks.
It’s much easier to be injured by the rocks and reef at these spots making them more suited for intermediate to advanced surfers.
A point break is when the swell hits land that is perpendicular to the shore, like a jetty or peninsula. Breaking over rock or sand, these waves peel out on either side of the land formation.
These spots are known to create much longer waves than beach or reef breaks. Some point breaks create intense, powerful waves, while others offer more gentle rolling waves.
This is the least common break amongst the ones listed, but still important to at least know. River breaks happen either due to the topography of the river bed or when fast moving water slows due to the water downstream.
While an unusual spot for surfing, there are a few popular river breaks in Germany, Wyoming and Oregon.
Anatomy of a Wave
Now that you know all the different kinds of waves and where they are, it’s important to know the parts of the wave you’ll be riding.
The peak is the highest point of the wave just where it begins to crest. It’s the best point to take off from. Being able to identify the peak is essential in predicting and reading how a wave will break.
This is the lowest part of a wave. Wave height is often measured from this point up to the peak.
The lip is the top part of the wave just as it begins to fold over and crest. It’s also where the power stems from.
The shoulder is the flat, calmer section of the wave behind the peak and away from where the wave is cresting.
The face, also known as the wall of a wave is the steep, unbroken section. This is where most riders surf.
The tube or barrel is the hollow section where the wave has crested. Not all waves create big barrels but when they do it’s the most desired section to ride in.
This is the concave section of the wave. Usually very steep, it’s the area just before the barrel.
The foamy part of a wave that’s already crested.
What Is the Best Board For Beginners?
The bigger the board, the more volume it has. The volume keeps you and the board afloat. The length of the board helps provide balance.
In general, beginners should go for longboards made of foam, usually something over 7 feet.
These help while you’re learning to pop up and stay up as well as being softer when you’re inevitably hit by your board after a wipeout.
Do You Need a Wetsuit to Surf?
Wetsuits are designed to keep you warm in cold water. They aren’t mandatory to surf in and depend on the temperature of the water.
If you’re surfing in Hawaii in the summer, you definitely don’t need a wetsuit. However, if you’re checking out Northern California during the winter, you should suit up to keep from freezing.
GOOD WAVE HEIGHT FOR BEGINNER SURFERS? Generally speaking the smaller the better -- but not too small that you can't get moving. This usually means waves in the 1.5 - 2ft range (occasionally 3ft if you're up to it).How many feet do waves need to be to surf? ›
If the surf forecast says 1-3m (3-9ft), then it's usually a good time to go surfing. 3m waves are not appropriate for beginners, but experienced surfers take on waves of incredible height. Under 1 meter, waves are usually more suited to beginner surfers.Is 1 to 2 ft waves surfable? ›
Yes, you can still surf even when the waves are 1ft but you'll need a surfboard with lots of volume and buoyancy to help you catch tiny waves. Consider taking out a fish, longboard, minimal or large foamie to make the most of small surf.How big is a 2 ft wave? ›
Thus, a "3-foot" wave is roughly six feet high (in actuality a height of ~1.8 m), i.e., head-high to a 6-foot (~180 cm) person; a "2-foot" wave is roughly four feet high (height of ~1.2 m), i.e., chest-high to such a person; and a "6- to 8-foot" wave would be 2 to approaching 3 times head-high to such a person (height ...What is an unsafe height of a wave? ›
Big breaking waves that tower over five feet high are too dangerous for most bathers and swimmers, but even relatively small waves (e.g., 2-3 feet) that seem innocuous can generate dangerous rip currents.How small of a wave can you surf? ›
A measure that many surfers also use is the classic one: small waves (up to 1 meter), half a meter (up to 1.5 meters), meter (up to 2 meters high), last meter (over 2 meters high), meter and a half (over 2.5 meters), while those starting from 2 meters are considered big waves.Are 3 foot waves surfable? ›
As far as I'm concerned, three feet is the perfect size for a wave. It's big enough that you can ride a shortboard and still have some decent faces to work with, but it's small enough to bust out the longboard and work on your nose-riding without worrying about bouncing your head off the reef.Is 1 foot enough to surf? ›
As a general rule, if it's only 1ft, it's pretty difficult to surf on, unless you longboard or are a lightweight grom/ shredding machine!Is 3 feet a big wave? ›
As a start, you'd have to say that once we're getting into the 4-5 foot wave range, then that would be considered 'big' by most.Can beginners surf 4 foot waves? ›
Generally speaking the perfect size for beginners is 1 to 2ft. For intermediates: 2-4ft waves are best as it gives you more face of the wave to progress your skills on. You should keep an eye on the 'Swell Period', because it's a lot more indicative of the actual wave size (see the next point).
