Have you ever thought about why waves actually break? What makes an ocean swell from far away turn into a wave we can ride?
Here’s a bit of (very) simplified wave science:
Strong winds blowing on the ocean surface far offshore are creating swells. These swells are literally rolling across the ocean in circular swirls beneath the surface. That’s the surging up and down waves you can feel when you are on a boat out on the open ocean. It’s the circular movements of the swell that are rocking your boat. These swell balls keep on travelling across the ocean until they hit an obstacle on the seafloor that makes it topple over i.e. break.
That ‘obstacle’ can be a sand bank, a reef or a rocky point…hence, different types of breaks. Here are the main types:
Beach breaks are breaks where the waves are breaking on sandbanks in front of the beach. Beach breaks are usually great for beginners since the sandy sea floor makes for a soft landing if you fall off. It’s especially great for your first few lessons where you can place yourself (standing up) in front of the sandbank and practice catching broken waves. Bondi is a beach break for example (see pic).
The quality of waves breaking on beach breaks varies a lot though because the banks are soft, so they shift and change with big swells or are uneven which makes for uneven waves. That’s why the waves in Bondi for example hardly ever look like the waves you see in the surf magazines (the photo was Bondi on a really good day with an excellent bank). If they do, then you usually hear surfers talk about ‘great’ banks. Or if you hear them say ‘Bondi has got sh$& banks’ at the moment, it means the way the banks are set up at the moment are not really producing any great waves and they are all over the place (definitely not like in the magazines).
Shore Breaks (Shorey) are breaks where waves break directly on the shore’s sand (or rocks). That’s the type of break that’s pretty hard to surf (if at all) and you don’t want to surf as a beginner. Here in the Eastern suburbs, Coogee has only a little shore break where the waves don’t break at all further out but just slap onto shore. That’s why Coogee has most spinal injuries in the Eastern Suburbs. People play in the shore-break and trying to bodysurf and more often than not they get dumped head first by the shorey.
Most beach breaks have a little shorey you have to pass through on your way to a bank a bit further out. It’s best to watch the waves for a while and wait for a gap between a set of waves (‘sets’) before you head out.
Reef breaks, you might have guessed it already, are the breaks where the waves break on coral or reefs which can be often a bit further off the coast. Unlike sand the reefs don’t shift, so the waves tend to break consistently in one spot. These are the perfect waves you see in magazines and loved by surfers around the world. Usually waves on reef breaks are also a bit stronger and more powerful than beach breaks for example. You know how I described breaking waves toppling over an obstacle? On beach breaks it’s kind of a slow toppling over as it gets shallower and shallower until it hits a sandbank close to shore – imagine slow motion breaking. Reef breaks are further out and the swell comes out of deeper water breaking over a ‘sudden’ obstacle – the reef. It makes the breaking of the wave a bit more sudden with more punch to the wave. Makes sense?
So reef breaks are not really ideal for beginners as you’ve gotta be quick on your feet and you don’t want to land on not so soft coral if you stack it. Having said that, once you are up on your feet, you are in for a fast and long ride in most cases. Some of the more gentle reef breaks are actually easier to ride than beachies at times. Because you get longer rides in, you get to practice more turns. I’ve always improved my surfing mostly after stints in Indo where I could cut my teeth (and graze my bum) on reef. Some of the breaks in Indonesia like Don Don in Lombok (that’s the one in the pic) are amongst the more gentle reef breaks and ideal for your first reef experience. In Bali, Turtle Island on smaller days is also quite popular for intermediate surfers. You would be insane however to try yourself on a wave like Teahuppo in Tahiti for example. It’s considered one of the (if not THE) most dangerous reefbreak in the world.
Point breaks are breaks where waves break on a rock (or lava or smiliar) not too far off shore. The waves in the point break always only peel in one direction. Like reefs, more experienced surfers just love them because the wave remains in the same place and you get super long rides in. Beginners don’t like them so much because they tend to be scared of the rocky bottom. However, just like reef breaks there are more gentle breaks than others. E.g. Medewi in Bali is super gentle loooong left point i.e. the wave breaks from left to right. It’s a long boarders paradise and fun for beginners too. Then there are breaks like Crescent Head in NSW. It’s a right, but also fairly gently and hence, another mal riders paradise. Jeffrey’s Bay – one of the most famous point breaks in the world – is an amazing right but you want to be an experienced surfer to get in some rides there. The one in the picture is another world famous point break. It’s Torquay point off famous Bells Beach.
Hope it all makes sense gidgets. Feel free to drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to dive deeper into wave science and have any more questions :-)