Heading to the forecast page for your local beach and scrolling down the page for the 'Long Range Surf Forecast' section you get the to most important tool set MSW has to offer, we're going to walk you, step by step, through using this to forecast the surf at your favourite spot.
The first thing to check is the 'swell rating'. This isn't a final and perfect guide to the waves you'll see on the beach but it does give you a rough guide to the sort of power you can expect in the swell and should at least roughly correlate to your own reading of the swell data. It's a simple double check for your own interpretations – or a way to spot the swells that might be worth the time to look at more closely.
There's more information on our ratings here.
The number of solid stars reflects the power and size of the swell, the greyed out stars indicate that the wind is less than perfect (onshore) and the overall rating is decreased.
The next thing to check is definitely the swell period. While you can expect the height of the swell to vary the height of the waves on the beach the swell period is really your best clue to the kind of waves that might be created, generally speaking the longer the period the more organised and powerful the surf and the larger it will be (relative to the swell height). For example where a 4ft@10 seconds swell might make a chest high wave on an average beach a 4ft@16 seconds swell can make powerful barreling waves over head high. There's a good deal more detail on swell period here.
The next thing to check is the swell direction. Not all surf breaks are created equal. A long sandy beach exposed to deep water might be open to almost any ocean swell, a rocky cove might need a swell to be heading in exactly the right direction to start to make surfable waves. The first step, even before you head to a new beach for the very first time, is to get an idea of what sort of swell direction might be best for your beach and the easiest way to do this is with a tool like google maps. Here are a couple of examples:
Moliets – South West France
The long sandy beaches here run unobstructed for hundreds of miles. The water near the beach is generally deep, there aren't shallow sandbanks away from the shore at most spots. There aren't offshore islands. The beach generally faces just north of west. We could reasonably expect swells from the WNW to make the biggest waves here (the large arrow on the map), but we could expect waves on the beach from swells from NNW all the way to SW. We call this the 'swell window' and we've shaded it on the map.
Bantham – South West England
If you zoom right in on the map you'll see that the beach itself faces SW. Immediately on the left of the beach is an island which blocks swell from the west, but if you zoom further out you'll see that in fact the whole of the area is blocked from westerly swells from the protruding southern most tip of England. You'll also see heading south from the beach that the coast blocks any swell coming in from the East. So the best direction is SW and the swell window is WSW through to S, much narrower than for France.
So you'll have an idea of the perfect swell direction for your local break and a larger swell window that'll allow for surfable waves. First thing to determine is whether or not the swell is heading towards your beach. The MSW forecast normally excludes swells that are heading in completely the wrong direction, but it doesn't necessarily understand the finer points of your local spot, if the swell is heading in the perfect direction you can start to estimate the sort of surf you'll see on the beach by looking at the swell height in conjunction with the notes we've made about swell period above.
If the swell is within the broader swell window but perhaps not heading directly towards the beach you can normally expect the waves to be smaller than they'd otherwise be. How much so depends on two things, the precise local shape of the seabed – something you'll get a feel for by simply correlating your own experiences there with the forecasts and the period of the swell. We make a brief mention of it when talking about period that longer period swell bend or 'refract' better when entering shallow water. This can allow a swell to make quite considerable changes in direction and means that longer period swells at less than perfect directions will generally make bigger waves than shorter period swells from the same direction.
As we've mentioned already the 'swell height' ISN'T the same as the breaking wave height on the beach but clearly there's a correlation. Using the rough guide to swell period above you can see that, on the average beach, all other factors being equal a swell of about 10 seconds in period will break at about the same size as the swell height assuming the direction is optimal for the beach. If you can work out how period and direction affect your local break you can simply scale your forecast for breaking wave height based on the swell height. We're constantly working at MSW to try to factor as much of this science as possible into a forecast, but ultimately you need some local knowledge and experience to take the data we give you and calculate your own surf forecast.
Bear in mind the swell height we give is the average height of larger waves – generally the largest wave will be about 1.5x as big as this. So if we're forecasting 6ft of swell the largest wave in the swell will be around 9ft.