ave you ever packed up your surfing gear, got in the car and driven to the beach only to find that the wind is howling and there’s no one out besides kite surfers? Did you get on your knees and curse the wind (“damn you wind!!!!!”) or did you think, “hey maybe I should read up on the wind?” Knowing the facts on the right wind for surfing your favorite beaches can prevent you from encountering these dreaded ‘victory at sea’ days.
No Wind = No Waves…
Before you go cursing the wind to all hell as I sometimes do, remember wind is the actual cause of the waves we love to surf. Waves are caused by displacement of water, and that displacement is always caused by wind. This displacement occurs when the molecules of wind rub against the molecules of water in the same direction. This causes the water molecules to be set in motion in little chops all over the sea surface that merge into bigger, collective chops.
The factors that influence these collective chops into becoming powerful, groomed swells are wind velocity, wind area (fetch), and duration. Wind velocity is the speed of the wind. Fetch is the amount of ocean surface area affected by wind blowing in the same direction. Finally, duration is the amount of time those winds blow over the same part of the ocean. To gather all the little chops into bigger chops and make a huge swell, the perfect storm is strong steady winds blowing at maximum velocity over thousands of miles in the same direction (fetch aimed towards your beach) for days on end.
That’s the most basic version of why you’ve got to love wind to some extent if your a surfer. If you want to delve deeper into the science of waves and the source of ground swell, check out Storm Surf’s Wave Basics
. Next, let’s talk about the wind directions.
Offshore = YAY! (With Exceptions)
Any surfer will tell you that the perfect wind conditions for surfing is a light offshore breeze. This makes the waves feather and ‘stand up’ allowing for smooth, clean conditions, whackable walls and barrels. A great indicator is any flags along the beach blowing towards the horizon. If you see that, you’ll know it’s offshore. In California, this means you are waiting for the wind coming off the desert from the East, conditions often found in the early fall months like September and October. On the East Coast of Australia, Westerly winds, also blowing off the desert, give offshore conditions.
Here’s the exception:
The howling offshore days where wind blowing from the land out to the ocean is above 8kts. As much as I love light offshore days, I hate heavy offshore days for these reasons. First of all, strong offshore days can make it extremely difficult to paddle out or even knock the swell flat. Then, if you do reach the outside, it can be impossible to actually catch a wave. The spray from the wind blowing against the wave will blast you in the face as you scrape and paddle your hardest to get into the wave and not get blown off the back. As a female surfer that is not particularly heavy, I struggle in these conditions. The wind basically forces me off the back of the wave. If you are surfing in strong offshore winds, I recommend a bigger, heavier board. Leave the extra light epoxy at home, put your head down, close your eyes and paddle like hell!
Onshore = BOO! (With Exceptions)
Generally speaking, wind that blows towards the coast creates choppy, undesirable conditions that would turn a surfer away from the beach. That being said, a light onshore wind can create crumbling waves that are more gentle and easy to catch, especially for beginners. More good news about onshore conditions for beginners is that many more experienced, picky surfers will not surf so you may find a less crowded lineup. A very strong onshore wind will not appeal to very many surfers exception super-professional guys who use the wind to lift their boards while doing aerial stunts.
Knowledge = POWER (Without Exceptions)
Understanding the topography, geography and prevalent winds where you surf is invaluable and, much like mastering your local break, can take a lifetime. When I moved to Australia, I constantly heard people talking about the Nor-easter, the Southerly, and the dreaded Devil Wind (SE). I had never heard so much wind talk in California (see kelp beds discussion below). I listened, read the reports and watched. Soon enough, I came to understand the wind patterns based on the seasons and weather. This knowledge now provides a framework for which beach and which part of that beach I surf everyday.
Kelp Beds & Headlands = WOO HOO!
My understanding of the wind and its application to when and where I surf is based on my cumulative knowledge of surf spots around the world. Even though I’ve battled and planned around windy conditions in Indonesia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua (where it’s offshore and often howling, all the time) and other destinations, the places I understand the wind best are my two homes: the East Coast of Australia and Southern California. What’s important to comprehend about wind in these two locations besides the directional effects are that in both places you have a Wind Helper. Think of your Wind Helper as a location-specific little buddy who’s job it is to make your beaches more surfable.
On the east coast of Australia, endless headlands exist, often framing both sides of each beach. The good thing about all these headlands is that they serve as excellent Wind Helpers by blocking the wind when the it’s onshore or side-shore and would normally destroy the conditions. The headlands also groom the swells by forcing them wrap around the land mass and line up perfectly. We can sum up how to use the headlands to your advantage like this:
South/Southeasterly winds (usually wintertime) = go to southern headlands for protection from wind and rights for days
North/northeasterly winds (usually summertime) = check the northern ends of our beaches for wind protection (and often good lefts).
Westerly winds (N or S and not too strong) = yay it’s offshore!
There’s a reason I didn’t pay that much attention to wind when I lived in San Diego, California. My Wind Helper: the kelp beds. Sure, I knew that south wind sucked for everywhere except a couple of spots. But the reason wind wasn’t a constant issue was the kelp beds. The kelp beds block the wind and create glassy conditions, especially at the reefs, year round. I’m not saying that the kelp beds block all directions of wind and create perfect conditions all the time, but they certainly help diminish the onshore breeze. When the kelp beds couple with light off shores, look out, perfect conditions may abound.
My best advice is to listen to what experienced surfers have to say about the wind in their home area. If you understand the basic principles, listen when you can and then try to observe the wind doing its thing, you’ll be on the right track to deciphering your local conditions and being able to score! Remember because the ocean is constantly changing, your knowledge will constantly evolve. Listen, observe and score!