Surfing tips & tricks: How to read waves

But how do you catch the wave? How do you know whether it is a right wave or a left one? How do you know when the wave will break?

Beginners tips on how to catch the perfect wave

So you decided to go surfing, grabbed a board, put on lycra, learned safety techniques, know how to swim and are mentally prepared. Now you are in search of your perfect wave. But how do you catch the wave? How do you know whether it is a right wave or a left one? How do you know when the wave will break?

We have prepared comprehensive guide to help you understand the wave anatomy, learn how to read waves, how it will break and eventually to ride it!

Reading waves is an art form based on surfer’s experience. As you gain surfing experience and advance your skills, your wave reading ability will improve as well. Sometimes you can watch experienced surfers skip a wave, swim on it, but don’t ride it, although at first glance the wave looks good. That is because advanced surfers know what kind of wave they are going after and that certain wave is not suitable for them.

So let’s consider some of the basics and signs to look for in order to find a perfect wave.

1. How a wave breaks: Rights, Lefts, A-Frames & Closeouts

When you see a lump on the horizon, it means that it will soon turn into a wave as it approaches the shore. The wave can be of different shapes:

A Left

This is a wave that breaks from the right to the left of the surfer on the wave and he rides to the left. But if you look at the wave from the beach, then it will break from left to right. In order not to get confused, it is customary to consider a wave from the side of a surfer riding along the wave.

A Right

The same facts apply, just in opposite direction. It is a wave that breaks from left to right of the surfer on the wave and he goes to the right.

An a frame

These waves are good for a few surfers. Since they break in both directions and have two “shoulders” left and right (one goes to the left, the other to the right)

A Сlose out

This is a wave that breaks immediately “closes all at once” along its entire length and turns into foam. This can usually be due to strong winds (onshore) or a feature of the bottom. On such waves it is impossible to move left and right along the shoulder. You can catch the closure but only go straight to the beach (experienced surfers can do airs or floaters on such a wave)

2. Wave anatomy

It is important to know the anatomy of the waves in order to identify them and correctly name them when communicating with a trainer or among surfers. Knowing the wave anatomy will also help you if you’re unsure how to read waves.

Lip – The top of the wave that breaks down first from the top when the wave begins to break.

Shoulder (or face) – is the part of the wave that has not yet broken. Surfers ride from an area that collapses to a continuous part of the wave called (shoulder or face)

Curl – is the “concave” part of the wave that the surfer rides along. This part is very cool and allows you to do amazing tricks.

Whitewater or foam – after the water breaks, it turns into white water “foam”

Impact zone – is where the lip hits flat water. This part is very strong and you should avoid this area.

Tube (or Barrel) – An empty space inside the breaking wave, formed between the “curl” and the “lip”. A kind of cylinder in which advanced riders ride, which is described as “the perfect surfing maneuver”

Peak – The highest point on a wave, as well as the first part of the wave that breaks. Waves are read along the peak when they are on the horizon.

Check out our programs and websites for surfers where you can find online resources to help you get weather wave and tide forecast and help you choose perfect surfing spot.

3. How to read waves

  • Determine where is the highest point of the wave (peak). Stare at the horizon as you sit on your surfboard. When you see a lump on the horizon, try to find its highest point in the wave, this will be where the wave will break.
  • Paddle to the peak. You must paddle quickly in order to get to it before the peak breaks. This will allow you to ride longer.
  • U-turn and paddle. As soon as you are in place, turn around on the board towards the beach and paddle. Proper paddling technique and other beginner surfing tutorials are on following page: “Surfing school – Beginner tutorial”

4. Different situations

Choosing shoulder

The angle of shoulder close to the “close out” looks less steep than a shoulder where the wave closes more slowly, with such a wave the shoulder drops more steeply. Beginners usually choose a steep shoulder angle to ride longer.


Some waves can be confusing as they appear to be closed. These waves need to be watched closely in order to see the peak and shoulder.

Frame and how to proceed if you are not alone

As mentioned above, the frames allow two surfers to ride. If you see such a wave and there are two of you who want to catch this wave, then it is better to find out where other fellow surfer will go, to the left or to the right. If you are alone on such a wave, you can decide for yourself which way to go.

Looking for more surfing resources? Make sure you check out out Tutorial pages and location guides.

Take a look this video lesson to learn how to read waves properly.

Check a comprehensive guide to some of the best surfing locations here.

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