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How to Read Waves for Surfing

   March 28th, 2022   Posted In: How-To   Tags:

How to Read Waves for Surfing

As if standing up on a surfboard while riding a wave isn’t hard enough, learning how to read waves for surfing is also a tough skill to master.

How to Read Waves

The fact is, reading waves for surfing takes a lot of skill, experience, and intuitiveness. Even some veteran surfers have trouble reading waves because every wave is different and the ocean’s changing conditions create non-stop variables. However, there are some things you can do before getting in the water that can get you better at learning how to read waves. 

In most cases, a good surf teacher will give a first-time surfer helpful tips and tricks that will make you almost instantly better at reading waves for surfing. The first step to learning how to read waves is simply by observing them from the beach before you start padding out.

The Basics

Every wave starts out as a lump of water that is slowly rolling toward the shore. It will eventually hit shallow ground which causes the wave to stand taller, form a crest, crash ahead of itself, then turn to white water that rushes forward. 

An obvious rule of thumb when learning how to read waves is, the bigger the rolling lump is when you first see it hundreds of feet away, the bigger it will be when it finally breaks. But, it is important to note that there are some variables that can make what appears to be a nice wave peter out and turn to mush which we will talk about later.

For now, just consider the importance of looking as far out as you can to spot those rolling hills of water that are coming toward you. The more times you head out to surf, the better you’ll be able to judge what these lumps will do when they get to you.

Types of Waves

Once you start getting more familiar with how to read waves for surfing, you’ll start noticing that there are generally four types of waves that will form.

Rights & Lefts

Depending on the topography of the ocean floor where you are surfing, waves can be forced into breaking in one direction or the other. To fully understand how to read waves for surfing, we must first note that to define a left or right breaking wave it must be done from the perspective of the surfer who is facing the beach. 

For instance, if you are about to catch a wave and ride it to the left, that would be a left-breaking wave. If you are catching a wave that takes you in the righthand direction, that would be a right.

Make sure to keep this in mind as well, if you are on the beach looking out toward the waves, a left wave would be breaking to your right and a right would be breaking to your left. We always define whether a wave is a left or a right from the perspective of the surfer heading toward the beach.

A-Frame Waves

As you’re getting more comfortable reading waves for surfing, you’ll notice that there are waves that offer rides in both directions which allow you to choose whether to ride to the right or the left. A-frame waves will have a clearly defined peak as it gets closer to breaking. Right and left-breaking waves will also have peaks which are the ideal place to catch them but they won’t be as easy to spot as an A-frame.

A-frame waves are the most ideal waves because two surfers are able to ride the same wave. One can go left and the other can go right. This is where communication comes in. If you are about to catch an A-frame wave and you see another surfer also paddling for it, make sure to let that other surfer know what direction you intend to ride by telling them that you are headed right or left. That will allow the other surfer to go in the opposite direction. This will help avoid any unnecessary collisions or frustration.

Closeout Waves

When you get good at learning how to read waves for surfing you’ll notice that there are some waves that have no peaks and offer little to no path to the left or the right. These are closeout waves. Every part of the wave breaks at the same time forcing you into a short ride that generally takes you straight toward the shore. Closeout waves happen the most at beaches as opposed to point breaks.

Some advanced surfers can ride a closeout quickly to the left or the right and pull an aerial maneuver or a floater to get above the wave before it crashes but that is extremely difficult and takes years to master.

Finding The Peaks

As your judgment of how to read waves for surfing advances, you’ll start being able to locate the highest part of the wave, or the peak, and paddle toward it before you try to catch it. If you are able to catch a wave at its true peak it will maximize your ride time on the wave and offer the most speed and power.

If you can’t reach the peak, you are still able to catch the wave and ride it on what is called the shoulder. This happens quite often while surfing so don’t be discouraged if you are not able to catch the full force of the peak. Riding shoulders can be very effective if you are a beginner or if the waves seem too big for you to ride at the peak.


When you get better at learning how to read waves for surfing you’ll notice that there are times when it looks like a big wave is coming and when you try to catch it you can’t. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in an area where the shoulders of two peaks come together at slightly different times which forces the wave to keep rolling right past you. 

This happens mostly by chance, especially if you have been catching the peaks of waves in the very same area where it happens. Sometimes it is simply the positioning of that particular set of waves. Other times it can be caused by being in an area of a riptide, where the water that is flowing outward away from the beach actually takes some of the energy out of the wave.

If you notice consistently that waves that appear to be big are failing to break then it is best to observe which parts of the beach appear to offer the best peaks that are consistently breaking in the same area and paddle toward them.

Putting It All Together

If you use all the tips that I just offered you will be much better off at reading waves than trying to figure out everything on your own. Remember to try to spot the swells as far out as you can and start observing their personalities as they move closer to breaking. Try to see if you can locate the peaks right away and whether you can correctly judge whether they’ll be a right, left, A-frame, or a closeout.

Once you learn those skills you’ll be able to hone your ability by watching, judging, and observing every wave and you’ll be well on your way to becoming an expert on how to read waves for surfing.

Wes Severson is a fitness enthusiast and bodyboarder from San Francisco, CA who is always at Ocean Beach hitting the waves. He is also an Emmy Award-winning broadcast news writer and producer and a recording artist who goes by the name Wes Magic.

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