Tahiti, French Polynesia Teahupo'o is widely considered the heaviest wave on the planet. Between the shallow reef and the pounding surf, the notorious break has claimed five lives since 2000.Can you surf choppy waves? ›
Are choppy waves good for surfing? Yes, as long as you're willing to paddle more choppy waves give you the opportunity to catch more waves and avoid the crowds you see when the waves are pumping.What is the smallest surfable wave? ›
The minimum surfable wave with a surfboard is around 0.5ft or ankle-high. This means when you stand up after catching a wave, the lip of the waves is on the ankle line of the surfer. Anything smaller than this, there won't be enough push for a surfer to catch the wave and stay on top of the water when riding.How big is a 1 foot wave? ›
1 ft = Ankle-high. 2 ft = Knee-high. 3ft = Waist-high. 4ft = Chest-high.Are 3 foot seas rough? ›
A 3 foot sea and 6 second wave period is almost calm. It's just a big swell and it's safe and enjoyable to go. If the wind is blowing less than 20 knots, we generally plan on going fishing as long as the seas are not bigger than 3 feet. An average day is 10 to 15 knot winds and seas are about 2 feet.At what depth will a wave break? ›
Usually shallow-water waves begin to break when the ratio of wave height to wavelength is 1 to 7 (H/L = 1/7), when the wave's crest peak is steep (less than 120˚), or when the wave height is three-fourths of the water depth (H = > 3/4 D).How tall is a normal wave? ›
Waves 5 to 9 feet subsiding to 3 to 6 feet. Waves occasionally to 11 feet. How is Wave Height measured? Wave height is the vertical distance between the crest (peak) and the trough of a wave.Can you learn to surf on 1ft waves? ›
You can surf small, 1-foot waves, if you have the patience and the right board. Surfing small waves can be difficult if you have the wrong board or you're still learning the fundamentals. However, it is possible and can be a great way to practice techniques, improve positioning, and increase speed.Are small waves harder to surf? ›
Surfers tend to discard small waves. "If it's small, it's not worth it," we sometimes say. But there are many lessons to be learned in the tiny ripples. The first one is that it is harder to ride a one-footer than find the surf line on a shoulder-high wave.Can you body surf small waves? ›
Beginners should stick to smaller waves in the 1 to 3 ft range and avoid waves that crash too close to shore or shallow sandbanks. More experienced body surfers can ride in much bigger wave conditions whether it's a beach break or reef break.
Most surfers chase waves that range from three to six meters (nine to 20 feet) high. Big wave surfers, however, can catch waves more than 21 meters (70 feet tall). Big wave surfers often have jet skis or small boats tow them safely out past the breakers and into rising swell helping them catch high velocity waves.How big is a 1m wave? ›
In conclusion: a two-meter wave (6.5 feet) measured with the Bascom Method would correspond to a one-meter wave on the Hawaiian Scale (3.2 feet) and a 1.3-meter wave (4.2 feet) using the Surfable Wave Face measurement system.Why do Hawaiians measure waves from the back? ›
The Hawaiians derive their wave measurement system from the original Waimea Bay big wave surfers. When surfers first braved the waters of Waimea Bay, they did so without spectators just for the thrill of the ride. They measured the waves they surfed from the back, not the face, out of necessity, and the system stuck.How many hours should you surf a day? ›
On average, I would say surfers stay out for 1.5 – 2 hours per session, and to progress you'll need to put in the time too. To build the momentum we talked about above, you want to be getting out there during the winter.Is it better to be tall or short for surfing? ›
Is it better to be tall or short for surfing? As a general rule, being a shorter surfer is better for surfing due to having a lower centre of gravity and lighter weight. Taller surfers will need larger waves to progress their surfing meaning a harder learning curve.Do 100 foot waves exist? ›
One-hundred foot waves do indeed occur. Proof of their existence exists in videotapes and films taken from commercial and military ships.How many waves before a big wave? ›
Waiting for the Set
Surfers usually say that a "set" is a series of ocean waves that travel in groups of seven, with the seventh wave being the biggest and most powerful.
Offshore of the Hawaiian islands the seas are moderately rough, with significant wave heights of 3-14 ft (1-4 m), varying seasonally with the intensity of the trade winds, which are greatest in winter and spring.Can you surf too much? ›
Don't be surprised if you feel sore and tired the day after you go surfing. Even if you wanted to surf every day, it's not advisable to push your body to the limits by going out surfing on consecutive days. No matter how much you love the sport, there will come a point when it's not physically possible to surf.Is 60 too old to learn how to surf? ›
Just like there is no age limit for surfing, there is no age limit for learning how to surf. It's never too late to start! Regardless of your age, learning how to surf can be achieved with enough time and determination.
