Waves: surfers are always searching for the perfect ride | Photo: Red Bull

If every wave coming ashore was perfect, the sport of surfing as we know it would be much different. Contest judges would have to rethink scoring, and amateurs and beginners' skill levels would have a linear growth.

But as we all know this isn't the case. A good surfer must know which wave to catch and which ones to let pass by. In the following article, we will discuss the ideal wave, the variety of wave shapes, and how to tell the good ones from the bad.

It's the 21st century, and it seems that Kelly Slater and his team of engineers have designed what can be referred to as the ideal wave with perfect shape. It is a man-made wave park built in Austin Texas. Surfers will tell you that the ideal wave breaks and peels down the line. Riders are propelled in most cases by a "breaking wave."

One that is turning over from the ground below. In this pocket, where swell and shore collide, the magic gift of speed is delivered. It is here that a surfer speeds down the line, makes a bottom turn and cuts back. If the wave continues with a clean break all the way to shore, this is the "ideal wave."

Chicama: one of the most perfect left-hand waves in the world

A wave that has offshore wind will smooth out. This will reduce chop allowing for a faster, comfier and more enjoyable ride. Many times, this ideal wind condition begins and ends during the early hours of the day.

If you find yourself surfing mid-day, you will probably experience onshore wind. Blown out tops, mushy lips, and rough waters. These conditions will ruin any hopes of a perfect ride. However, some surf is better than no surf.

Also, some waves bubble up, fold and dump a wall of water. It is important to avoid these sections as you will likely wipe out and break your board.

How to spot the good waves and avoid the bad ones? Imagine you are sitting out at the break and looking out to sea. You begin to analyze the incoming set of waves.

First, you line yourself up with the palm tree directly perpendicular to the break assuring you are positioned correctly. Next, you pan the horizon far out. You look for indications of large waves approaching.

The ideal wave: a roller that peels from one side to the other | Photo: Shutterstock

For you, at your favorite spot - and because it could be in a bay - you notice white wash a few hundred feet out on the wider walls. At this point, you know a set is approaching. You have to remember how many waves past before the big one hit, last time around.

You count one, two, three. Ok, now you see a wall of water. If it's a nice wave, you'll immediately feel intimidated. You doubt your positioning. The wave continues to approach, so you quickly glance down the line looking for any sign of a closeout.

What's a closeout in surf slang? It's where the whole wave breaks at once. If the swell was at an angle and the wave appears diagonal, then you know it will peal through the break and across the bay. Perfect.

Remember: morning surf, by rule of thumb, is best. Offshore wind conditions will allow for glassy, smooth rides. And ideal waves peel down the line. Surf and have fun doing it. Not every wave has to be perfect.

Learn how to read waves, and how to improve your wave selection.


Words by Colin Kirk.