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16 October 2014
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Guts in the barrel - image by adie

Wave height

One mans 3ft is another mans foot. So how is wave size actually calculated and measured by other surfers?

Join the debate!

Some surfers use 'waist high', 'head high', 'shoulder high' and 'over head' as a wave height indicatior which can be confusing if you're used to measuring wave faces in feet.

Others measure from the back of the wave 'Hawaiian Style' which seems a bit odd for UK waters when we rarely have big enough swells to measure from the back!

The most common and simplest method would be measuring the wave face from peak to trough i.e. from the bottom to the top of the breaking wave.

With waves constantly moving, it can be tricky to the uninitiated to judge their actual height. Lying down whilst paddling out can also put a whole new perspective on the height of wave as it smashes onto your head.

Most surfers will call an average height rather than basing a session on rogue set waves/ the biggest of the day.

Rather than calling it 4ft we'd say it was 3-4ft or 5-6ft and so on...

As a general rule, if it's only 1ft, it's pretty difficult to surf on, unless you longboard or are a lightweight grom/ shredding machine!

Check out this useful article by Neal Miyake, although again, this is taken from a Hawaiian perspective.

Read some recent message board comments on this age old debate!

  • theoctagon :

  • I always thought that you went on the size of the face just before the wave breaks and that you judge that size in feet. I realise that wave data that comes from buoys is different to what you will actually see breaking on the beach for various reasons.

    I was chatting to a guy the other day though about it and asked what he considered to be a 1ft wave. He held out his hands to indicate the size. If you measured the distance between his hands with a ruler it would probably be about 2.5ft!

  • Walker Texas Ranger:

  • 1ft in surfing is not 1ft, ask anyone who has surfed for more than 4 years (before the kook influx) and they will tell you the same.

    1ft = 2ft, 2ft = 3/4ft, 3ft = 5/6ft, 4ft = 6/7ft, 5ft = 8ft, 6ft = 9/10ft, 8ft = 12ft

  • bigfeller1:

  • I take it as being a measure of the part of the wave which is steep enough to get going on.

    how long is a piece of string?

    I also find that whatever size is given for a break on any given day,there will be the odd set which is bigger, and obviously many which are a lot smaller. I work on the assumption that peope are generally talking about the size of an average SET wave.

  • Wounded Gull:

  • When did a 1 foot wave become 2ft? I've never heard such nonsense. Maybe a sweeping generalisation but...from my experience, Pembs surfers tell it, how it is!

    I've never had this conversation before tbh until I moved to Cardiff and began surfing Porthcawl and Gower spots. We have a standard measurement - feet.

    1FT ='s not rocket science

    If we all USE IT, the problem quickly evaporates.

  • Adie:

  • Look, if you wanna argue about wave size, why not challenge Brad Gerlach as to whether the wave he rode was really 68 feet? I got my calipers out, and I reckon it was more like 67.

    1ft pic by owain2ft pic by rattz

    2-3ft pic by boxey4ft  pic by caws
    4-5ft pic by adie5-6ft pic by antje
    6ft pic by caws8ft+ pic by adam pitters

    Your comments

    Have your say on the wave heights in the above photos - do you agree?


    Skippy the surf God
    if im on it, then its a monster! what more do we need to know people?

    Kyle - Gold Coast
    Wait guys, 1ft (12 inches) is rideable. I bodyboard so I'm guessing it's easier for me, but I've seen some shore board guys doing it to. And I've found the best way to estimate wave height is to look at the stand up guys and estimate around that. But more importianly than height is thickness, have you seen those fat 4ft waves that are really fun, or those skinny little 4ft waves that force you to freefall, in my mind that's more importiant.

    eggins uk
    Those photos are spot on.I wish I had a quid for every time someone paddled in off a summer waisthigh longboard wave and proclaimed it four feet.Then again if your mate was too lazy to get out of bed you've got to tell 'em it was insane six foot offshore.They'll know your lying anyway.

    ben hickman from padstow
    the biggest i have surfed is about 20ft but according to your rules it is about 6ft man i feel like a noob

    Si - Brisbane
    Spent the day paddling into 5-6 ft and coming back on 3-4 ft at the Noosa Bar, perhaps I should be doing it the other way round?

