Swell direction & how it affects waves

Swell direction is perhaps the most overlooked factor when checking a surf report or forecast, but it can have a pretty big impact.

In the same way that light waves cast a shadow, so too do ocean waves meaning that swells coming from certain directions cause some spots to light up but not others.

This is usually caused by various landmasses like peninsulas, offshore islands, or being inside a bay, but can also be from offshore reefs or shoals that deteriorate swells before they have a chance to make it to land.

A "swell shadow" cast by an outer island

So it’s important to pay attention to where swells are coming from & what land masses are around you that might get in the way.

In the same way that light waves cast a shadow, so too do ocean waves

Another way swell direction can affect waves is how they actually break.

You ever notice how some days there’s mostly lefts or mostly rights? It may have something to do with the swell angle (depending on the break you’re surfing of course). If the swell is coming from an angle that’s more “down the beach” (as opposed to straight on), it can mean there might be more lefts than rights or vice versa.

Even at point breaks or reef breaks where the wave will break the same direction each time, some swell directions make it break faster or have more of a shoulder.

There's often more than one swell happening at a time

It all depends on the break you’re surfing, but I encourage you to pay attention to the swell direction during your surf checks & compare what you see in the surf with what the reports are saying.

Paying attention to the cardinal directions (e.g. E, NE, ENE) is usually sufficient, but honing in on the degrees will bring it to another level. I remember hearing a story about Sean Collins (a surf forecasting legend & the founder of @surfline) dialing in this one novelty spot that only had like a 3º swell window & absolutely scoring it. That’s some next level sh!t right there.

No need to get too caught up in swell direction but give it a glance next time and you’ll start to notice patterns and eventually you’ll really start dialing things in 🤙

💬 How much do you pay attention to swell direction?

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