The best waves occur when the wind is light and offshore at the break you want to surf. This makes the face of the wave smooth and also stops it breaking for a moment or two longer encouraging it to tube. In Britain it is more a case of surfing whatever waves you can find, onshore choppy waves being the most common sight greeting you when arriving at the beach if there are any waves at all !! So how can we have any idea of when conditions are going to be favorable?
Predicting when there will be waves at the beach
Waves are produced by storms out at sea, which then travel as swell in the direction of the storm, until they hit the coast and break as waves. On weather maps, storms are depicted as low pressure areas, where in general, the lower the pressure, the bigger the storm and consequently the bigger the waves (look for below 990mb pressure during winter and below 1000mb during summer).
The one factor that is difficult to read from these maps is where the swell or waves are traveling to. The swell direction depends two main factors: How long the wind blows in the same direction and the distance over which the wind blows. The place that’s in front of the biggest concentration of these two factors will get the biggest (and probably the most consistent) waves. Interestingly, experienced surfers can usually have one quick study of the chart and know what’s going to happen over the next few days. Luckily (like the weatherman) we’re not always right!
Weather pressure maps (right) can be seen on the BBC TV Weather and in most of the quality daily newspapers (This one courtesy of the Times). Note the deep low pressure (LOW D) giving good swell generation and the long isobars coming from the central Atlantic straight towards Britain, allowing the swell to be pushed in by the westerly winds. Probably giving good conditions for places like Langland, Caswell and Port Eynon. A lot more information can be gleaned by looking at these charts over a period of days.
Once the waves arrive, local wind conditions control the quality of the waves. Onshore winds mean choppy conditions, which although are unpleasant, often have their enjoyable moments. On the other hand offshore conditions mean smooth clean waves that are a pleasure to surf. Strong onshore winds can produce waves within one or two days even if there isn’t a low pressure area out at sea.
The Shipping Forecast
Some people use the Meteorological Office’s shipping forecasts to get the latest local conditions before deciding which break to go and check out. These can be useful to help decide what the wind might do during the day, get stronger/weaker or swing more northerly/southerly, and so will help you decide which break to go to. The Coastal Stations report actual conditions around so listen for the station nearest you to see what might be coming.
Key to Coastal Stations:
T - Tiree
St - Stornoway
Su - Sumburgh
F - Fife Ness
B - Bridlington
D - Dover
G - Greenwich Light Vessel
J - Jersey
C - Channel Light Vessel
Sc - Scilly
V - Valentia
R - Ronaldsway
M - Malin Head
Met Office Shipping Forecast
Radio 4 – 0535hrs, (1201 & 1754 long wave only), 0048 and www.mpc.ncep.noaa.gov/shtml/UKMOFFAT
Inshore Waters Forecast
Radio 4 Inshore forecast - 0540
Teletext - 24hrs updated around 0900 and www.metoffice.com/datafiles/inshore.html
If all this can't be done then it is a good idea to check out the most exposed, or consistent beach in the area to check the size of the waves and then look at the local wind direction to see if you can find a beach where the wind is offshore, or more sheltered than your local beach.
Of course if you telephone PJ's Surfline this will give you the latest conditions at Llangennith beach and often a recommended beach to surf.