Surf break

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Surfing a break in Oahu

A surf break (also break, shore break, or big wave break[1]) is a permanent obstruction such as a coral reef, rock, shoal, or headland that causes a wave to break,[2] forming a barreling wave or other wave that can be surfed, before it eventually collapses. The topography of the seabed determines the shape of the wave and type of break. Since shoals can change size and location, affecting the break, it takes commitment and skill to find good breaks. Some surf breaks are quite dangerous, since the surfer can collide with a reef or rocks below the water. Surf breaks are often defended vehemently by surfers. In 2008, surfers and environmentalists opposed a toll road project in Orange County, California that would have changed sediment patterns and affected the world-class Trestles surf break north of San Onofre State Beach which attracted 400,000 surfers in 2007.[3]

In 2007, the NSW Geographical Names Register began formally recognizing names of surf breaks in Australia, defining a surf break as a "permanent obstruction such as a reef, headland, bombora, rock or sandbar, which causes waves to break".[2]

One of the largest surf breaks in the world is the Jaws surf break in Maui, Hawaii, with waves that reach a maximum height of 40–60 feet (12–18 m).[4]

Types of surf breaks[edit]

There are numerous types of surf breaks. These are defined as permanent or semi permanent obstructions, rather than by the nature of the wave itself (see under Types of surfable waves below).

The invention of petrol powered surfboards since the early 2010s may change the nature of what is considered a 'surfable' wave in future.

Artificial wave pools are another example of technology changing what is considered a surfable wave.

Point break[edit]

A point break refers to the place where waves hit a point of land or rocks jutting out from the coastline. Bells Beach in Australia and Jardim do Mar in Madeira, Portugal are examples of point breaks.

They can break either left or right, and in rare cases forms a central peak which breaks both ways around a central headland. (E.g. Punta Rocas in Peru).

Beach break[edit]

A beach break takes place where waves break on a usually sandy seabed. An example of a classic beach break is Hossegor in Southern France, which is famous for waves of up to 20 feet (6.1 m).

Sometimes 'beaches' can contain little or no sand and the 'beach' bottom may be only rock or boulders and pebbles. A 'boulder beach' is an example.

Reef break[edit]

A reef break happens when a wave breaks over a coral reef or a rocky seabed. Example are Cloudbreak in Fiji and Jaws in Maui.

A reef break may occur close to the shore, or well offshore from the shoreline, breaking in open ocean and petering out before the wave reaches the shore. Examples include Queenscliff Bommie in Australia and Dungeons in South Africa. In Australia these open ocean reefs are sometimes called Bombora or 'Bommie' waves, after the aboriginal word for offshore reef, 'bombora'.

'Reef breaks' can also sometimes form over submerged or partly submerged shipwrecks.

There are also examples of man-made reefs specifically designed and made for surfing. Some artificial harbours also create new reef break waves. Examples include Newcastle Harbour in Australia.

Shore break[edit]

A shore break is a wave that breaks directly on, or very close to the shore. This happens when the beach is very steep at the shoreline. These waves are really just a form of beach or reef break, but breaking very close to the shore.

Rivermouth break[edit]

A rivermouth break breaks at the entrance to a river or creek. It can break as either a left-breaking or right-breaking wave, or a peak which breaks both ways. The bottom is usually sand, but can be pebbles, rocks, or even coral reef.

Examples include Mundaka in Spain, and Merimbula Bar in Australia.

They are sometimes called 'Bar' breaks because of the way the sand piles up along the shoreline.

Jetty break[edit]

These waves break along or near a jetty. They are also called 'groynes' in some places. Examples include Ocean Beach in New York and Duranbah Groyne in Australia.

Jetty and groyne style waves are known for often exhibiting constructive interference between different incoming waves to produce a significantly larger, 'wedging' style of wave, due to the unusual extension of obstruction that juts out significantly from the shore, and which wave shape is often favored by surfers. Examples include The Wedge in California.

'Wedge' style constructive interference can however occur on any type of surf break, provided the local wave dynamics are favorable.

Outer Banks[edit]

A type of open ocean surf break, there occur where sand build ups occur well offshore to produce breaking waves in the open ocean, which are sometimes called 'Outer Banks', which are similar to open ocean reefs except that they are generally made of sand, and may disappear or change with storms. The 'Outer Banks' in North Carolina is an example.

Tidal Bore breaks[edit]

Numerous tidal bore waves are known, some of which have also been surfed for several kilometres or more and many kilometres from the ocean, making them the longest rideable waves in the world.

They are formed where stronger and larger tides enter a river or deltaic system, allowing the tide to forcefully push and extend up the river, sometimes forming rideable waves. The waves can be singular or multiple crested.

They form at specific times of the day, month, and year due to tidal currents, and can be accurately predicted.

