Surfer/Writer/Burrito Enthusiast
A buoy that gives wave height and wind informations sits in the ocean

This little floating chamber of info is key to your surfing. Photo: NOAA

The Inertia

In my view, surf forecasts are 90 percent bullshit. If you don’t pay for a premium membership, then they’re 50 percent bullshit and 50 percent ads promoting Tom’s Orange County T-shirt Emporium. Every surfer has read one of these forecasts and gotten excited for an upcoming session. And for good reason, since an expert in the field of surf forecasting has told you to expect fun waves. But then you drive down to the beach only to find that this is no five-star, good-to-epic session for the ages – this is a five-alarm dumpster fire.

You’ve been had. A stranger on the internet disguised themselves as a serious surf-knower and swindled you into thinking you were going to catch some bombs today. It’s the Nigerian Prince email of the surf universe – I will give you my wealth of knowledge and access to all the great waves, but first, you must send me your credit card information so I can get back home to Los Angeles.

Tired of feeling betrayed by someone living one hundred miles away that knew nothing about where I surf, I ditched the written forecast for the numerical and set out to learn how to read buoys. I wanted hard data to back up my swells. If I was going to get burnt again, I wanted it to be on my own analytical terms and not because I read a few words about waves that made my imagination run wild.

Reading buoys can be a deeply satisfying experience, which is an odd thing to say when you spend the majority of your time staring at charts that look like this:



Oh yeah, that’s the good shit. Learning to read swell directions and understanding what the various winds and tides will do to affect the size and shape of the wave at your respective break is one of the few upper hands left in surfing. Anyone can understand that green equals good, but if you know a certain swell and wind combo will light up a little-known break, then you can score great waves all to yourself. And this chart, as boring as it may look, displays all the wisdom you need to triumph over Big Surf Forecast.

Buoy information is not too difficult to understand and you only need a few data points to get started – wave height is your average wave size, the period determines the energy of the swell and frequency of the waves, and wind speed is how fast mother nature seductively blows your hair around. Mathematically speaking, it’s as simple as multiplying the angle of the wave’s dangle by the motion of the ocean to calculate the size of your salty prize.

The challenging part of the equation is finding the right mix of conditions that makes a spot tick. Unless you are a grizzled sea captain with a chart room to dissect the contours of the ocean floor, this information is gained the old-fashioned way – through trial and error. It’s a bit of a slog at first, but once you get some history of noticing certain conditions producing specific types of waves, patterns develop. Eventually, you might see a little more south swell produces more lefts, a side shore wind less than five knots isn’t that bad, or that lower tides turn your break into a rotting seaweed burial ground.


I knew that everything had finally clicked for me when I chose to sleep late one morning instead of surf. Every major forecast site was calling for “fun, head-high waves,” but my bobbing buoy friend indicated nothing but head high closeouts. Perhaps being repeatedly smashed in the skull by a giant wall of water is what some people consider “fun,” but I am not one of those people.

That morning, I woke up and nervously wandered down to the beach to see if I was right. Did I screw up? Was I missing out on great waves? Should I have trusted the experts and given them my credit card information to avoid this embarrassing ordeal ever happens again? Not at all – I instead saw the most glorious sight: hundreds of surfers in the water getting repeatedly ripped apart by an endless stream of monstrous closeouts. This delicious schadenfreude made me feel like the King of the Sea.

Big Surf Forecast cannot compete with the Buoy Reading Badass. Sure, it’s a little more time-intensive, but it’s good when things are hard. Instead of a forecaster trying to convince you the waves will be excellent, you will be able to quantify if and just how excellent they might be. You will quickly realize you don’t need OnlyWaves lead forecaster Brad Chaddington to tell you whether or not there are hot, single waves in your area waiting to be shredded – you will simply know by checking the buoy.

Check out this guide on how to become your own best surf forecaster.


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