Wind Waves are Like Snow Flakes, Infinitely Unique and Complex

Disclaimer: Whenever launching into a technical and somewhat subjective blog, background and context is always helpful.   First off, I am not a scientist or physicist and don’t want to play one on the internet :-).  My thoughts outlined below are based on personal experience and a little bit of technical research at Wikipedia,  a handful of other internet sites, and a great book recommended by Boyan called The Science of Ocean Waves by JB Zirker.  Over the past 10 years I’ve done 90% of my paddling on the Great Lakes with a handful of weeks on the Atlantic, in Hawaii, and at the Columbia River Gorge. I live in a unique spot on the Great Lakes where I have access to both a large bay and larger open water along with a channel formed by two islands as well as some very prominent points. This has provided a great opportunity to experience and learn different conditions.

Whenever a group of surfski paddlers get together, within minutes the conversation is certain to turn to waves and specifically surfing downwind. For those paddlers starting out on their journey to mastering downwind paddling there can be a lot of misconceptions and confusion. In this blog I hope to dispel some of the myths that prevail, help paddlers to open their minds and eyes to new areas that are likely to provide surfable waves, and also give some guidance on what to expect when surfing different types of waves. My guess is that we all speculate and have formed opinions about how our local conditions might compare to Tarifa, Hawaii Kai, Maliko, the Gorge, and Miller’s Run. Understanding all of the below and how it applies to your local spot should help to give some reference.

While surfing shore break can also be a ton of fun, and swell generated from non-localized wind can certainly add a dimension to downwind paddling, as surfski paddlers, we primarily surf wind waves when paddling downwind and hence wind waves will be my focus.

Let’s first talk about all the different factors that come into play in producing waves:

  • Fetch – both the length and width of the body of water over which the wind blows will have a resulting effect on the waves. Longer distances will produce large waves while wider fetches will add to more wave direction and variability.   My sense is that length of fetch is an obvious one we all know and understand, but width also plays a significant role.
  • Duration and strength of wind – this one is pretty obvious. The longer the wind blows and the stronger it blows the bigger the wind waves will be and more complexity that will be developed
  • Depth of water – The depth of the water will impact the waves. Specifically waves will get steeper and slower when they begin to experience drag from the sea/lake bottom. In cases where shelves and sandbars exist amongst open water, not only will the waves be steeper and slower as they pass over these, but this will also cause refraction that will impact wave profiles beyond just the immediate area
  • Shoreline geography / structures – The shoreline geography combined with the wind direction will have a big impact on the waves.  Wind that parallels the shoreline will create clean waves, whereas direct onshore tends to get messier.    When wind waves wrap around points they get cleaned up.  Break walls and sheer cliffs also have a profound effect by generating rebound waves that can propagate out for miles. Anyone who has raced Molokai can certainly speak to this, where rebound chop from the China Wall seems to start as far as 3-4 miles out.
  • Currents – when current is opposing the wind direction it will cause the waves to steepen and move slower and when it is moving with the wind it will speed up the waves and might marginally flatten them.

Notice that all of the above factors apply to all bodies of water. They are not specific to salt water or fresh water. We know salt water is denser and more buoyant and I suspect this plays a subtle role in the feeling of paddling a surfski in waves.   Of course a big swell generated thousands of miles away moving through localized wind waves adds a dimension and complexity you won’t see on smaller bodies of water, but all else being equal, the wind waves produced should generally be the same.

The coolest thing about  all of the above, is that you begin to realize that you can study Google Maps and find there are thousands of amazing downwind runs all over the world, most of them not yet discovered. How cool is that?

Now that we’ve gotten the science stuff out of the way, lets shift to real world experience and what to expect in different types of conditions. I’ll list these from what I consider easiest  to hardest:

Best Beginner Conditions

  • Narrow body of water / opposing current – The best example of this is the Columbia River Gorge / Hood River.   The relatively narrow width of the river keeps the waves clean. This combined with a strong current opposing the wind stacks the waves steep and tight, and slows them down considerably. I’m convinced these are the absolute best conditions for beginners. Slow and steep waves are the easiest to catch and surf for a long period of time. In my experience it is easier to ride these types of waves much longer than bigger and faster moving waves. Just don’t expect high speeds, if you’re GPS obsessed, leave it at home and just enjoy the surfing 😃 Swell city is a little bit of an anomaly as the waves can get more complex especially on a big day.
  • Waves wrapping a point – whenever waves are wrapping around a point, the point serves to line them up and they mimic ground swell coming into the beach. These are a great place for beginners to learn to catch waves which typically offer nice long rides
  • 1- 2 1/2 foot waves – small waves often generated on larger bodies of water in  just 10 knots of wind, are ideal for beginners to learn in. They are also still a ton of fun for intermediate and advanced paddlers. These waves present a great opportunity to hone your skills in staying on the wave for as long as possible and playing with angles to lengthen the run. For an advanced paddler these are very mellow conditions, that can be both therapeutic and relaxing.
  • Small Inland Lakes / Big Wind – I just recently had my eyes opened to the fact that when the wind is gale force, even inland lakes as short as 4 miles long can produce great surfing conditions.   When it is not safe to go out in the big water, don’t neglect these opportunities.  The waves will be moving slower and can be an absolute blast to surf!

Intense and challenging for beginners / pure flow for advanced

  • 2 1/2 – 3 foot waves and 12-15 knots of wind – these conditions are usually manageable for beginner and intermediate paddlers, but average speeds will likely be a little slower than in the smaller conditions. For advanced paddlers these conditions are not too intense, but still solid and a lot of fun to paddle in
  • 4 – 6 foot waves and 15-20 knots of wind – these will be very challenging for a beginner and even most intermediate paddlers. Advanced paddlers will love these conditions and depending on other circumstances, they may be the fastest downwind conditions for an advanced paddler
  • 6+  foot waves and 20-40 knots sustained wind – These are intense conditions that depending on a host of other factors, may not be suitable for a beginner or intermediate paddler. For an advanced paddler this is fun and intense paddling. With the strong wind things are moving quickly, there are a lot of wave options to work and you must use small waves to catch the bigger waves. In my experience in these conditions, I’m doing a lot of hard paddling just to keep up with the waves, and while the runs are faster, they aren’t necessarily longer than in smaller conditions. The wind helps considerably to put you on the wave, but staying parked on the wave is much harder than in steep and slower moving conditions.  My heart rate is consistently higher in these conditions than in smaller conditions where I can more easily sit on the waves longer.

Physically Exhausting Conditions

  • Sizable waves with limited wind – These are very challenging conditions that will test your fitness. When I go out on these days I know it will be more of a cardio/interval workout than a fun surfing session. Even in just 3 foot waves, once the wind has died, it can be very challenging to catch these waves and the runs never last very long. You should expect to do a lot of hard paddling with limited paddles down time. What can be most frustrating on these days is that you see the swell and get excited as you envision spectacular big rides, but even when you power hard and catch these, they rarely live up to your expectations.  In my experience on these days, the best waves to surf are those that are close to shore but not yet dumping. At this point the waves are getting steeper, slower, and cleaner. As a beginner this can be a great zone to play in. You’re close to shore, there isn’t much wind, but still great waves to practice catching and riding

Summary

I could go on at length about the myriad of different wave conditions that can exist in different bodies of water and with different weather patterns and I know the above just barely scratched the surface of possibilities.    It is one of the truly magical aspects of this sport that as your journey progresses you will begin to notice the infinite nuance of different wave conditions and ever so subtly and unconsciously you will find yourself adjusting your paddling style to match them. The most important message in all of this is to learn to appreciate all the different forms of waves that can be surfed and to understand that every time you catch a wave no matter how big or small it is an opportunity to learn and improve one small minuscule fraction at a time.

As a beginner learning to downwind there are certainly days that can be very frustrating and it is easy to blame either the boat or the conditions for broaching, swamping the cockpit, or excessively burying the bow. I was guilty of this myself for several years. But as my skills have developed, I’ve become more and more convinced that a 21 foot boat can most certainly surf a 1 1/2 foot steep and stacked wave very nicely. While it is true that some of newer designs surf and carve better, with the right driver, all surf skis are plenty capable of surfing in all conditions.

Below are some snapshots of my favorite local downwind runs along with some annotation to describe the common conditions I experience. Hopefully this helps give some perspective.

P.S.  If you’ve made it this far into this blog, you are most definitely addicted to waves.   Welcome to the tribe!   As a reward, please take 15% off your next order on-line at TC SURFSKI by entering coupon code: ppp15   (hurry though, offer expires Dec 25th 2017).  Each and every order means a lot to us and helps to keep this website/blog/podcast alive!