Well known examples include several in the Amazon Basin, in China, at the Severn Bore in the United Kingdom, and in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Standing river breaks[edit]

These are waves which are created in some fast flowing rivers or creeks, allowing a surfer to ride a wave for several minutes whilst standing almost stationary within the river. The force of the flow along an uneven river bed allows a standing wave to form, and the surfer to be able to ride the wave successfully.

Examples include on the Zambesi River, and near Munich, Germany.

They also sometimes form when an inland lagoon or lake breaches its entry to the sea, forming standing waves in the channel between the lagoon and sea. Examples include at Waimea in Hawaii.

Artificial Wave Pools[edit]

These are made in an artificially created pool with a powerful wave generating device, to form generally small waves, which can be surfed without any need for an ocean or shoreline.

They are currently the subject of much research and development, and there are a number of commercial operations.

Types of surfable waves[edit]

As opposed to permanent obstructions which cause waves to break, surfable waves are sometimes defined by the nature of their generation.

Swell waves[edit]

Ocean swells form from the longer term amalgamation of wind-generated waves on the surface. The stronger the wind and the longer the area over which it blows, generally the larger the swell.

Wind waves[edit]

If large enough, local wind-generated chop can be surfed, but usually only after it has amalgamated into genuine swell from a distance.

Ship waves[edit]

A large ship such as an oil tanker can sometimes create rideable waves at the shoreline. These are usually surfed only when the waves are otherwise very small, such as in a large inland lake.

There has been unconfirmed reports of an offhsore boat being used to make waves during surf contests when the surf was otherwise very small.

Tsunami waves[edit]

Although rare, surfable tsunami waves from earthquakes has been recorded.

One documented place this has occurred is at Punta Hermosa in Peru, at the offshore Kon Tiki reef, where the tsunami-generated waves were ridden about 1 kilometre from the shore, before further rising and crashing into the nearby shoreline.

Glacial Carving waves[edit]

Waves have been surfed and documented from the action of carving ice from glaciers, which falls into the adjacent water and forms a tsunami-type wave which surges away from the glacier.

Storm Surges[edit]

These form when a large storm or hurricane forces water in front of it, due to the combined action of strong winds over long distances. The water can pile up towards the shore and create a moving surge of water.

These surges can be surfed, although they have not been specifically documented.

Backwash and Sidewash waves[edit]

There occur where waves are formed and surfed from the returning backwash of a wave which has previously gone up a steep shoreline or beach, or sometimes reflected from an ocean rockface or wall, before being surfed back out towards the sea in a different direction. An example was shown in the film Endless Summer, in Tahiti.

Backwash breaking parallel to or obliquely to the angle of the shore is sometimes also called sidewash, which can form from the reflection of a wave breaking against adjacent obstructions such as jettys, groynes, or rockwalls, or simply from the action of backwashing waves which strike a shoreline at an angle. Sidewash and backwash is relatively common, and often amplifies another incoming breaking wave's size due to constructive interference.

Backwash and sidewash also sometimes form in conjunction with rips on beaches.

Standing river waves[edit]

These are formed from the action of fast flowing water over an uneven river or creek bed. The dynamics are very specific and not many naturally occurring surfable standing river waves are known, but examples include on the Zambesi river and near Munich, Germany.

Some rivers can also exhibit a surfable wave 'front' during flash flood events, particularly within narrow canyons. These have been ridden by people on surf craft caught in a flash flood event, such as on an inflatable tyre, although not usually intentionally. It is technically a wave front, with a breaking wave which can carry one downstream, so may be classified as a 'surf break', but others may classify this as simply a type of river riding.

Tidal Bore waves[edit]

These form where strong tidal currents enter a river or deltaic system, pushing shorewards and creating a surfable wave, and can extend for many kilometers. Surfable examples are known in China, Sumatra, the Amazon Basin, and the United Kingdom. They can be multiple or single crested wave fronts.

Artificial Wave Pool waves[edit]

These are made in an artificially created pool with a powerful wave generating device, to form generally small waves, which can be surfed without any need for an ocean or shoreline.

They are currently the subject of much research and development, and there are a number of commercial operations.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Turner, Sarah (2006-02-05). "The best surf break". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-04-02. Above all, it's a quality wave, it's reliable, it's a classic big wave break 
  2. ^ a b Silmalis, Linda (2007-04-08). "Surf break names recognised". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-04-02. THE tradition within the surfing community of naming the local break is set to be recognised with the NSW Government to create a formal register 
  3. ^ Flaccus, Gillian (2008-02-07). "Officials Pick Surf Break Over Toll Road - Local News". Fox News. Retrieved 2009-04-02. Surfers and environmentalists threw a roadblock in front of a proposed toll road through one of the world's best surf breaks 
  4. ^ Hurley, Timothy (2002-11-18). "Maui's monster surf break getting bigger by the day". Retrieved 2009-04-02. Jaws — or Pe'ahi, as many locals call it — offers some of the largest surfable waves on earth. About a dozen times each winter, wave faces reach 40 to 60 feet and more from trough to peak, taller than a four- to five-story building