Learn the Basics: Surf Terms
From waves to to zones, learn the language of surfing
To understand surfing, you need to know the lingo. Learn these basic terms for the waves you catch and your place in them, and you can stop crooning like a kook.
Anatomy of a Wave
Face: The front of the wave
Back: The back of the wave
Crest or Peak: The highest part of a wave
Trough or Pit: The lowest part of a wave
Curl: The part of the wave that is breaking
Lip: The very tip of a cresting wave that curls or plunges down
Wall: The face that is yet to break
Pocket: The section of the wall just ahead of the curl. This is usually the steepest part of the wave and the most desirable place to surf. If you can stay in or near the pocket, you can generate maximal speed and enjoy a longer ride.
Shoulder or Flats: The less-steep section of the wave face away from the breaking part
Crumbly or Peeling: Waves that easily break down the face, spilling or toppling over. It appears to crumble, or peel, along the length and usually arises in areas with long, gradual rises from deep to shallow water. Excellent for learning to surf.
Barreling or Tubing: Waves that break from top to bottom as the swell peaks more quickly and pitches the crest down the wave face that usually arise from breaks with a more abrupt change from deep to shallow water. This type of wave creates the hollow tube or barrel section that an advanced surfer enters. Getting barreled is one of the ultimate experiences in surfing.
Hollow: A concave and steep wave face shape. Also referred to as “sucky” when breaking in shallow water.
Gnarly: Slang to describe large, heavy, thick-lipped or difficult waves
Closed out: When waves break all at once along their entire face. Such waves are not ideal for surfing—you end up merely riding the whitewater, or the broken part of a wave that has already peaked and toppled over. Sometimes catching whitewater works to your advantage if it’s a reform wave.
Reforms: Waves that have enough energy and the correct shape of the bottom to break more than once
Double-Up: When two waves from different swells meet in the open ocean, their crests and troughs sometimes align to create what’s known as a double-up. Double-ups tend to be larger and more powerful than other waves in a set and can become very hollow and steep when they break—not advised for the inexperienced surfer.
Rogue Wave: A much larger wave in a set, caused by an anomaly in energy at the point the swell originated, that have known to be several times larger than any other wave in a swell. Their existence emphasizes the importance of staying alert while surfing because they can catch a lot of people off guard both in the water and on shore. Luckily for oceanfront residents, truly massive rogue waves are relatively rare.
Wave Frequency and Surf Zone Structure
Outside: The area beyond the normal lineup
Inside: The area closer to shore than the normal lineup
Set: A group of waves approaching the shore. The number of waves within each set can vary, as can the size and shape of each individual wave.
Cleanup set: Larger outside sets that close out before anyone can get to them
Lull: Downtime between sets. The length of a lull can vary considerably, depending on the consistency of the swell. A very consistent swell may have waves breaking regularly, with lulls varying from a few minutes to not at all. In most areas, swells commonly contain periodic lulls of up to several minutes.
Pumping: When larger waves are breaking regularly with good shape. On such days, many surfers welcome the occasional lull in order to recover.
Lineup: The place where surfers wait for waves, determined by where the peak of the wave has been. Hint: It’s helpful to use onshore landmarks to give yourself a reference point for where you want to be when you paddle back out to the lineup. If you’re too far left or right, you run the risk of not catching the wave at the peak. If you’re too far outside, it might be difficult to catch the wave. If you’re too far inside, the wave might break before you have a chance to catch it.
Impact zone: The place just inside of where the waves break. This zone can be dangerous, especially when the waves are big. Large amounts of white water can make it tough to paddle back outside or even hold your position. Some surf spots have shallow, treacherous areas known as boneyards that can make the impact zone even more unpleasant! Being too far inside can increase your odds of being caught off guard by a cleanup set.