If you take everything into account, you could say that the best surfing area on the planet, for most people’s tastes anyway, is Indonesia. It gets consistent, year-round long-period swells, favourable local wind conditions, warm water and hundreds of perfect reef and point setups. The majority of spots rarely get so big that they go out of control, and if the swell is really small there is usually somewhere to surf. You could say that Indonesia is perfectly designed to make the most out of the swells it receives.
This is not true for everywhere in the world. A lot of factors have to coincide for a particular stretch of coastline in the world to produce good, surfable waves. You could split these factors into two groups;First you have the ‘internal’ or ‘intrinsic’ characteristics.
Live cam: Nazare
They include the geographical location and orientation of the coastline; the material over which the waves break (think sand, coral, volcanic rock, limestone etc.), and any offshore bathymetry that might manipulate the incoming swells before they break (think the Nazaré canyon). These characteristics depend on the geological history of the coastline and the surrounding area.
Then you have the ‘external’ or ‘extrinsic’ characteristics. These include the size, quality and direction of the swells reaching the coast, and the strength and direction of the local winds. They depend on the behaviour of the storms over the ocean, which, in turn, depend on large-scale features such as the upper airstream and the ocean currents.
To get good waves on a particular day, the extrinsic factors have to match the intrinsic factors. And to get good waves on a consistent basis, the variation of the extrinsic factors has to match the ‘acceptance range’ of the intrinsic factors
To get good waves on a particular day, the extrinsic factors have to match the intrinsic factors. And to get good waves on a consistent basis, the variation of the extrinsic factors has to match the ‘acceptance range’ of the intrinsic factors. What do I mean by that?
Well, areas that receive large variations in incoming swell and local winds either need to have versatile surf spots that can handle a range of conditions, or they need to have a variety of spots that can cover a broad range of conditions between them. If you don’t have these things, good days will be few and far between.
That concept is very simple, but it has some important implications for different surfing areas around the world. In fact, every surf spot comes somewhere between a perfect match and a total mismatch between the extrinsic and intrinsic factors. Below are a few examples, to which I’m sure you can add hundreds more:
The northeast of England: Here there are some really epic setups, some of them as good as anywhere in the world. But the coastline is hidden from the major storm tracks of the North Atlantic. You might have to endure months of flat or sloppy onshores, but when the swells do come, perhaps a handful of times a year, it can be world-class.
Western Galicia: This area is full of high-quality beachbreaks that typically come into their own in wave heights between about three and six feet. But in western Galicia the swell is often much bigger than that. It is great for a few months in the summer and autumn; but very often out of control for the rest of the year, particularly in mid-winter.
Iceland: Here the coastal geology is such that there are hundreds of quality reefs and points, all well-suited to the size range of the swells that reach them. However, these areas are really close to the storm centres, so they are constantly hammered by hell-like local wind conditions.
The Cape Peninsula, South Africa: This area is wide open to the South Atlantic and quite close to the storm track, so it receives a broad range of swell sizes, swell directions and local wind conditions. However, it also contains enough of a variety of spots within a short distance to keep you covered for every combination thinkable.
Indonesia: As I already mentioned, the place probably couldn’t be designed much better. It is perfectly situated to receive clean, lined-up, three to eight-foot swells all year round with light variable winds or light offshores.
In addition, there are hundreds if not thousands of spots ideally suited to waves in the three-to-eight-foot range. One or two, such as Uluwatu, can handle much bigger sizes, which come on a much rarer basis. Interestingly, the big Indo swell of 2018 (HERE), with wave heights over 15 feet on open coastlines, was too much for a lot of spots to handle, with unmakeable sections, wash-throughs and double-ups.
On a final note, it is good to remember that if you live in a place that gets epic waves all year round, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll enjoy yourself more than if you live somewhere that gets one good day every three months. I know, it sounds a bit backwards, but I’ve seen a few cases where people actually get fed up with the same perfection, day-in-day-out, where one day blurs into the next and you can’t remember which barrel was best out of the hundreds that you got.
I’ve also spoken to other people who are just as stoked to wait for that one special day, where you remember every detail of every wave caught, and talk about it months or even years afterwards. Please feel free to shoot me down in flames in the comments below.
Cover shot by Rip It Up