The science of surfing
by Chris Woodford. Last updated: October 30, 2018.
Surfing is a cool way to spend a hot
day—but there's much more to riding waves than just balancing on a board.
Mastering surfing is all about mastering science: you need to
know how waves travel across the ocean carrying energy
go, and how you can capture some of this energy to move yourself along.
Whether you're surfing or bodyboarding, riding a longboard or whizzing
on a skimboard, you're using cool science in a very cool way. Let's take a closer look!
Photo: A surfer rides at wave at Ocean Beach, California.
Detail of a photo by Jessica O'Haver courtesy of
What are waves?
Waves are always the first thing you notice
about the ocean.
Except on very calm days, there are always waves skimming across the
of the sea. What exactly are they doing there? We usually find waves in
a place where energy has appeared. A basic law of physics called the
conservation of energy says that energy can't
be created or destroyed; it can only ever be converted into other forms. When energy suddenly appears,
concentrated in one place, something has to happen to it. Usually,
energy doesn't stay put: it tends to travel out in all directions to
other places that don't have as much.
Picture: Energy likes to travel outwards! In that respect, the waves you see riding the ocean
are no different from the ripples you make in a washbasin when you let single drops hit the water surface
(which is what I'm doing here).
Think about a couple of familiar examples. Suppose you bang a
kettle drum in the middle of a football stadium. As your arm beats the
stick, you make the drum skin vibrate up and down with kinetic energy
(the energy of movement). As the drum skin bounces back and forth, it
produces waves of sound energy. These travel through the air, making
air molecules vibrate in sympathy, carrying sound energy in all
directions until it dissipates and gradually disappears. Something
similar happens if you switch on a lamp in the middle of a dark room.
This time, waves of light energy travel out from the lamp in all
directions. Why can't you see sound and light
traveling in the same way that you can see waves on the ocean? Sound
travels at over 1000 km/h (600 mph)—so it is both quick and invisible.
travels much faster than sound at 300,000 km per second (186,000 miles
it carries electromagnetic energy between
two places virtually
instantaneously. Even though you can see light, you cannot see it
Photo: The curling wave behind this surfer provides all the kinetic energy that drives him forward. No waves, no energy, no surfing! Photo of surfer in Montecito, California by Carol M. Highsmith, courtesy of The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
The great thing about ocean waves is that you can see them coming.
If you're surfing, even fast-moving waves are slow enough to catch and
carry you along. Try doing that with sound or light! The properties of
an ocean wave are also very easy to see. You can estimate its amplitude
(height) just by looking out to the horizon. Its wavelength
(the distance from one wave crest to the next) and frequency
(the number of waves that travel past in a certain amount of time) are
also very easy to see.
If sound waves come from people beating drums, and light waves come
from people switching on lamps, where do ocean waves come from? If you
live in the northern hemisphere, far from the equator, you've probably
noticed that there are more waves around in the fall (autumn) or spring than
in the summer. In the UK, for example, there's most wind in the fall
and winter—and that's usually the best time of year for surfing in
places like Cornwall. Wind is important because it's what puts energy
into the ocean: it makes ocean waves in more or less exactly the same
way as you make sound waves when you bang the skin of a drum.
What's the difference between wind swell and groundswell?
The waves that arrive at your beach are not necessarily created
anywhere nearby. Back in the 1950s, an ocean scientist named
Munk conducted an amazing series of experiments with ocean waves. He
managed to prove that some waves travel over 15,000 km (over 9000
miles) across the open ocean before they reach their eventual
destination. That's like traveling across the United States, from New
York City to California, four times!
Generally, the more widely spaced and the cleaner waves
are when they roll up on the shore, the further they have traveled.
Waves like this are known as swell (or groundswell) and
they make the best waves for surfing. Groundswell is the reason you can
have quite large waves washing up on your beach even when there's
little or no wind blowing. Waves generated nearby (by winds blowing in
the local area) are known as wind swell.
