Your phone is blowing up. There is a swell coming in. But did you know that learning the science behind the waves can help you ride the wave in style? Even when choosing a board, it is important to understand the type of waves that you will generally surf.

Last Wednesday, we discussed how when the wind blows on the surface of the ocean it creates wave energy. This energy can help form two main types of swells. Each one of these will have a different affect on the waves that break at your surf spot.

The most common types of swells are:

  • Ground:

    Groundswell is the reason you can have quite large waves washing up on your beach even when there’s little or no wind blowing. Groundswell is generated by storms and very strong winds over a long distance in the open ocean — the bigger the storm the more punch the swell will be packing. This wave energy can reach as deep as 1,000 feet and travel for thousands of miles, ultimately producing stellar surfing waves.

  • Wind:

    Waves generated nearby (by winds blowing in the local area) are known as wind swell. They are usually choppier, smaller, messier, harder to surf, and less interesting to surfers than groundswell. This kind of swell is created by wind that is much more localized and closer to shore. As a result, this type of wave energy doesn’t run as deep and is generally not nearly as powerful as groundswell.

At times, surf spots are hit by both ground and wind swells from multiple directions simultaneously.

Understanding the Wind: Onshore, Offshore, and Cross Shore

We know that without wind, we would not have waves. But did you know that where the wind is blowing from is the ultimate deciding factor between a really great day of surfing or a day of surfing a bunch of mush?

  • An onshore wind is generally the worst wind for surfing. The wind blows in from the sea, causing waves crumble and have no shape, making the waves unridable.
  • A cross shore wind does not give much shape to the waves either as it has much of the same effect as an onshore wind.
  • But, an offshore wind is the best wind for surfing. It ensures that the waves rolling in are well formed and break cleanly.

However, when we are talking swells we must also consider refraction. So what is wave refraction?

We touched on refraction a bit last week. To review,

As waves come into shallower waters, either closer to a shore or near a reef or sandbar, the wave energy and the decrease in water depth pushes the wave upwards. When this happens, the back of the wave begins to move faster than the front. When the wave becomes too high, it breaks.

The way in which the line of swell eventually bends as it breaks is called “refraction”. Refraction is 100% dependent on landscape and depth of the ocean bottom. This combined with the wind can create the most epic surf or a totally washed out day.

There are two types of refraction you’ll notice at surf spots:

  • Concave:

    This is when a line of swell travels over a raised bottom that has deeper water around it (like a reef break – see below). In this case, the farthest ends of the wave will bend toward the shore. From the side, the wave begins to hollow out and start to look like a “bowl” with energy focused at a peak in the middle. Known as “concave refraction”, it can produce excellent surfing waves. These wave typically can be ridden to the left or the right of the peak.

  • Convex:

    This type of wave occurs when a wave encounters a large area of land, much outstanding in the sea, for example, on a small Peninsula, Cape, or stone ridge. In this case, the wave also slows down at the point of contact and is bent to this point. But in this case the energy dissipation from this point on a large area. The phenomenon is called dispersion or convex refraction. A great example of this would be a point break (see below). These waves are usually are not as powerful, but become longer breaks that are capable of holding their form for a long time.

Types of Breaks There are three types of breaks that produce waves for surfing:

  • Beach:

    In Florida, beach breaks are the most common. A beach break is a surf-able wave that breaks onto a beach. These breaks are waves that break on sandbars or are caused by refraction from a jetty or inlet. Breaks are usually closer to shore and easier to get to. Wave shape, size, and peak location at beach breaks can vary significantly from day to day as the sand shifts. The sandy bottom at these breaks makes them a safer choice for novice surfers. However, beach breaks are not as reliable as the underlying sand can shift in big storms and swell, making the location inconsistent. (Check out Surfline’s Mechanics of the famous beach break at Hossegor)


  • Reef:

    We also have a few remaining reef breaks. Reef Breaks are waves that break on shelves of rock or coral. Unlike beach breaks, reef breaks are much more consistent in terms of wave shape and peak location. Most importantly for surfers, reefs can create phenomenal waves that are consistent and can hollow out. (See more on Surfline’s Mechanics of the famous Bonsai Pipeline)


  • Point:

    Point Breaks are not usually found in our area. When you think of a point break, think of Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa. Point breaks are simply areas where waves break on a section of land that juts out from shore. When swells come from the right direction, they will wrap around these points to create epic waves. When the conditions are perfect a point break can create a really long wave to ride as the wave wraps around a point or headland and then runs along the coastline of a bay or cove.
    Point breaks can have rock, coral, or sandy bottoms. Most surfers would consider a point break the perfect wave to surf as the actual time riding the surfboard will be the longest. Some of the most consistent spots in the world, with the best-shaped waves and the longest rides, are point breaks. (Check out Surfline’s Mechanics of the Point Break at Jeffrey’s Bay)


So as we come into our local season for waves, we hope that this give you a little better understanding of how waves break and the reasons certain spots are favorites of the locals. And, with our local beach breaks constantly changing, you may get lucky and find a new secret spot this season. Tune in next Wednesday as we discuss how to correctly wax a board.


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