The measurement is always in feet and scaled so the actual height on the face is roughly twice what's quoted. So a 3-foot wave would be head high (to a 6-foot person), or 2-foot around chest high. 6 to 8 foot would be 2 to approaching 3 times head high. Large waves are difficult to judge though, and the measurement becomes a little fuzzy towards 20 feet.
The origin of the scale is obscure. The candidates are:
- Hawaiian life guards calling smaller sizes to keep tourists away.
- The measurement is "from the back" of the wave, or from wave buoy readings.
- Macho understatement by early surfers.
In Australia, which is otherwise metric, feet are still used by surfers and surf-specific media (e.g. ASL and Tracks magazines). Some of the non-surfing media make an attempt at metrication by direct conversion (e.g.), so 3 feet becomes 1 metre. In a sense that satisfies neither surfers who don't use those units, nor non-surfers don't know it means twice that on the face.
- Hawaiian Scale: Measuring Wave Heights in Hawaii by Neal Miyake, 2003
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