They are usually
choppier, smaller, messier, harder to surf, and less interesting to
surfers than groundswell. Often the waves in a particular place are a
mixture of groundswell and wind swell—a random collection of waves that
have traveled from far away mixed with waves that have come a much
Photo: Small groundswell rolling in.
Note how the waves are almost evenly spaced. The distance between one
and the one following is the wavelength of the wave.
These waves have a wavelength of about 15 meters (50 ft).
Why is groundswell cleaner than windswell?
When the wind blows on the sea, it produces all kinds of waves of
different wavelengths, frequencies,
As the waves travel, the faster waves gradually separate out from the
The further the waves go, the more chance they have to sort themselves
into an orderly pattern. Groundswell has more time to get itself into
shape than windswell.
Eventually, the waves form into distinct little groups called sets:
when they finally arrive at their destination, a little group of good
waves will arrive at once.
Then there will be a pause.
Then the next group of waves will arrive a bit later.
When and why do waves break?
Swell is only one of the ingredients for great surfing.
Surfers don't like any old waves: they want waves that peel
(break gradually to the left or right along the wave crest) rather than
close out (where the crest folds over and
smashes to pieces all in one go).
When a wave is peeling, you can ride back and forth across the crest as
it slowly breaks;
with a wave that's closing out, there's nowhere much to go.
In surfing slang, waves that close to the right are called, not
while left-breaking waves are "lefthanders".
The angle at which the wave peels makes it more or less interesting to
The steeper the angle, the harder it is to surf and the more
interesting moves you can pull.
What makes a wave break... and peel rather than closing out?
When water flows, in the ocean or in a
river, its upper layers are
traveling faster than its lower layers (indeed, the water is usually
stationary on the ocean floor or on a river bed). Think about waves
arriving at a beach. As they travel from
the open ocean to the shore, they move up a gradual sandy incline, and
start to slow down. The bottom of a wave slows more
quickly than the top. So instead of a wave moving forwards as one, we
have a whole
series of water layers sliding past one another, with the top layers
and the bottom moving slowest.
A wave breaks when the top part of the wave goes so far over the bottom
part that the wave
can no longer support itself—so it completely collapses.
A wave peels when this process happens gradually along the length of
the wave rather than all at once. If you like, a peeling wave is
breaking in two dimensions: along the crest of the wave as the wave
advances up the beech or reef.
Photo: Two people surfing either end of a peeling wave in Santa Cruz, California. A peeling wave breaks slowly and gradually along its length inside of "closing out" or "dumping" (where the whole length of the wave breaks in one go). Photo by
Carol M. Highsmith, The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division..
Waves can break in many different ways, and that largely depends on the profile of the seabed
underneath them (known as the bathymetry).
All waves will break eventually, but major features like rock or coral
and sandbars will make one side break before another, causing waves to
peel. Nearby groins (sea fences), piers, and jetties can also make
waves peel. Different shapes of reef produce different breaking
Over the last decade or so, surf science has become advanced enough for
start designing artificial reefs.
Rocks or ballast are buried at a key point offshore to give the waves a
in breaking and peeling early in places where they might otherwise
simply close out.
Swell and bathymetry are not the only things that affect the quality
surfing. How the wind is blowing on your beach will make a big
difference too. Waves are obviously always traveling from the open
ocean towards the beach, like scaled-up versions of ripples on a pond,
but the wind can be blowing in any direction. If the wind is blowing
directly out to sea, it is known as an offshore
wind. As it
blows, it will naturally tend to prop up the waves, stopping them from
breaking so quickly, cleaning out some of the smaller choppier
waves, and making the waves finally break with greater intensity in
A combination of strong ground swell and a light offshore wind is
best for surfing, especially if the wind has been blowing for a few
days (both to create groundswell and to give it time to travel to your
If the wind blows in the opposite direction, so it is onshore,
it will make the waves collapse much too soon—spoiling your fun!
