Like falling snowflakes, no two waves are alike. Getting to know your surroundings and being familiar on how and where waves break will help you increase your wave count and ultimately, make you a better surfer.
It’s all about refraction! Say whaaa??? In simple terms, waves are formed generally close to the shore when open ocean swells meet the shallow sea floor. Waves bend as they approach the different depths. And depending on your surroundings and what’s underneath you will affect how and where the waves will break.
As the name suggests, the waves break over a sandy (beach) bottom ocean floor. These waves can be less predictable due to the constant shifting of sandbars (shallow water areas) that are mixed in with the channels (deeper water areas). As deep water swells approach the shore, they hit the sandbars, which then creates the waves. This is where you’ll usually find various peaks along the beach. Watch out for unsurfable closeout crushers here too.
Swells traveling from deep waters reach this type of beach that has a sudden change in the depth of the ocean floor as it approaches land. And when they do arrive, they create pounding, usually barreling waves very close to the shore. Even unsuspecting waist high waves can conjure up a massive amount of power. Neck and back injuries are common as shore break waves can throw swimmers and surfers head first into the ground.
The combined abrupt change in bottom depth and steep shoreline also makes it challenging to swim back to shore once you are beyond where you can stand and touch the bottom. When there’s swell, beginners learning how to surf should steer clear from shore break beaches.
This type of wave breaks over a seabed of rocks or a coral reef and is often more challenging and more hazardous. They’re usually farther out to sea requiring a longer paddle out. The energy of the swell coming from the deep water sea slows down as it approaches and hits the reef, which then causes a wave to be formed. The sections of the wave to the left and right of the reef continue on at the same speed but creates a bend towards and over the coral rocks / reef. Surfers ride this part of the wave, sometimes in extremely shallow water.
Reef breaks are not recommended for beginners since they are more likely to fall and get slammed into the rock / reef bottom potentially suffering major injuries.
Waves at point breaks generally offer the best kind of waves since they often provide longer open-faced rides. A point is distinguished by a headland, rock, or corral that projects off the shore of a larger body of land (it points out or sticks out, hence the name point break). This type of break can have rock, coral, or sandy bottoms. As the deep water swells approach the point, long rippable waves can be created as they wrap around the point then continue along the coastline of the bay or a cove.
This type of wave is what most surfers prefer since they are the most reliable and usually offer longer shoulders to shred. Point breaks may also a good choice for beginners and intermediates as waves are generally fatter and slower making it easier for surfers to stand and gain their balance.