Surfing is usually associated with warm ocean beaches like those found in the U.S. states of Hawaii and California, and countries such as Australia. Surfers, however, do not limit themselves to warm weather or ocean waves. Surfers dust a foot of snow off their surfboards to chase waves off the coast of Antarctica. They trek through jungles to pristine beaches in Southeast Asia. They share the water with great white sharks in South Africa. They even ride the “silver dragon,” the giant tidal bore of China’s Qiantang River.
Surfing is possible in all these places because the concept is simple. A breaking wave, a board and a brave athlete are all that is needed for the sport. (Sometimes, you don’t even need the board. This is called bodysurfing.)
The concept is simple, but the practice is not. Surfers paddle or are towed in to the surf line, the area of open water where waves break as they near a coast. There, surfers sit on their boards and watch waves roll in to shore. Experienced surfers assess several different qualities in every wave. A wave must be strong enough to ride, but not dangerous enough to toss the surfer as it breaks. Surfers must be able to ride and safely exit the wave—not too close to shore or rocks. For river waves or those at artificial surfing facilities, surfers watch waves develop and jump right into the breaking wave.
When surfers see a wave they can ride, they paddle quickly to catch the rising wave. Just as the wave breaks, the surfers jump from their bellies to their feet, crouching on their boards. Being able to stand up is the mark of an experienced surfer. Surfers ride the wave as it breaks toward the shore. As the wave falls and loses power, surfers can exit the wave by turning their boards back toward open water. Surfers can also exit by simply lowering themselves back to their boards and paddling back out. Of course, the force of the wave can end surfers’ rides by crashing on or over them. Surfers can be tossed above a wave or below it. Then the process of paddling out to the surf line begins again.
Surfers must be aware of their physical skills as well as the environment. There are several different types of surfing (longboard, shortboard or big-wave, for instance). Each requires a different sets of skills. All surfers must be aware of weather patterns and topography, or surface features, of the shore. Experienced surfers are also familiar with bathymetry, the depth of the body of water. They must be strong swimmers. Surfers must also have an excellent sense of balance and be able to quickly react to changes in the environment. (For this reason, skateboarding is a common hobby among surfers—and surfing is a common hobby among skateboarders.)
Men and women from all over the world practice surfing, and the surfing community shares a concern for the ocean environment.
Surfing depends on the science of hydrodynamics. Hydrodynamics is the study of water in motion. Oceanographers, ship captains, and engineers must all be familiar with hydrodynamics.
Surfers seek out strong waves called swells. Swells are stable waves that form far away from the beach. Swells are formed by storm systems or other wind patterns.
Two things determine the strength of a swell. First, swells are influenced by the strength of the winds that form them. Swells can help predict how strong a storm is as it approaches land. Most storm systems that form far out to sea never reach land with much strength. Sometimes, however, they do. These storms arrive as hurricanes or typhoons. Hours before a hurricane approaches shore, large and frequent swells signal its arrival. Surfers have been known to ignore hurricane warnings and stay out on stormy beaches because the swells are so frequent and strong.
The second feature that influences swell strength is the wind’s fetch. Fetch is a geographic term that describes the amount of open water over which a wind has blown. The length of fetch is why ocean swells are usually much stronger than lake swells. In the open ocean, a wave's fetch can be thousands of kilometers.
Weather forecasting can predict both elements of swells—offshore storm systems and the length of a wind’s fetch. Surfers consult these surf zone forecasts and can chase swells all over the world.
Not all waves are swells, however. Most are smaller, more unpredictable waves, called wind waves. Swells are a type of wind wave (they are caused by wind), but the term usually refers to waves caused by wind with a shorter fetch. Wind waves have more chop than swells. Chop is the amount of short, irregular shifts in wave formation. Choppy water can be dangerous for surfers because the direction and strength of waves change from minute to minute.
Breaking Waves Both wind waves and swells must break (crash) for them to be of use to surfers. A calm day with no wind may be perfect for beachgoers, but makes for lousy surfing weather. Surfers need a reliable set of breaking waves, which requires moderate offshore wind.
The most significant factor in how a wave develops is the underwater topography. Topography is the surface features of an area. Waves can be weakened or strengthened by topographical features of the seabed.
Surf breaks are permanent features that cause waves to break in a predictable way. Reefs, sandbars, and large underwater boulders are examples of common surf breaks. Ocean trenches and submarine canyons can also determine how a wave breaks. Surfers must account for the presence of sea life, such as a kelp forest, a dense cluster of large seaweed. Seaweed can slow a breaking wave.
A wave breaks when its base (the water beneath the surface) can no longer sustain its height. Near shore, waves break because water gets shallower as it nears a beach. The shallower a wave base, the more likely the wave is to break. The region of water where waves begin to break is called the surf line. Waves crash forward, their tips turning frothy and white. Sometimes, a breaking wave crashes into another wave. Other waves curl in on themselves, forming a tube near the crest, or top. Many surfers consider these tubular wave breaks the most desirable to surf.
There are four major types of waves. Experienced surfers can ride all four types, although each has its own difficulties.
Rolling waves (1) are the most familiar waves, and the type most surfers prefer. These waves break in a stable pattern. Rolling waves are usually a feature of a flat, sandy shoreline. The rolling waves at Hossegor, France, on the Bay of Biscay, can reach more than 6 meters (20 feet).
Dumping waves (2) are more unpredictable. These waves are the result of an abrupt change in seabed topography. A steep underwater cliff or mountain can create dumping waves. These waves are usually limited to experienced surfers, as they are dangerous. Dumping waves can dump surfers far beneath the water’s surface with great force.
Dumping waves can be the result of point breaks. Point breaks occur when a wave hits a point of rocky shore jutting into the ocean. Agadir, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, boasts several strong point breaks.
Dumping waves can also result from reef breaks. Reef breaks occur as waves pass over a coral or rocky reef. Reef breaks can be quite dangerous if the wave dumps the surfer on the reef. However, reef breaks provide some of the most rewarding waves. In Fiji, a reef break called Cloudbreak draws many experienced surfers.
Surging waves (3) are the most dangerous. They are most often present on steep or rocky shores. Unlike rolling or dumping waves, surging waves do not break as they near the shore. They break only at the shore itself. Surging waves are dramatic as they crash against rocky cliffs, for instance. They have the ability to throw surfers against the rock or reef, as well as drag them back to the ocean.
Surging waves are often produced by large storms. Surfers can ride waves ahead of storms or waves produced by storms hitting land far away. Surfers in western Florida, for instance, flocked to beaches as Hurricane Ike hit the western Gulf of Mexico in 2008.
Standing waves (4) are also called stationary waves. These waves are constant and do not lose strength. The factors that contribute to these waves—the topography of the region, water flow and wind patterns—do not change. Examples of standing waves are river rapids and waves created by artificial wave machines, called wave pools. In landlocked areas, wave pools (often located at water parks) allow surfers to practice without having to travel. The first wave pool in the U.S. was established in 1969 in Tempe, Arizona.