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Beginning Surfing Waves

Updated on March 18, 2012

I've been a wave watcher all my life. My fascination with waves started when I was a teenaged girl who had a huge crush on a classmate who was a surfer. My devotion to waves and watching them stemmed from this relationship and the fact that I was mostly onshore wave watching. While I perfected the perfect tan and admired that boy's superhero courage on the waves, I developed a thirst for wanting to understand waves.

Waves are among the least understood things most of us take for granted. However, if you are a surfer, waves are everything and a real surfer never takes a wave for granted. I learned a lot on that beach watching the ocean waves back then, mostly from surfers because knowing and understanding waves is key to being a good surfer.

Surfer and his girl
Surfer and his girl | Source

What Makes A Wave?

If you think hard about it, water waves are simply only one kind of wave. There are all kinds of waves. There are waves in liquids, solids, gases, brains, heat, seismic, sound, and even in outer space. All waves have certain things in common regardless of what kind of wave they are, because scientifically a wave is a transfer of energy from one place to the next.

Surfers heading back out to catch a wave.
Surfers heading back out to catch a wave. | Source

How Ocean Waves Are Formed?

Simply put, waves are made up of a circular rolling of ocean waters. Most all ocean waves are created when wind flows across the water's surface, transferring the wind's energy into the water. An ocean wave is actually the movement of energy through the water. It's important to also remember that behind that wind generated wave, there is a greater power, that of the sun.

The most fascinating part about wave energy in the ocean is even the smallest of waves are actually lifting thousands of tons of water. This is something I personally like thinking about every time I stand in the ocean water and feel the waves lifting me. It's one of Mother Nature's true miracles even if it is pure physics.

Just looking at an ocean wave the deceives the eyes. The wave is appearing to carry water to the shore, when actually, the wave energy is really moving forward, not the actual water itself. It's the very reason that surfers can bob along in ocean water while waiting for the next breaking wave.

Waves coming onshore
Waves coming onshore | Source

How Swells Are Measured

Very often you'll hear on a news swells being " ten feet" or "twelve feet". So what does this mean? Well, a ten foot swell would meant the water rolls up five feet about the flat ocean surface and then the other side of the swell is five feet lower. So in terms of measuring a ten foot swell is five feet high on each side, and a twelve feet swell is six feet on each side.

Swells - At the Heart of All Waves

At the beginning of all waves is an energy phenomenon known as swells. At the heart of all waves these swells are the simply the process of how the energy of the wave gets organized out in open water into two different types of swells. Swells are rolling waves that storms on the ocean create. As they are formed these rolling waves radiate further and further away from the storm. The stronger the storm and the closer to shore, the more swells will be found.

There are two types of swells. The first kind is called a "ground swell" which is formed by winds that are far away, strong winds that are blowing over long distances and for long periods of time. Ground swells have a lot of energy because they don't lose their energy like wind swells due to the fact that their energy can be over a thousand feet deep. This phenomenon allows the ground swells to increase their energy as they move into more shallow water.

The second kind of swell is called a "wind swell" which is formed by winds that are close to land. These swells don't have the energy as great as a ground swell but they are more consistent in stacking up in rows, ideal from a surfing point of view. They aren't deep, actually only measuring a little more than one hundred feet or more, so they lose their energy and disappear quicker.

The great how high was that wave debate
The great how high was that wave debate | Source

Where Does A Wave Begin?

Ocean waves always begin in the open ocean and don't break until they come into the shallower water near the shore. As waves move into less deep water, the lower part of the wave slows down, while the top part of the wave keeps moving forward. Then, at the highest point of the wave, the crest of the wave, just simply falls or folds over.

Waves off Daytona Beach, Florida
Waves off Daytona Beach, Florida | Source

Differences In Ocean Waves

Waves, like people, come in all sizes. With waves the power and the duration of the wind is at the base of what creates them and makes them their size. Big or small waves are just one of many examples of how come the ocean is a place of not only continual movement but change.

Gentle shore waves
Gentle shore waves | Source

Types of Surfing Waves

There are five basic types of waves important to surfers:

Closeouts - The least favorite type of surfing waves. These are waves that break all at the same time.

Crumbly - A favorite and most desirable types of surfing waves for a beginning surfer to learn on. Gentle waves that dissipate quickly.

Double-ups - Only for expert surfers, these waves occur when two waves meet and align, resulting in extra powerful waves in terms of energy.

Reforms - Medium experienced surfers favor this type and and advanced surfers will not be excited about them.

Tubing - Not for beginners, only for experienced surfers. These plunging waves happen when a swell hits shallow water immediately after being in deep water.

2004 Indian Ocean earthquake Maldives tsunami wave
2004 Indian Ocean earthquake Maldives tsunami wave | Source

Wave Myth Buster - Tsunami

While Hollywood would like for us to believe that tsunamis rise up to be towering waves looming over a doomed beach or city, the truth is that the devastation is not caused by gigantic wave height, but by the enormous volume of ocean water that surges across the shore.


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    • Ov Strickland profile image

      Ov Strickland 

      6 years ago from El Segundo, CA

      Love the pictures and videos. Great hub, Jerilee. Well done! Thanks for sharing.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      7 years ago from New York

      I've always loved to watch waves and figured wind had something to do with them. This was so educational and packed with information. From What makes a wave to Myth Busters you've done a great job of covering waves! Voted up and interesting. Thanks for SHARING.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      7 years ago from United States

      Thanks Paradise 7! As a native Californian growing up in the 1960s the songs of the Beach Boys echo in my head even here in Florida.

    • Paradise7 profile image


      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      LOvley hub on surfing. The Beach Boys would LOVE it! Interesting info on the dynamics of wave formation; the pics are all great, too. Really makes everyone want to go to the beach, NOW!


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