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What Makes a Wave...   Surf ?

Storm Swells at Sea

Ocean Waves are generated by the wind from storms at sea. The energy transferred from the wind to the water organizes itself into swells that travel thousands of miles across the oceans.

Science has discovered that everything is composed of energy and that energy is organized as different frequencies of wave length.
We can visually perceive these frequencies in the lines of swells in the ocean.
The energy "moves through" the water, and we see the characteristic crests and troughs of the sine wave as the water is displaced.

Photo Credits

Ramón C. Purcell
Tim McKenna

More Wave Info
Great Swell Primer

More Surf Links

Swell motion

Interestingly, ocean waves exhibit a mechanism for conserving their energy as they travel across the open ocean.
The "leading" waves in the wave train, which encounter the most resistance, disappear from the "head of the line" and reappear at the "end of the line".
This alllows the "Swell" to retain most of it's energy over long distances.

Lines in deep water

You can see in this picture how ocean swells are effected by any resistance they encounter.
The "Rebound Waves off the ship are also clearly visible.

Since the mid-ocean is deep, the waves do not feel any resistance or drag from the bottom.
When they do encounter resistance, like the ship at the left, the energy begins to "Stack Up', much like the air in front of large trucks, or lorries, for those of you in the UK.

The energy seeks the path of least resistance, and moves away from the source of friction.

Lines stack up at coast

In this satellite image, you can see how the swells form into distinct "Lines" as they approach shallower water and begin to experience drag from the bottom.

In shallow water with a sand bottom, these wave forms are reproduced in the sand, creating the "Riffling" of the surface of the sand into crests and troughs.

Particle motion in a wave

The wave energy moving through the water causes it to be displaced.

A person or object sitting in the water will "Cork" up and down in relatively the same poaition as the wave passes under them.

Waves generally break when the water depth is 2 1/2 times the wave's height from trough to crest.

Wave feels the bottom

As opposed to storm waves whose tops can be "Blown Over" and become "Breakers" due to the wind's energy, swells break when they encounter shallow water and there is enough drag from the bottom to cause the top of the wave to pitch forward and "Surf" is formed.

Scalloped beach

You can see this wave form repeated in what appears to be a wave "Cross Section" in the "Scalloping" along the transition between the water and the beach.

The sand bottom forms "Sand Bars" which cause the swells to break, alternated with "Holes", or deeper water. The "Holes" or channels allow the water sent shoreward by the breaking waves to return to the sea.
This is often referred to as the "Rip Current" or "Rip" and is used by Surfers to paddle back out to the "Peak", or area where the waves begin to break.

The Green Room

When waves travel through deep water, there is little resistance from the bottom.
However, when they abruptly encounter a shallow coral reef, like in Hawaii, or or a rock reef, like on the coast of California, the sudden friction causes the top of the wave to pitch forward.
This creates that most prized of waves for the "Real Surfer"; " The Tube " or " Barrel ".

The ultimate ride in Surfing is INSIDE The Tube.

Tucking into a left barrel

Although most tube rides last only a few seconds, Surfers' have universally experienced the same phenomenum; the perceived expansion of time.
Whether this increased awareness is a result of a rush of adrenaline or altered perception of the space-time continuum, has been hotly debated.

If you want to find out if someone is a "Real Surfer", ask them about a tube ride they had.
The first thing you'll notice is the way their eyes light up and they become animated. They'll use their hands to describe the wave, and you'll see the "Stoke" that only a real surfer knows.

Tucking into a right barrel

My friend Tom Barca, one of the hottest surfers I have ever know, made this observation in the 1970's: "Surfing is an analogy of a pure life.
The 'Shoulder', the unbroken part of the wave, is the future.
The 'Whitewater', the broken part of the wave, is the past.
Where you want to be is in the 'Tube', the 'Here and Now."

Whether you're a Surfer or a Quantum Particle, there is only the NOW. Past and Future are Fictions of the mind.

Hollow beach break peak

Now, what makes a breaking wave surfable?
First and foremost is the configuration of the bottom. Wave action sculpts the bottom into alternating sand bars and holes. The wave "feels' the bottom and the energy moves to the deeper water in the holes, Creating a rideable "Shoulder" causing the breaking wave to "Peel" along the edges of the sandbar.
If the swell is strong enough and the sand bar is well formed, tubes like in the picture to the left are formed. The classic "Beach Break Tube".

Aerial picture of Malibu Point Poster by Woody Woodworth

There are also what we call "Point Breaks". Crafted by points of land that jut out into the Ocean, they create long consistant ridable waves that wrap along the point.
California's point breaks are usually lined with rock reefs and sandy beaches.

To the left is Woody Woodworth's beautiful poster of California's famed Malibu.
Malibu is such a perfect point, that it is referred to as an "Ego Wave". I was fortunate to catch it in 1970 just as the swell hit with shoulder to head high waves and only two other guys out.
I still have the board I rode that incredible day.

Island Reef Break
The Tube of tubes

Coral Reef Breaks, like in Hawaii, are not right off the beach, like in California.
They are a long paddle offshore where the waves throw out onto shallow reefs and peel into deep channels.

At some outer island breaks, surfers take boats to reach the reefs. In VERY Large Surf, Big Wave Surfers have even been using jet skis as rescue vehicles and for being towed into waves that are so big that it's nearly impossible to paddle fast enough to catch them .

Left is one of the most amazing pictures ever.
Laird Hamilton, son of Surf Legend Billy Hamilton, and a Legend in his own right, pushes the very limits of what was once considered impossible to ride.

Laird has footstraps on his board, and was towed into this flawless Monster of a wave before it hit the reef and turned inside out.
There's just no way to paddle ito something like this. This is just plain scary and Laird definitely laid his life on the line for this ride.

Landlubbers Guide Part Two
Coming Soon...

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