Reading Waves


Reading Waves

In this guide to surfing and self coaching we cover surfing best practices, how to’s & tips for new & developing surfers. Learn techniques used by surf coaches, discover common errors and clear up misconceptions.

Each chapter of the guide highlights different key areas that enable surfers to develop From how to catch more waves to understanding how to judge wave height or how to duck dive, each chapter is crammed with actionable detail to help you understand and improve your surfing.


  • 1. Body Positioning & Paddling Out
  • 2. Controlling your Surfboard
  • 3. Assessing Surf Conditions
  • 4. How to Read Waves
  • 6. How to Pop Up on a Surfboard
  • 7. Turtle Rolls & Duck Diving
  • 8. Angled Take-Offs & Generating Speed
  • 9. Trimming, Carving & Bottom Turns


Learning how to assess or read a wave is the hardest aspect of surfing that new or developing surfers will face. Like the old saying goes ‘there is no shortcut to experience’ and this couldn’t be more true when learning how to read waves.

However, knowing that you are asking the right questions, forming a mental schema or thought pattern for learning and developing this skill will make you feel like you are progressing in the right direction which can be half the battle.

Below is a basic process to follow so that you can develop and fine tune your wave reading skills to help you decide on the best course of action each time you see an approaching wave.


The first two questions that will need answering are:

Is that wave steep enough to land on me? 


Where is the peak going to break?

As a wave approaches, ask yourself:  Is that wave steep enough to land on me? If the answer is no, you then need to answer the question Where is the peak going to break?

To answer this you need to guesstimate the distance of where the peak breaks in meters and watch the wave until it breaks.

As a set or wave approaches ask yourself… Is that wave steep enough to land on me?

Yes – Paddle towards the wave and the safety of deep water immediately.  If you are daunted by the on coming wave or do not wish to attempt to catch it, the best course of action is to paddle straight out to sea and to the safety of deeper water where waves will not be able to break.

No – If the answer is no, you have two options:

1. Estimate how far away in metres the wave will break. Watch the wave until it breaks and calculate how good your reckoning was and fine tune your estimation for the wave.

*If you guessed that the wave was not steep enough to land on you and that it will break 6 metres away from where you are sitting, but in fact the wave broke 8 metres away from you, then you know when you see a wave that looks a similar shape, size and steepness of that from where you are sitting the wave should break roughly 8 meters away.

2. Start to paddle towards the peak and to where you think or anticipate the best place to catch the wave will be.

As you paddle you should be constantly assessing how the wave is forming, adjusting your guesstimate, paddle speed and position to reflect the changing shape of the wave.


The next question that must ask is which way a wave will break?

Typically each wave will have a peak or highest part that forms first, this is the indication of where the wave will break first in a direction – left, right or both.

As a wave approaches pay attention to the angle of the wave from the highest point down to the water level. Look for which side of the peak has the steepest angle down or sloping to the flat water.

The side of the peak with the steepest angle down to the flat water is the direction that the wave will break.

Whenever you speak about wave directions, this is always from the surfers perspective in the water or as the surfer surfs it.


As you look at an oncoming wave and the angle sloping down to the flat water is to the right of the peak – this wave will break left.


If the angle of the oncoming wave is sloping to the left of the peak this wave will break right.

Remember – the direction of the wave is as the surfer surfs it and so confusingly this is opposite to what you would see on the beach.


You can spot when a wave looks like it will close out or break all at once by how the peak is forming. If you see a large wall of water covering equal or similar height either side of the peak (no distinctive angle or slope down to the water from the peak) this is a good indication that the wave will break all at once or close out.


Judging wave quality is one of the unique components that makes surfing so special compared to many other sports and is both an industry and individual perspective.

Broadly speaking surfers will want a wave that isn’t too big or too small, is smooth on the surface, easy to read, and has good potential to peal gently towards the shore, without breaking in large sections allowing for a mixture of multiple linking manoeuvres.

Each wave will contain a mixture of the below aspects that an individual will prioritise to deem worthy of catching. These aspects of a wave are given more merit and prioritised differently by each surfer.

  • Wave shape
  • Wave height
  • How the wave forms and peaks
  • How the wave breaks
  • Potential to preform manoeuvres
  • The more surfing ability you possess the more of these attributes you will require in a wave.


Being vigilant in assessing potential waves is an important part of catching more waves or at least being in the right position to catch more waves.

When surfers look out to the horizon for approaching waves, this is a good time to rest or reposition yourself, it’s also the start of the line up jostling competition for who can spot and assess an approaching set first.

When choosing a wave you’ll need to give yourself as much time as possible to figure out what is happening.

Action: As waves come in sets and each set has a similar period of time between each one, make a mental note of the time between sets and be actively moving when you estimate a new approaching set.

If there is a set of waves every ten or twelve minutes, pay attention to this and then after eight or so minutes, start to paddle around slowly seeking in anticipation of an approaching set.

“Whoever can spot, assess and paddle into position (closest to the peak) first, wins the right to surf the wave.

Action: Spotting a potential wave early and starting to build your paddle speed as you move towards the on coming peak allows you to have already adjusted your body position on the board and to have built some paddle speed.

To do this whilst assessing how the wave is beginning to form gives you a big advantage over other surfers in your vicinity who are still sitting on their boards, increasing your chances of being the closest to the peak and gaining priority over more waves.

common error that new or developing surfers make is assessing what the wave is doing whilst sitting on their boards.

This often leads to the surfer only having a small window of time to lie on their board, adjust their body position, build their paddle speed and position themselves correctly in the line up to catch a wave.

Only to be out positioned by the surfer that was first on their board and paddling into position whilst you were staring at the wave trying to make a decision on what you should do.

By having built up a small amount of momentum whilst making a decision on what the wave is doing will make switching into your top paddle gear quick, resulting in you being able easily match the pace of the wave and pop up with speed.

Putting this into practice for each approaching set of waves will give you a greater chance of being in the right place at the right time.