A strong wind that is blowing directly onshore (at right angles to the beach)
can produce a very random, choppy sea that is impossible to surf, but fun
to mess about in with a bodyboard.
Tell me why...
Science (and physics in particular) can explain most of the strange
things you'll notice when you're riding along on your surfboard.
Why do you have to paddle?
Photo: This surfer is paddling like mad with his arms to gain speed.
When the huge wave catches him up, he'll have enough momentum to leap to his feet and surf.
Photo by very kind permission and courtesy of Mike Baird and
Bairdphotos.com, published on Flickr under a
Creative Commons licence.
Whether you're on a surfboard or a bodyboard, if a great wave is
heading towards you, you have to paddle like mad to be able to catch
it. In other words, you have to be traveling with some speed and
momentum as the wave hits you to stand any chance of riding along with it. Why
is that? To travel with a wave, you have to accelerate to the speed
it's traveling. In other words, you have to gain a certain amount of
kinetic energy very quickly. If you've already got some kinetic energy
with—if you're already moving when the wave catches up with you—it's
much easier for the wave to accelerate you a little bit more. Or in
simple terms, the faster you paddle, the more likely you are to catch
Photo: If you want to catch waves on a bodyboard, fins like these are essential: by kicking with fins, you can accelerate your body much faster and greatly improve your chance of catching waves. However, it cuts both ways: once you've caught a wave, you need to lift your fins clear of the water to stop them acting like brakes and slowing you down!
Why can small kids ride small waves?
Have you noticed how young kids can ride almost any waves—but older
ones can't? It's back to momentum again. To move you forward, a wave has to give you a certain amount of
momentum and energy. Both of these depend on your mass (how much "stuff" your body is made
from). The bigger you are, the more energy you need to travel at a certain
speed. So the older and bigger you are, the bigger the waves you need for
surfing—because bigger waves can supply you with more energy.
If you're younger or smaller, you need less energy to move at the
same speed, so a smaller wave will do the job.
Why do waves suck you backwards?
At school you learn about two kinds of wave. There are waves like
sound, which travel by a sort of push-pull process, making patterns of
alternately squeezed up dense air (compressions) and thinned-out,
less-dense air (rarefactions). Sounds wave are called compression
waves; they're also called longitudinal waves,
air molecules that carry sound energy move in the same direction as the
wave travels. Then there are waves like light that travel in a
familiar, up-and-down pattern. These are known as transverse
because they vibrate at right angles to the direction in which the wave
But ocean waves are not like the waves you learn about at school.
They move the water surface round in circles as they travel along.
Watch a seagull sitting on the ocean as a wave approaches. The gull is
sucked backwards up the front of the wave, lifted onto the wave's
crest, pushed forward as
the crest passes by, and then lowered down to pretty much the same
it started off in. This happens because ocean wave energy is not
traveling purely on the surface of the ocean: it also affects the
layers of water underneath. You'll have noticed this sucking effect if
you've ever caught waves on a bodyboard. As you lie on the sea surface,
you'll feel yourself being pulled backwards as a wave approaches. This
is another reason why you have to be paddling forwards to catch a wave.
If you're not paddling forwards, you're definitely going to get sucked
Photo: Layers of water slide past
one another at the shore. At the top of the beach, water is sucking
back down into the sea.
Just offshore, a small wave is breaking inwards and up the beach. In
between, another small wave has just broken and is coming to a halt.
There are at least three layers of water sliding over one another here.
In these calm conditions, the liquid layers are moving in what physicists
would call laminar flow.
Why does a surfboard have a curved front edge?
Photo: The curved front edge of my Manta bodyboard. If I lay this board down on a flat floor, it
has a very noticeable—amost banana-like—curve to it.
