How big is a “big wave”? Depending on the waves you are used to surfing, a “big wave” might be five feet or it might be twenty feet. Whatever your experience level, you will be itching for a more challenging wave sometime! However, there’s a fine line between pushing your limits and getting into a dangerous situation; learning to observe the conditions will help keep you and your fellow surfers safe.
Careful observation has the power to make or break your surf session. Kelly Slater, who is methodical about observing the water before a contest, has often won during the last wave of the heat, because he knows when and where the best set wave will happen.
Sometimes it’s fun to just run from the car right into the water. However, at times when you are nervous about entering the water, such as during a big swell or at an unfamiliar break, you can gain a lot of confidence by simply taking twenty to thirty minutes of careful observation. If twenty minutes seems like a lot of time, remember it can save you a beating or an unpleasant surf session. If you can see the water from your car, you can also spend twenty minutes getting your wetsuit on or waxing your board; just remember to consciously check the conditions during this entire time.
Here are a few things you should be thinking about during your pre-surf observation period:
Take Baby Steps
Wave power increases exponentially with size. For a surfer who has never surfed anything bigger than five feet, a twelve foot wave will be a rude awakening, not to mention dangerous. However, a slightly overhead wave (seven to eight foot face) would be a reasonable goal. Feeling a little nervous or an adrenaline rush while paddling out on a big day is normal; feeling terrified is a sign to stay out of the water! Find a break that is gentler and facing a direction that’s more sheltered from the swell.
Observe Channels, Rip Currents, and Other Surfers
If you are used to surfing at a certain spot, you may already be familiar with the channels and rip currents that make your everyday paddle-out easier. However, big waves break in a different place on the reef or sandbar than smaller waves, so your normal channel or rip current may not be present. Carefully observe to see if a channel has formed elsewhere. If you can’t find a clear rip or channel, look at the surfers already in the water to see who paddles out quickly; follow that path when you paddle out. Also, of course, look to see if anyone is making a solid paddling effort but just not getting anywhere; that will tell you where to avoid paddling out.
Number of Waves in a Set
On a small day, it is not as important to know how many waves are usually in a set, but on a big day, in a crowded lineup, or other challenging conditions, this is essential information. While everyone scrambles for the first or second wave of the set, you might be able to just relax if you know a third wave is coming. Also, if you are paddling back to the lineup on a big day and have just barely scratched your way over two large closeout set waves, it is important to know to keep paddling in top gear if you know, for example, there are five-wave sets. The number of waves in a set will vary, but it’s good to have a general idea, for example, “today there are between five and seven waves in each set”.
Size and Shape of Waves in Each Set
Observe the size and shape of each wave in the set. Sometimes there is not a pattern, but there often is. Sometimes, the biggest wave is first in each set, and sometimes it’s last. For example, today the first wave might be a closeout and best avoided. Again, this is helpful knowledge on a big day. It is especially tricky if it happens that the biggest wave is in the middle or end of the set, because you may have paddled inside in order to catch the first set wave, then if you don’t catch that smaller first wave, you get hit hard by the bigger waves in the set. If you observe the patterns, you can position yourself in the right way for the final waves of the set, which, typically, fewer people are competing for.
This knowledge is also useful when you are trying to paddle back to the lineup and don’t want to get caught inside; for example, if you know the first wave is usually the biggest in the set, you may be able to breathe easier once you get over that one. Conversely, if the set usually concludes with a big closeout, then you need to either paddle faster or prepare for a big duck-dive!
Differences in Sizes of Sets
Sometimes during a large swell, there are medium sized sets coming through every 5 to 10 minutes, and then there are larger sets that come by every twenty or thirty minutes. Be aware that during long-distance swells (such as summer south swells in California) the biggest set waves may be thirty or more minutes apart. Sometimes two swells hit at once; for example, one northwest swell and one southwest swell. In this case, the waves in a set may draw their energy from one or both swell directions and behave differently from the next set. If you are unsure about going out, be sure to observe for at least twenty or more minutes, depending on the swell, so you aren’t caught by surprise.
Number of Minutes Between Sets
Wear a wristwatch during your observation period and while surfing so you can count the number of minutes between sets. For example, you might observe, “It looks like a medium sized set comes by every five minutes and a monster-sized set comes by every twenty”. This helps avoid unnecessary punishment during the paddle out, because you can wait to paddle out until immediately after the biggest set has passed. Also, while you are waiting for waves, you can get into position if you think it’s almost time for the biggest set to arrive.
Observe Other Surfers Catching (or Not Catching) Waves
During large swells, a familiar spot will behave differently because the waves are breaking further out from the shore, breaking over different rocks or sandbars than they usually do. Even if the break is familiar to you, remember that it behaves differently during a large swell. This may mean your usual peak has shifted, so observe the other surfers. Look to see who is catching waves and who isn’t.
If you surf at a reefbreak, learn to identify boils. As the wave is beginning to break over a submerged rock or shallow spot on the reef, there may be a pock-mark on the wave or a textured patch at that spot. This is easier to see during glassy conditions. Check for boils even during everyday conditions, and remember that unfamiliar boils will appear during swells when the waves break further outside.
Sometimes boils will help you find the best place to sit, because waves tend to break over shallow spots. Looking for a boil might help you find an unoccupied peak or keep you lined up on the peak while everyone else drifts due to the current. The currents will probably be strong during a big swell, so you may need to constantly use a boil or sight off of landmarks to stay in the right position. However – watch out! A boil means a big rock is under the water! Observe carefully, because sometimes a boil identifies a dangerous spot that is best avoided.
Wipeouts and Duck-diving
Bigger surf means bigger duck-dives and, of course, bigger wipe-outs! As you surf bigger waves, your strength and skill for duck-diving will increase. Remember, though, to stay calm during a botched duck-dive or a wipeout, because you will only waste energy if you fight the turbulence. As you do in smaller surf, protect your head and neck if you are getting tumbled underwater or can’t feel the tug on your leash from your board. Even though a hold-down might seem like forever, remember that it is actually only a few seconds, so relax, and when you are able to, paddle back to your channel or rip current.
Go Easy on Yourself
When surfing in any conditions that push your comfort levels, such as bigger waves or an unfamiliar or competitive break, it can help to lower expectations. Have a short, focused session; don’t stay out until you are cold, tired, or frustrated. If you are not at your best, you may make mistakes you wouldn’t normally make, so having a set time-limit can help you here. Set a small goal, like being able to catch one wave. It may be that you don’t even catch one wave. Your goal may to simply be able to make the paddle out. It should not be overlooked how much skill is involved in simply paddling out, staying safe, duck-diving big waves, and getting back to land during challenging conditions.
Plenty of people have paddled out with the intention of simply observing and building confidence. If you don’t meet your goals, try to find something that you learned or did well. Remember what you used to think of as a “big wave” and that you eventually built up the skill and confidence for those conditions. As you push your limits, a few frustrating or difficult sessions are a given, but it will be worth it when you feel your big-wave board kick into gear!
Before you know it, you will be giddy with nervous anticipation when the storm charts light up purple and you know a swell is coming. Remember to give yourself plenty of time to learn and always observe the conditions carefully, and soon you’ll be screaming along on a big wave!