Most of the buoys in the United States are run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Data Buoy Center. Individual buoys can be accessed on the internet via NOAA’s website. Here’s how to read them:
Wind, and more precisely, where it’s coming from and how fast, is the second most important surf-affecting variable other than wave size. It’s also constantly changing and difficult to predict with much precision. Because onshore wind (blows from the ocean towards land) is detrimental to surf conditions, and conversely, offshore wind (blows from land out to sea) is optimum, it’s a good idea to understand how to get up-to-date wind information from your local buoy.
The two variables that influence wind conditions are wind direction and wind speed, and both are important. Wind direction tells you the direction the wind is blowing from. Wind speed is the speed the wind is blowing, measured in knots. For example, if the buoy’s wind reading says the direction is NNW at 15 kts with 25 kts gusts, that means the wind is blowing out of the north/northwest, at 15 knots, with occasional gusts of up to 25 knots. For surfing, that’s a lot of wind, but if you have access to a break that faces south, the wind will funnel straight offshore.
This one takes the top honor in terms of importance to the surfer. If there are no waves, it really doesn’t matter what the wind direction is or how high the tide is – you’re not surfing anyway. And while all the surf-forecasting websites do a pretty decent job of giving you accurate swell information, any individual swell event goes through a lifespan that ranges from building, to peaking, to dying out, and eventually fading completely. Check in with your local buoy to see exactly what the swell is doing at that exact hour.
There are two variables that contribute to the size of a wave when it breaks: wave height and wave period. What? There’s more to waves than their height? Oh, you have so much to learn.
The period describes time elapsed between individual waves within a given wave set. For example, a period of 14 seconds means that when a set of waves reaches the beach, about 14 seconds will elapse in between each wave that breaks. Interestingly, a wave’s period is extremely significant because it directly affects both size and power. Period translates into the distance between two waves as well as the depth, meaning the longer, or deeper, a wave’s period, the bigger and more powerful it will be once it reaches its breaking point. Therefore, a wave with a long period will actually have more deep-water energy than a wave with a short period, giving it more height and power when it breaks.
A buoy’s wave height reading is exactly what it sounds like: the height, given in feet, from the peak of each wave to its trough. Keep in mind that buoys will automatically average out both the wave height and wave period.
So how do you determine actual wave height from both size and period? To know how a certain swell will affect your local surf conditions, you need to understand how particular breaks respond to both short period swell (also called wind swell) and long period swell. You also need to quantify the height and period into a single overall estimation of wave height. While experience is the only way to get really good at determining this somewhat elusive value, you’ll quickly learn that a swell reading six feet at 18 seconds is a lot bigger than one registering 10 feet at eight seconds.
In addition to wind and wave height, buoys also compute both air and water temperature.
Other Factors: Tide & Swell Direction
Tide and swell direction are secondary factors when determining surf quality, although both are extremely important. Blissful ignorance to tide and directions will only be blissful for so long.
Swell direction is an obvious factor when deciding when and where to surf. If a moderate-sized swell is rolling in from the south, you shouldn’t head to a beach that faces north unless you want to do more fishing than surfing. On larger swells, it’s sometimes wise to check spots that aren’t openly facing the brunt of the swell in order to access friendlier waves.
Ever wonder why surf shops give out those little tide books at the front counter? Every surfer should be aware of the day’s tidal scenario when deciding when and where to surf. Most surf spots have a particular tide that works best with that spot, and outgoing and incoming tides can affect rip currents and wave consistency. While some breaks may function on any tide, many more will altogether shut down if the tide is too low or too high. Getting to know your local surf spots and what tides they prefer is an important step towards getting quality surf as often as possible.