How Waves Break

If you are a prospective surfer, your lessons will include what equipment you should have, and when and how waves break. What are the factors that affect them?

Surf lessons rely on reliable equipment, careful students, and, most importantly, good waves. Unfortunately, that last item tends to be the most unpredictable. Waves rely on weather, wind, and a whole host of other factors. The best waves are even, clean, and glassy with a minimal break. Waves break when they eventually hit a shallow bottom. It’s kind of like when a person runs but trips over a speed bump. Waves breaking too early lead to white foaminess—not fun to surf on.

ocean waves breaking
A surfer must know when and how waves break.

Let’s take a look at a few of the different ways that waves break.

Beach Break

If you’re enrolled in Pacific Beach surf lessons or have a local surf spot, you’re surfing on a beach break. With a beach break, waves break on a sandy bottom, often within a hundred yard of shoreline.

Beach breaks tend to be the most common type of break but also the most unpredictable. The waves are at the mercy of the sand, and if you’ve tried to hold a handful of wet sand and water in your hand, you know that it doesn’t exactly stay in one place. The contours of the ocean floor are constantly changing based on currents, storms, tides, and human interference.

On the same stretch of beach, some waves will break differently than others, and waves won’t always break in the same spot, making it difficult to spot the next wave to catch.

Point Break

Point breaks are defined by natural headland, an area where a point of land or rocks jut from the coastline. The rocks and sand surrounding the headland naturally create an area of shallow water. Swells enter the shallow water, break, and then peel away into the deeper water at the point.

Waves break either left or right off a point but not both ways, which means generally non-diverse waves. The upside: long rides. Point break waves can break for hundreds of yards, giving you plenty of time to hang ten. These long breaks make point breaks an excellent spot for group activities for more experienced surfers.

Reef Break

If you want constant, flawless waves, reef breaks are where it’s at. Reef breaks are waves that break over a coral reef or over an ocean floor comprised of more rock than sand. As a swell approaches the shore, it instantly hits the shallow reef and actually grows in height before curling and breaking over the reef.

A reef exposed to open ocean gives way to hollow, fast waves. This is what the pros surf on and live for—huge barrels and a fast tube ride. Beginners, however, should beware. Enormous waves aside, you’re often only a few feet above razor-sharp coral and stone. Wiping out here can lead to some truly nasty scrapes and cuts, or worse.

Wherever you surf, remember to stay safe, have fun, and keep an eye out for fellow surfers.

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