Different types of surf breaks – a beginner’s guide to surfing waves

Mick Fanning Cloudbreak

Ever heard the term ‘surf breaks’ and not really sure what it meant? Don’t know your peelers from your close-outs? Or even why it’s important? As a beginner or novice, it’s hard enough trying to actually surf without having to know all that scientific stuff too!

But what if we told you that this knowledge will make you a better surfer? Let us explain without you needing a degree in oceanography!

Why do I need to know all this?

Surfing isn’t just about paddling around and catching a few waves. You need to understand how the ocean works so you can be a better surfer and stay safe. Knowing how waves are formed and the different types of surf breaks means you’ll get the most out of your surfing. You’ll understand the surf forecasts better and therefore catch the best waves at the right times.

You’ll also improve a lot quicker and surf the best spots for your ability!

How waves break

Waves form hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of miles out to sea. They’re mainly generated by wind stirring up the ocean’s surface. This creates energy which, as it travels, generates a series of waves also known as ‘swell’.

There are two types of swell – groundswell and wind swell;

  • Ground swell – generated by storms and strong winds and travels thousands of miles. These waves will really pack a punch, be pretty powerful and big. They’re perfect for surfing. You’ll see this type of swell coming in as lines out to the horizon.
  • Wind swell – generated by localised winds. Not as powerful as ground swell and not great for surfing. You’ll see pretty choppy waves as the waves don’t hold their shape well.

What happens when waves reach the shore

When waves reach shallower water, they slow down. The bottom of the wave decreases in speed due to it dragging on the seabed. The top of the wave, still travelling at the same pace, then overtakes it and pitches forward. The waves ‘break’ and generate rideable, surfing waves.

How Waves Break on the Beach

Because the shape of the seabed varies from beach to beach, the speed at which this ‘dragging’ takes place also varies. This is the key to the different types of waves. The shape of the seabed directly affects the shape of the wave.

Types of waves

There are several different types of waves depending on;

  • Type of swell (ground swell or wind swell)
  • Wind direction (offshore or onshore)
  • Seabed features like sand, rocks or reef
  • The gradient of the sea bed (steeper seabed = steeper wave)

The most common wave types include;

  • Spilling waves – move gradually across a gently sloping seabed. Ideal for beginners as the wave breaks slowly. Often called ‘crumbly’ or ‘mushy’
  • Plunging waves – hit a steeper seabed and break faster with the sudden change in depth. The top of the wave explodes on the bottom. Often known as ‘hollow’ or barreling waves
  • Surging waves – when groundswells meet very steep seabeds. Moves very fast but the wave doesn’t dissipate much energy. Can be dangerous due to the backwash.

Waves to avoid

You’ll also hear surfers talk about ‘close-outs’. This is the opposite of a peeling wave – the whole wave breaks at the same time without a clean rideable section. If you take off on one of these, you’ll know about it!

Double-ups occur when a wave catches up with the wave in front of it. The energy combines generating a powerful, hollow wave.These type of waves can catch you off-guard and be difficult to navigate. Best left to the experts!

Types of surf breaks

The type of surf breaks are governed by the shape of the seabed or obstructions such as submerged rock or ‘reef’ that the waves break onto when they enter shallower water. There are 3 types of surf break – each one will suit different levels of surfers.

Beach breaks

Beach Break DiagramAt beach breaks, waves break over a sandy seabed. Because sand shifts easily, the seabed changes frequently so it doesn’t necessarily mean that the waves will permanently stay the same. Sometimes sand banks change within hours, days or even months and are affected by big storms and swells.

Types of waves found at beach breaks

These will vary depending on the steepness of the beach and the shifting sand banks. Some beaches are better suited to beginners because they slope more gently whereas others produce hollow waves better suited to advanced surfers.

Who should surf beach breaks

This type of surf break is best for beginner surfers. The sandy bottom is softer and more forgiving for learning and is the top choice for surf schools and instructors.

If you’re a more experienced surfer, the paddle out may suit you better as it’s often longer and tricker to navigate. Sometimes there’s no clearly defined channel so it’s not always easy to get through the whitewater to the line-up. You’ll also need to be aware of rip currents which can be less predictable.

Some of the best waves in the world occur at beach breaks. Think Hossegor in France, Trestles in California or even Fistral Beach here in Cornwall!

Point breaks

Point Break DiagramOk so this one you may have heard of thanks to the 1991 film ‘Point Break’ (or the not so good 2015 remake!).

At point breaks, the swell lines usually hit a point or headland at an angle and break around it. They can have rock, coral or even sandy beds.

Types of waves found at point breaks

The waves peel or ‘spill’ far longer than beach or reef breaks. It can be a really long ride so it’s not uncommon to see multiple surfers riding the same wave – usually a cardinal sin in surfing! Waves at point breaks can also plunge through faster, hollow sections.

Who should surf point breaks

Point breaks are ideal for longboarding and more consistent than beach breaks due to their shape. They’re not ideal for beginners due to navigating around rocks but for intermediate surfers wanting to nail a manoeuvre or improve their style, point breaks are perfect!

World famous point breaks include Bells Beach in Australia and J-Bay in South Africa. They’re not so common in the UK but there are a few around…if you know where to look!

Reef breaks

Reef Break DiagramAt reef breaks, the waves break over a coral or rocky bottom. The seabed never changes and so the only variables are the size and direction of the swell.

Types of waves found at reef breaks

Those gnarly surging waves we told you about? You’ll find them at reef breaks. Super fast and incredibly hollow, even the world’s best surfers get caught out on them.

Who should surf reef breaks

They’re jaw dropping to look at but before you get all doey-eyed, a word of caution. As a beginner you should avoid reef breaks. And if you want evidence, just look at these bone crunching wipeouts at Teahupoo.

Best left to the experts, reef breaks have a clearly defined channel to paddle out. The waves are pretty exceptional so advanced surfers will be in their element!

The most famous reef breaks are in dreamy tropical locations – Pipeline in Hawaii, Teahupoo in Tahiti, and Cloudbreak in Fiji. But believe it or not, there are some decent quality reef breaks here in the UK including Porthleven in Cornwall, Thurso in Scotland and Mullaghmore in Ireland which is a premier big wave surf spot!

Knowing the different types of wave and surf breaks will set you apart from your mates who can’t be bothered to do their research. Respect and understand the ocean and you’ll be ripping in no time!

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