How quickly can I learn to surf? In short, the more you put in the practice, the quicker you will learn. Learning the basics, i.e. to stand up on a board and ride a wave, can take anywhere between two hours and one month of practice.What waves do surfers prefer? ›
Rolling waves (1) are the most familiar waves, and the type most surfers prefer. These waves break in a stable pattern. Rolling waves are usually a feature of a flat, sandy shoreline. The rolling waves at Hossegor, France, on the Bay of Biscay, can reach more than 6 meters (20 feet).Is surfing one of the hardest sports? ›
Surfing is one of the most challenging sports. It requires a great deal of effort, perseverance, passion, and patience. On a scale of 1 to 10, learning to surf has a difficulty level ranging between 4 and 7. It all comes down to your dedication and ability to check off a few critical boxes.What is the rarest type of wave? ›
A 'rogue wave' is large, unexpected, and dangerous.
A rogue wave estimated at 18.3 meters (60 feet) in the Gulf Stream off of Charleston, South Carolina.
As exhilarating as surfing is for the mind, it can be taxing on the body. A long day at the beach may be harsh on your hair and skin with all the exposure to the sun and saltwater.Does surfing affect hair? ›
The hair of surfers is often damaged and bleached, brought about by frequent exposure to sunlight, humidity and salty water. Blonder or red headed individuals tend to be more affected, given that their pheomelanin is more sensitive.What is the tallest wave ever? ›
The current world record wave height is 62.3 feet measured by a buoy in the North Atlantic Ocean at 6am UTC on February 4, 2013 at 59 degrees north, 11 degrees west.Are tsunamis surfable? ›
You can't surf a tsunami because it doesn't have a face. Many people have the misconception that a tsunami wave will resemble the 25-foot waves at Jaws, Waimea or Maverick's, but this is incorrect: those waves look nothing like a tsunami.What is the biggest freak waves? ›
"Proportionally, the Ucluelet wave is likely the most extreme rogue wave ever recorded," explained physicist Johannes Gemmrich from the University of Victoria in 2022. "Only a few rogue waves in high sea states have been observed directly, and nothing of this magnitude."How tall are most rogue waves? ›
"I think the biggest waves that are observed are 30 meters, or 100 feet, high," says oceanographer Libe Washburn.
Sea conditions associated with regionally defined wind thresholds over bays, inlets, harbors, inland waters, and estuaries where larger waves are forming with whitecaps and spray everywhere.
8-10 second swell period: These are typically medium distance swells. This period starts to roll in from hurricanes and other pressure systems. This swell period usually includes good conditions and is organized, making it ideal for Folly Beach.Why are waves bigger in Hawaii? ›
The coastal sea bed has ridges and valleys, as typical of most areas in Hawaii. The energy along the wave front converges to the shallowest location, where wave height becomes the highest. Wave height can be greatly magnified at the moment of breaking due to the combined effects of shoaling and refraction .Do 115 ft waves exist? ›
With a height of 115 ft (35 meters), the Big Mama of Nazaré in Portugal is considered the biggest wave. It was surfed by Hugo Vau in 2018 after anticipating and preparing for it for almost seven years; however, it is not recognized by the WSL and Guinness World Records as of yet.What does flat surf mean? ›
If there were waves, you surfed, if it was flat, you went home. Today, surfers can find helpful information about the surf conditions such as wave height, wind direction, swell direction and the tide all by checking an online surf report.Can you surf a 3 foot wave? ›
As far as I'm concerned, three feet is the perfect size for a wave. It's big enough that you can ride a shortboard and still have some decent faces to work with, but it's small enough to bust out the longboard and work on your nose-riding without worrying about bouncing your head off the reef.What does 2ft swell mean? ›
Swell period (measured in seconds) is the amount of time it takes a wave to pass a certain point and therefore the time between each wave. The longer the swell period, the more powerful waves will be. For example, a report may say 2ft at 15 seconds.What is a beginner surfer called? ›
Grom – a young and inexperienced surfer; also known as a grommet or gremmie.Are smaller waves harder to surf? ›
It is well known that heavier surfers find it relatively more difficult to surf small waves. There are several factors that make it more difficult for a larger person to ride less powerful waves. There are also ways that we can counteract this.How big is a 2 foot swell? ›
The Traditional scale corresponds to approximately one half the height of the wave face, i.e. a wave estimated to be 4 feet from crest to trough (or chest-shoulder high on the average surfer) would be called 2 feet.
smooth – up to 0.5 metre. slight – up to 1.0 metre. moderate – up to 2.0 metres. rough – up to 3.0 metres.