How to Spot a Wave While Surfing

Two Parts:General knowledge about wavesSo Cal surfing

Spotting a wave while surfing is about knowing when a good wave is coming, when to decide it's the one you're going to take and knowing when it's safe. This can take a lot of experience and this article begins with advice from an author who started surfing in 1967 and has surfed a lot of breaks in Southern California for over 50 years.

Part 1
General knowledge about waves

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    Know how to judge which wave to take. There are many factors that need to be considered, but for the beginner, the color of the wave can help you determine whether or not you are in a good spot to paddle for it. The color of the wave will darken just prior to breaking. In order for your board to start sliding down the wave, it has to be going fast enough, and the wave has to be steep enough.
    • Some longboarders use the 20 meter paddle technique. They start well before they have any chance of catching the wave, hoping to build enough speed so that they can start the slide as early as possible. This technique can be exhausting, but it's generally how beginners start and it's a relatively easy way to learn a proper take off (it's not a pop up, what are you a toaster pastry?).
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    Note where the wave peaks. As you progress in your skills, you will probably learn that the best and easiest place to catch the wave is where it "peaks" or first starts to break. This is where the longest rides are obtainable and where the wave's real power is. Of course, there's greater risk of "pearling" (having the nose of your board dip into the water throwing you headlong forward). When you have sufficient skills, you'll be able to do a "two paddle" or a "no paddle" take off. You use minimum energy for maximum enjoyment. You will learn to use the power of the wave to carry you without having to take a stroke, or maybe just one or two.
    • The take off is the most important aspect in riding a wave. If you want to surf, master your take off and be prepared for the thrills of your life, if you progress far enough, otherwise, you might as well just sup.
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    Stay observant at all times. Observation and practice will sharpen your skills.
    • Notice where the wave actually begins to break in your lineup.
    • Notice how the more experienced surfers seem to hang out in a particular area? That's because that's the best place to catch the wave.
    • The surfer closest to the crest has the right of way to the wave. Don't drop in. Doing so shows major disrespect for the surfer's ride, and that's not the reputation you want.
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    Learn about your local break. The tides have more to do with the quality of the waves you'll see than the time of day you get there. For example: Tourmaline Canyon Surfing Park, first municipal surfing park in the U.S. Unless the waves have some "juice," (power) high tide will generally kill the wave. The wave doesn't care if you're there for "dawn patrol."

Part 2
So Cal surfing

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    Know the Southern Californian wave types. Generally there are two kinds of waves you need to consider in So. Cal. There's the mushburger, and the barrel or tube.
    • Mushburgers roll gently, are sometimes called "fat" and take a long time to begin to break. They often "roll" underneath a surfer who hasn't gained enough speed to drop in or position enough to start the slide. The whitewater can be powerful depending on the size and strength of the wave. Don't be deceived though, what starts as a mushburger on the outside (the place farthest from the beach where the wave breaks) can easily become a steep, fast and radical wave on the inside (the place closest to the beach where the wave breaks). Learn your break!
    • The barrel or tube is more difficult to catch in that it generally doesn't build gradually, but shapes and breaks in a very short space of time and distance. When a wave is "throwing a lip" (the leading edge of the wave is thrown forward creating a hollow space within the wave, the barrel / tube), an inexperienced surfer can easily be "thrown over the falls" (unwittingly ride the wave from the inside out backward... most unpleasant), as the wave will carry the surfer and their board like a piece of driftwood to the shore. It is best to penetrate the wave low on the face and hope the current isn't strong enough to suck your board and yourself along with it.
      • Just a word of advice. The barrel can be more difficult for the inexperienced surfer to drop in on because of the timing. Without the muscle memory that comes from practice, they will most likely pearl, lose their balance on the take off or separate from their board during the drop and be unable to "land" their take off. Practice will overcome all these defects. If your break throws a lip often, best thing to do is dig it! You're very lucky, because So. Cal. beaches aren't prone to barrels much. They happen, but like many things, if any of the conditions aren't working, it isn't happening. Once again, best thing to do is learn your break, and find out which spot works best for your style of surfing, assuming you're skilled enough to have developed a style.


  • Learn the "sweet spot" on your board. Just like a tennis racquet or a baseball bat, a surfboard has a spot that fits you best. Find this spot and you'll paddle faster, catch more waves and have more fun!
  • Talk with the locals. You may run into one or two that are unfriendly, but generally surfers like nothing better than to talk surfing with other surfers. Given an opportunity to impress a "Barney" (new surfer, we used to call them groms) what surfer would pass it up?
  • Your dismount is almost as important as your take off, but presents far greater danger of injury. It is best to land on your board if you're still in deep water and can belly in, or land as flat on your back as you can, taking care to avoid rocks. Also, you risk a painful sting should you step on a Ray when you dismount.


  • Keep your eyes peeled. There are plenty of dangers in the water, such as sharks and other surfers in the way. Keep your eyes peeled for the other surfers, when you're thinking about taking a wave, look to the beach and make sure you've got a decent enough path to catch the wave without running some Barney over because they didn't have sense enough to move three feet out of your way... Don't be a Barney who doesn't move out of the way when someone is going for a wave either!
  • Respect the locals! Learn the rules of the road, who has the most right to the wave, etc. Never drop in or snake another surfer's wave. Once you've acquired sufficient skills (can stand and turn into a wave) you proceed from a Barney to a surfer. Don't think you're going to go and impress all the people in the lineup. Wait your turn, and when a good wave comes, make the best of it. You'll gain more respect and maybe even a hoot from a compadre.

Sources and Citations

  • All sources and citations courtesy of: Otter Longboarder Surfer Extraordinaire (original author)

Article Info

Categories: Surfing