Everything from the biggest ocean liner to the smallest surfboard
has a curved front edge. Why? If you push a curved edge over water, the
curve makes water travel more quickly underneath than on top. This
generates an upward force called lift that moves you up and slightly
out of the water—an effect called planing. Because you're partly
out of the water, there's less drag (water resistance) and you go
faster. You can see planing happening on almost any boat as it picks up
a bit of speed. With a hydrofoil—a kind of "surfing boat"—the planing is so spectacular
that the entire craft lifts up out of the water. The same science is at
work on a surfboard, only not quite so dramatic!
What about tides?
Tides have nothing to do with waves. Tides are caused by the Moon
and the Sun working together to "pull" the sea back and forth with
their gravity, rather like a giant blanket moving up and down a bed. Tides change the depth
of the water on your beach. When the tide is "in", the waves come in
further and break later; when the tide is "out", the waves break
further out. Depending on the profile of the seabed, a rising tide (one
coming in) or a falling tide (one going out) will make the waves tend
to break somewhat better or somewhat worse than usual,
depending on the local seabed. There is no absolute rule that works everywhere: some places work well as high tide approaches; some
work best when the tide is going out.
Photo: Low tide with onshore wind and little swell. Even if you could catch "waves" this small,
science tells us they have too little energy to take you anywhere. This water's definitely not for surfing, but you might get a few short rides on your boogie board if you're really lucky. Not that it matters. These guys are having more fun in the water
than I am taking their photo: the number one rule of surfing is that there's always more fun in the water than watching from the beach.
When the Moon and Sun line up, twice a month, they make higher tides than usual
called spring tides, which give deeper water
during high tides
(when the tide is in) and shallower water at low tide (when the tide is
out). In between the spring tides are neap tides,
when the sea moves
back and forth less than usual, high tides are less deep, and low tides
are less shallow. Again, depending on the seabed, high and low tides,
and spring and neap tides, will make the surfing better or
worse—but it varies wildly from place to place. If you're in a place
that needs deep water to make the waves break properly, the highest
spring tides are going to be better than the lowest neap tides. But
elsewhere, the opposite may be true.
Why wear a wetsuit?
The synthetic rubber traps water next to your body, which provides a
useful layer of insulation to keep you warm.
Read our article about wetsuits to find out more.
Can science make you a better surfer?
Of course! It won't make you stand on the board any better. But if
you understand what waves are, how they are made, and where they come
from, you'll have a much better idea of when the surf's going to be up.
And if you can predict when the waves are ready to ride,
you're halfway there already. If surfing is a quest for the perfect
wave, science can at least point you in the right direction.
It might not make you a better surfer, but it
certainly won't make you any worse!
Who invented the surfboard?
Modern surfing evolved during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and it's not possible to identify
a single inventor of either surfing or surfboards.
Surfing is certainly much older than most people believe:
the earliest photo of surfing I can find on the US Library of Congress website was taken in Hawaii sometime between 1906 and 1916.
One person who does merit a mention is American surfer
Tom Blake (1902–1994), who pioneered all sorts of improvements in boards between the mid-1920s and mid-1930s. In 1932, he patented the hollow, internally braced wooden surfboard, which was the forerunner of modern laminated and composite boards). Blake described his invention as "especially adaptable for swimmers or bathers, whereby they may be efficiently floated on the water and may propel the device with the hands and arms through the water at a very rapid speed and obviate the employment of oars or paddles,"
making a fun form of recreation that was "simple, durable and efficient and which may be manufactured and sold at a comparatively low cost." The development of affordable, lightweight, easy-to-manufacture surfboards, along with other innovations like the invention of wetsuits, helped to turn surfing into the major international sport we know today.
Artwork: A sketch of Tom Blake's hollow, internally reinforced surfboard from his US Patent: 1,872,230: Water Sled, with colors added for clarity by me, courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office. The internal skeleton of the board is colored red. As Blake's patent notes, the main advantages are this design are high buoyancy, low weight, and low cost.