    Dangerous D, Hard Hat Factory
    I have a friend called Barney who; because of his smallness considers everything to be overhead.

    jahred-temperarily landlocked
    -there's always gonna be a misinterpretation about this with people you've never paddled out with. especially when your in college and these guys you're talking to are from the other three corners of the world. -you guys have fun, i guess i'll go out skating now :(

    Phil Colquitt - Coolangatta
    Both overestimation and underestimation are based on a natural fear of aquatic environments. This fear protects us. "Crest to trough", plus characteristics of shape, heaviness etc., works for me, because it allows thinking about the relationship between the board design and the wave, in a way that "behind the wave" measurement does not.

    Tyler - Australia
    I went bodyboarding today and when a 6ft wave came out back I got axed. Considering it was only about 4ft normal, 5ft sets but this wave was insane!

    james caruso, rochester ny
    I have to agree with marcus on this one. Those two foot waves really creep me out and there are times where I feel like a five year old out there. I guess being a mexican surfer has something to do with it. p.s. sorry to here about your diarrhea problem marcus. You'll get through it man.

    billy popham, rochester ny
    i caught my first 1 ft wave today it was huge! i love surfing i love it i love it i love it!!!

    marcus siegel
    i just don't like the whole underexxagerating the wave size. yes, i feel uncomfortable telling my friends that a 4 foot wave made me diarrhea my new white board shorts. it sucks.

    Gordon from New England
    From moving from the west cost,san diego,and living among the fog heads here in new hampshire,wave height could mean anything.but i like dans take on it,just have fun.but don't move to new england it flat and cranky.gman

    Ed Stogdale from south devon
    well i reckon all of them are correct apart from the last two, the 6 footer is about 7-8 ft and the 8 footer is easily in excess of 10 ft.

    i look at the wave an give it a rough estimate according to the hieght of the people surfing it and then half it i say the average person is between 5-6 foot so if its headhigh id say it was 2-3 foot

    jon newquay
    so when it says 1-2 foot on a surf forecasting website, e.g. a1surf it is actually around waistheight? and not the measurement on a ruler??!! please help wave height is confusing me!

    Jonny - Gower
    Lets be honest guys, does it really matter?

    monkeystyle - manly
    As surfers we know exactly what we are talking about when we discuss wave heights... lets not pander to beginners (we were all there once). "Surf" feet are not a unit of height, they are a measure or fun and then fear. 1 foot is just ridable on the right bank (whereas a 12 inch wave is not)... 6 foot will have you wishing you packed your spare set of lungs everytime you duckdive.

    chris from Jersey
    I've always thought that the dudes who exaggerate the size of their waves exaggerate other things e.g. appendages. Its not the size its how you ride it.

    Or Just not quite as smart as the people in the south ay Flack old boy!!

    Danny - Cornwall
    Who cares just go out and have some fun....but to answer the question i would say 3 foot is head high.....and to all the city boys who go on about there 6 foot experience that was actually 1-2 ...sorry boys

    mason from bournemouth
    I measure from the back but prefer to measure it from the front because i'ts a bigger measurement so sounds really big. You also sound really good for saying you surfed big waves when infact it was actually half the size (if you measured correctly)

    Don't know what the fuss is about! If you're comfortable and chilled it's too small, if you're cacking your pants it's big enough!

    nuff of this pussy-talk. lets get metric. 0.5m is longboardable 1.0m is fun 1.5m is meaty 1.5m plus and i'm doing the Mr Whippy on the Burger King steps.

    Rich Livock, Pembs
    Those photo's tell it all. For me it's the size of the swell before it hits the reef/sand bank, which translates to the wave size we all talk about, e.g. 2ft swell = waisthigh wave, 3ft = shoulderhigh, 4ft = headhigh, 6ft = overhead.

    I'm well scared now. I've been surfing what I thought was 6-8ft waves whereas I've only been surfing 5-6 ft. My mate in Oz surfs 8ft+ on a good day. I'm going out there next week!

    Ben, Maesteg
    1ft in actual imperial measurement isnt a surfable wave!! but surfers terms 1ft maybe actually 2ft or a bit more/less if you took a measuring tape of the wave!

    pretty much agree with all except the last 2. I think the vertical face of your "6 ft" wave is well in excess of 6. Looks more like 8. The last one looks well over 10 ft. I think it's always more difficult to say with bigger waves. Might also question the first one: The only way I can tell there is a wave at all is by the fact that there is someone standing up.

    second to last is what i've been brought to believe as 4-5ft, last one is 6ft. But then we are harder in the north!

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