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How are waves formed? Everything a surfer needs to know

You may have wondered on more than one occasion how waves are produced. Let’s take a look at all the essentials you need to know.

Every surfer should know how waves are produced.

What are waves?

The first thing we must understand, of course, is what waves are. There is no surfing without waves, so it is essential that you know in depth how they are produced, but also what they are, since both things come hand in hand.

Knowing what waves are is very important for any surfer.

Therefore, the first thing is to conceive of them as waves moving across the surface of the water. These are ripples that are generated and can travel for thousands of kilometers, all while growing in size. It is very complicated to measure a wave, although the largest waves tend to form offshore, while the smaller ones occur close to the beach.

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How are waves formed?

To understand wave formation, we must understand that there are some factors that affect the water. The waves themselves are generated by variations in the temperature and pressure of the atmosphere, without the need for wind, at least necessarily, to affect them.

At the same time, low pressure centers, known as squalls, and high pressure centers, known as anticyclones, generate air movements. In other words, the wind that occurs through these variations and movements allows it to travel from places where there is more pressure to places where there is less.

Therefore, when there is a greater difference in pressure between one place and the other, there will be a greater speed at which the wind travels. The fact that the wind rubs on the surface of the sea water forms some small waves. As friction increases, so will the size of the waves.

How are waves formed?

All this allows special waves to be generated for surfing, including some gigantic ones, as occurs in the Nazaré canyon. Therefore, we know that the waves will vary according to the strength of the wind, the time or persistence with which it can blow in a given place and the oceanic area.

In the case of surfers, we believe we know and understand the sea better than anyone else, in the sense that we conceive it in a practical sense. However, in order to better read wave forecasts, it is also essential to understand the theory. That is, why there are waves with a longer period that will come in clearer and more orderly and why others are not so clear and orderly.

Factors influencing wave formation

While you might think that the wind hinders your wave riding experience, the reality is that it is a surfer’s greatest ally and friend. When there is no one else but you at sea, the wind is probably with you. At the same time, it makes the waves open up and improves the conditions for you to practice the sport.

Therefore, we could say that the wind is the beginning of the waves. On the high seas it causes the sea to comb, forming some small ridges. These waves begin to grow thanks to the stability, the constancy of the force and the energy emitted by this wind. The more stable it is, the better the wave will be in terms of greatness.

However, it is also common for the conditions to be increased if the seabed is smooth and there are no obstacles in the path of the wave. This is because nothing will slow down the vast energy rising from the sea, which is why, when you reach the beach, the waves will break in irregular shapes, with water that you will recognize as moving.

Wave formation

At this point, it is important to know that, at the edge of the beach, the water depth decreases and the water ends up dying in the sand. The mass of water appears with a velocity and energy that derives from the force, distance and how clean the wind reaches it. Upon reaching the coast, this wave slows down due to the friction of the water with the sea floor.

The bottom of the water wave becomes slower when it hits the water, although the top of the water wave remains with the same momentum. This causes the crest that the wave breaks, so that, depending on the seabed, one type of wave or another will be created. Hence the difference between the most brutal waves and others that are softer.

If you like more powerful waves, you will have noticed that sudden changes in sand or bottoms, such as rocks or corals, cause more intense friction. This causes the motion energy to form more aggressive waves, breaking suddenly and much more powerfully.

Types of existing waves

We already know what waves are and how they are formed. Now, we should find out what are the different types that exist. According to the direction in which they break, we can divide them into “right-hand waves” and “left-hand waves”.

Right-hand waves are those that, when you surf them, you move to the right. Generally, they have a peak in the highest area that causes them to break progressively towards that side. The left waves, on the other hand, will make you move to the left, having a peak in the highest area that breaks progressively towards there. Therefore, direction matters here.

Then, we can also take into account the place where the waves are formed. There are 2 types of waves. Wind waves are produced by the effect of the wind on the sea water, created at a short distance from the coast, generating low quality waves, small and with great instability, which almost always break precipitously, because they come from various directions.

On the other hand, bottom waves are of the highest quality and size, since they are generated thousands of kilometers away from where they break. Therefore, they arrive at the coast with a much longer period of time and allow you to enjoy the characteristics that you like so much, due to the fact that they are being “prepared” from a greater distance.

There are also waves depending on the type of seabed. Basically, there are 3. The first is the wave with sand bottom, less dangerous than those we can see in the rock and reef, although with a higher rate of instability, causing them to be irregular and with changes in tides and currents.

Types of waves

Waves with a rock bottom break over a stone or rock, having a much more stable environment, since there are almost never variations. However, they are dangerous for amateur surfers, so we do not recommend that you practice the sport there until you are experienced.

On the other hand, coral-bottom waves are very similar to those on rocks, with the difference that they are living organisms. They are stable and with few changing conditions, although there is a greater oxygenation and allows the transparency to let us see what we have underneath.

There are also 4 other important categories of waves in general terms. The first are those of oscillation, which are generated with variations at sea level, at the surface. It is not that the water moves forward, but simply that there are turns to go up and down, which is why it is common for it to occur miles offshore.

Translational waves are generated when the sea advances and collides with the seabed, varying the surface. They usually occur close to the coast, so you will be used to seeing them with a large amount of foam.

As for the forced waves, we see that they are those that occur due to wind-driven sea storms. These waves are impossible to surf, since there are no forecasts to know what they will be like when they reach the coast, so they are also dangerous.

Also seismic waves, which are caused by earthquakes, volcanic explosions and even the movement of tectonic plates, all at high speeds. Therefore, there are huge dimensions and forces in them, so they can be terrifying, even for experienced surfers.

Finally, we cannot fail to mention the types of waves that are generated when breaking. We have hollow waves, which are the ones where we see a ridge that exceeds the base, generating a cylinder inside. They are ideal for surfing, due to the ease of maneuvering.

A good surfer should know how waves are formed and what are the most common types.

Tube waves are a variation of the previous ones, where the top rises so high that it closes a tube inside. These are the ones that all surfers dream of, in the sense that you can have the wall of the wave surrounded by it.

We see the undulating waves, where the base is further forward than the wavepart. Sometimes they do not break or are purely foam, so they will not have too much slope.

Finally, the shore waves are those that break close to the shore, being dangerous because the fall is against the bottom.

You already know all about the creation, types and characteristics of waves. We hope you take advantage of this knowledge to surf great!

If you want to try more than forty different waves we recommend visiting the Canary Islands and especially surfing in Lanzarote where the quality of the waves is impressive.

Since 1996, in Lanzarote we enjoy teaching the true art of surfing. We are located in the Natural Reserve of Famara, an idyllic landscape designed by nature and made for surfing lovers.

Take a look at our wide range of training programs. And if you still want more, what better way to complete your surf training than with SUP, Kitesurf, Yoga or Diving courses?

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