How To Read Waves

January 10, 2024

How To Read Waves

Unlike some of our other “How-To” blogs, learning to read waves is a skill that will take you a lifetime to master. Because every wave is different, there is no “one size fits all” in reading waves. That said, there are patterns & consistencies that you can pick up on. The goal of this guide is to share a few of these patterns to help you recognize them where it counts… in the water~! 

No matter how fast of a paddler you are or how fit you are, you will not improve your surfing if you don’t know what waves to look for. So we will begin with the types of waves you will see, then we’ll move into the parts of the wave. 


Rights, Lefts & A Frames

Knowing whether a wave is a left or a right is always determined from the perspective of the surfer paddling for the wave. So from the beach, if the wave is peeling to the left, it is a right, if to the right, it is a left. Sometimes a wave will have one peak with options for a right or a left. This is called an “A” frame. 


Closeouts are neither rights nor lefts. Because they break all at once, you have very few options apart from going straight. For this reason they are not desired for intermediate to advanced surfers. For a new surfer, however, there is nothing wrong with catching closeouts. It might actually be a smart decision because you will be able to catch more of them with no competition. More waves equals more practice! 

Steep Waves

Steep waves, sometimes called “fast” waves are for the more advanced surfer. The reason why they are steep is because of the bottom contour of the sand or reef. Waves that come from deep water to shallow water quickly will be steep. Avoid these types of waves if you are a new surfer.

Slopey Waves

Slopey, or “slow” waves are the best waves to learn on! They are not very steep because there is a gradual decrease in water depth as the wave moves toward shore. Back when surfboards were 10ft and above, these were the only types of waves surfable. So if you have a longer board or you are learning surfing, these are great for you! They are also great for you as you advance in surfing. 

Applying Wave Knowledge

Everything until now is straightforward. With enough practice, you will easily be able to name the types of waves. The challenge now is learning how to catch the right waves. Then once you are up and riding, what are the parts of the wave you will see and why does this matter? 

Knowing where to catch the waves

When you arrive at the beach, it is best to check the conditions to make sure they are right for you. If you see others with longboards, you are more than likely in the clear. If everyone has a shortboard, however, these are likely steep ‘high performance’ waves. 

Once in the water, take some time to practice identifying the types of waves mentioned above.  Look for rights, lefts, A frames and closeouts. Certain waves, such as point breaks, only go one way which makes identifying waves easy. 

Once you see a wave coming toward you, and you’ve made sure nobody else is riding or paddling for the wave, quickly identify what type of wave this is. You want to know which direction to turn in before you catch the wave. Whether it is a right or a left, paddle toward the steeper part of the wave to take off. If you paddle toward the flat part of the wave, you will likely not be able to catch it! For an A frame, paddle to the middle of the peak to give yourself the option of going right or left! If you are going for a closeout, all you need to do is paddle in! You will generally only be able to go straight. 

Parts of the Wave

Once you’ve caught the wave, there are a few sections of the wave that you will see. This will apply for all rights and lefts. Here are a few parts of the wave:

  • The face

This is the part of the wave that hasn’t broken yet. You will always angle in the direction of the face. Eventually, you’ll be able to perform cutbacks, down carves and other maneuvers on the open face. 

  • The lip

The lip is the top section of the wave that is breaking. If the wave offers it, you can perform snaps, airs, blow tails and other progressive maneuvers in & above the lip. If you are a longboarder, you can perform a high line or noseride right below the lip. If the wave is steep enough and the conditions are right, the lip might turn into a barrel. A  barrel is when the surfer is completely covered by the lip.

  • The pocket

The pocket is commonly known as the best part of the wave to ride in. Many surf instructors will tell you to “stay in the pocket” to maintain speed. The pocket is the steepest part of the wave face right before the wave breaks. This is where a longboard will noseride and where a shortboarder will gain speed.

  • Whitewater

The whitewater is where the wave crumbles after it has already broken. Whitewater is considered the “training wheels” for new surfers because it is predictable and limits chances of pearling. For intermediate to advanced surfers, once the wave turns to whitewater, the wave is over for the surfer.

Bringing it all together

Too often you will see surfers trying to perform maneuvers on the wrong sections of the wave. Even advanced surfers can misread a section and blow the rest of the wave. This being said, it is important to know the parts of the wave for your own enjoyment of surfing. Start by associating what kind of maneuvers can be done on certain sections. For flat sections, associate cutbacks and roundhouses; on steep sections, associate snaps, off the lips, or floaters, etc. Even if you don't know yet how to perform these maneuvers, you will have a baseline for starting your progression journey. 

Because every wave is different and waves are constantly moving, it can be hard to tell sometimes which section is which. This is why reading waves is a lifelong skill. So keep practicing and remember the content in this blog! 

Other Resources

Lastly, we recommend you literally “read the waves” before surfing on Surfline. Surfline is an online tool that allows you to see live cams at your local beach, up to 14 day swell tracking, and live updates on tide, wind, and swell size. There are many factors that cause waves to act differently each day. Understanding these factors will help you prepare for each session. 

If you are unsure about what board you should get for the right conditions, contact us at or give us a call at 800-920-2363.

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