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How to Read a Surf Report

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

It can be so confusing trying to work out when the conditions will be best to surf especially when you’re learning!

Let me explain all the different parts of a surf report, what you should be looking for to score good waves and how to avoid bad or dangerous conditions.

The first thing to note is where you go to get your surf reports. There are a few different options that seem to all be accurate for New Zealand conditions: Surf2surf, Metservice, MagicSeaweed, Swellmap, Windy and Surf Forecast Muriwai Surf School uses Swellmap)

If you currently use one of these sites and are familiar with it, stick with it.

I get my reports from Swellmap (graph below of Muriwai beach) and find it does the trick.

I’ve split the graph into 5 sections and will explain what each section means and how to understand it.

1- Rating

How the conditions are rated is generally very misleading, especially for beginner and intermediate surfers. The rating is designed more for experienced surfers but even then, I personally just use it to quickly tell if the wind is heading in the right direction.

The rating doesn’t take the tide into consideration and will still give good ratings when the waves are over 3 meters which is starting to get seriously big, no matter what level of surfer you are.

Tip: Try and think of the rating as scoring how clean the waves will be out of 10 and not how good the surf will be for you.

2- Wind

Firstly, most surfers will talk about the wind being offshore, onshore, ect., rather than the specific direction. What do these mean?

Offshore- As surfers, we are looking for Offshore winds. That means the wind is blowing from off the land out to sea. This creates clean waves and great conditions.

Cross shore- Cross shore winds blow parallel to the beach and can create a variation of clean and messy surf. Light cross shore winds can generate great conditions.

Onshore- Onshore winds blow from the sea towards the land and generate messy, choppy waves.

Seabreeze- In summer, a Seabreeze can develop when there are light winds in the morning. The warmer air from the land rises and gets replaced by cooler air from off the ocean. This creates an onshore breeze and happens around midday, depending on the land temperature .

The vertical axis of the graph has the wind strength in Knots and the horizontal axis has the direction.

At Muriwai Beach, the offshore winds are East(E) through to North East(NE).

Excellent Conditions- will have winds under 12 knots from the E and NE.

Good Conditions- will have winds from any other direction, under 8 knots or offshores over 12 knots.

Average Conditions- will have SE, S, SW, W, NW and N winds 8-15 knots.

Poor conditions- will have winds SE, S, SW, W, NW and N over 15 knots.

Tip: As a beginner or intermediate surfer, the wind isn’t as important as you might think. Look for light winds and you’ll be sweet!

3- Swell

There is always a lot going on here, but the swell is the most important part of reading the surf report so it’s crucial to understand.

Here’s a break down of what we are looking at.

Wave (Light blue)

Height of the waves. This is the swell height plus the chop height. The more light blue you see, the more messy/choppy the waves will be. This will coincide with strong onshore winds.

Swell (Dark blue)

Height of the swell before the wave has broken.

Set wave face (Blue dotted line)

Predicted height of the wave face as it breaks.

Period (Red line)

The time between set waves. A longer period generally indicates a better quality swell. Look for jumps in the period to indicate new swells.

The left vertical axis represents the wave height in meters.

The right vertical axis represents the period in seconds.

Now, knowing all this, what are we looking for?

Muriwai Beach holds swell really well (especially for beginner surfers) due to the very gradual slope of the sand/beach. This means we often have long rolling water waters perfect for learning how to get to your feet. Anything under 2.5m, I would consider safe (tide depending) and under 1.5m, you’re looking at good conditions (from there, pretty much the smaller the better).

Some reports measure the waves in feet: a 1 meter swell is pretty much equal to 3ft.

Tip: When you have an epic surf, check the report and take a screenshot!

4- Swell Direction

The swell direction for the west coast of New Zealand is predominately South West(SW). Other beaches (east coast especially), you will find a lot more variety in the swell direction and it will take a little bit more time to work out.

Tip: If the swell direction is W or NW, Muriwai Beach gets a very strong current going towards the rocks in the south corner. This doesn’t happen often but avoid it if you see it.

5- Tide

The tides are measured in meters starting at 0, 0 being the Lowest Astronomical Tide or LAT. The LAT is the height above the lowest tidal water level (see the left axis of graph).

As a beginner surfer, mid tide coming in is your best chance to get safe, easy waves in Muriwai Beach. Low tide tends to end up having step waves breaking into shallow water. Intermediate surfers should be looking to surf right on high tide as it's the best tide to be hunting unbroken waves.

Something else to take note of is that the height of high and low tide are always changing. For example, High tide on Wednesday 27th is 2.9m and on Monday 1st it's 3.3m, If you surfed high tide on both days, you would find the waves would be breaking differently (even if the swell and wind were identical). I personally don't think this is something to stress about too much but it's why you'll hardly ever have two surfs the same.

Tip: Every beach has a tide that it breaks best on and that can be different depending on your surfing level. Mid-high tide (coming in) is the generally the best for Muriwai Beach for beginner and intermediate surfers.

What to Look For!

If I was to describe the perfect conditions for a beginner/intermediate surfer at Muriwai Beach, I would say you'd be looking for the report to read:

Rating- N/A

Swell- under 1.2m

Wind- light NE

Swell direction- SW

Tide- surf 1 hour before high

Avoid- Anything over 3m, strong winds, low tides and NW swells.

Tip: The sand banks are a major part of scoring good waves when you're surfing a beach break but it's also something that can't be seen in a surf report. They are always changing and effect how rips, currents and waves move and break. The best way to figure out what the sand banks are doing is to check the surf in person.

A Final Word!

Remember that this is just my explanation on how I read the report and different beaches will have completely different characteristics that you will have to learn about as you go.

If you ever have any questions about the conditions contact us before you come out, we do an easy to understand surf report on our FB and INSTA for every weekend and teach you how to read surf reports in more depth in our Advanced Beginner Program.

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