What the Hell is a Good Wave, Anyway?

Part 2: The Wave


What Constitutes a Good Wave?

Ok, so we've, more or less, gotten the cloud of bullshit cleared out, so perhaps now we can begin to examine the actual nuts and bolts of what constitutes a good wave.

And once again, before we start, we're going to have to deal with a lot of presuppositions, assumptions, and unspoken beliefs and expectations prior to actually setting down and adding things up logically.

To begin with, a wave does not exist in isolation.

Waves can only be deemed "good" or "bad" in the presence of humans.

It's the human that gives the wave meaning.

Say what you will, but in the absence of human interaction, "good" and "bad" lose all intrinsic meaning.

Furthermore, human interaction occurs in the field of actually riding a given wave, and in a separate field of observing a given wave.

These two fields are distinct, but can intersect in interesting and complex ways.

So ok.

Here, you have a wave, and there, you have a human, who may or may not be riding the wave.

It's already starting to get complicated, and we haven't even looked at the stupid wave yet.


We'll start off with the wave itself, but let us not ever forget the spoken or unspoken existence of the human measuring stick which we must always return to in order to properly measure things.

Waves can very roughly be examined in terms of size, environment, and shape.

Size and environment are pretty straightforward, sort of, but shape is The One True Bastard which contains multiple universes within itself, and is the reason your parents, and other non-surfers will never ever EVER understand what the hell a "good" wave is, no matter how many times you attempt to explain it to them.

Though each is a complete discipline in and of itself, worthy of extended examination and consideration, size, environment, and shape also interact with one another, and alter the ultimate meaning of one another, in interesting ways.

Holy shit, this crap really is complicated, isn't it?

Yes, yes it is.

It's basically an applied physics exam, with a healthy dollop of psychology and human physiology tossed in for good measure, and they don't grade on a curve.

Right around here I suppose is a good place where I should advise those of you who refuse to treat with the universe on its own terms, and unyieldingly demand simple answers to deep questions, to just go ahead, get up, and leave the room.

Jesus isn't here to provide you with slogans, psalms, platitudes, and pat answers.

Jesus don't surf.

You're on your own.

You're going to have to think for yourself.

People who are overly religious, political, or doctrinaire in general, tend to get headaches when they have to really think for themselves, and further tend to eventually say "Fuck it," and hand off the heavy lifting to someone else who will do it for them, when they discover it's more than they're capable of doing for themselves.

Which is nice I suppose, for those whose brains are flabby, but it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction when it bumps into some set of curious complications, as it always must, that was never considered by those who write the instruction manuals for folks of reduced mental caliber.

All of which above is by way of saying each of you is going to be getting different answers to the question: What the fuck is a good wave, anyway?

All of that which follows these words will only be a set of guidelines which seek to point out a variety of considerations and subtleties that need to be addressed properly along the way to coming to your own conclusions.

And, hopefully, it will further heighten an awareness that no one person will ever be qualified to pronounce judgment upon the subject in a way that permits them to issue fiat about it to their fellow humans.

Ok then, let's take this in order of simple to complex.

Size is simplest, so we do that first.

It's either too big to ride, too small to ride, or something in the middle.

Easy, right?

Well ….. perhaps.

Why is it too big to ride?

Why is it too small to ride?

What constitutes that zone in the middle, and how does it grade into its adjoining categories?

The business of too small to ride hews closely to a lot of the problems I have, personally, with surf reports in the wave-blighted state of Florida.

So let's go there first.

From a strictly physics point of view, too small to ride is really small.

Small children, on finless craft can and do, ride broken waves in the one to two inch size range.

That's really small.

Put fins on a craft with sufficient planing area, ridden by child or adult, and minimum rideable size is determined by the depth at which the fin(s) begin to drag against the bottom.

Again, really small.

So ok, it's rideable, but it's so goddamned puny that it offers little to nothing by way of proper enjoyment which can be extracted from the ride.

And in the end, surfing is all about the extraction of enjoyment from any given wave.

Enter the human element, yet again.


If you can extract massive quantities of enjoyment from one-foot slop, well and good, but please do not attempt to persuade me that there's surf, ok?

It's flat, we both know it, and the fact that you're out there riding it in no way alters the fundamental truth of the matter, ok?

You wanna define "flat" as a geometry term which describes a perfectly smooth plane with no irregularities or "waves" in it? Fine. Go right ahead. But that's your personal definition and it does not agree with the consensus of all those who surf. Furthermore, you're never going to change the particulars of that consensus. Any and all attempts to do so only result in your looking foolish at best, or crooked at worst. To borrow a quote from elsewhere: "You're not wrong, you're just an asshole."

And so we gradually grade from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end, where matters become much more serious.

Too big to ride will kill you, and you're supposed to have the minimal good sense to know that and refrain from entering the water on days that are too big to ride.

Too big to ride, even if it does not kill you, will leave you without any enjoyment at all, and in its place you will receive a healthy burden of anxiety, fear, terror, exhaustion, injury, humiliation, expense incurred from broken equipment, and numerous other unpleasantries.

And in the middle, there's that "Goldilocks Zone" of just right.

I will hereby open myself up for attack by broadly defining the Goldilocks Zone as being from waist high to somewhere between double and triple overhead with the following stipulation: On either border of the Goldilocks Zone, it not only has to have really good shape, but you have to be in possession of the proper skills and equipment to take full advantage of it.

Waist-high short-period lumpy slop on a shortboard fails the test, but waist-high long-period clean point surf ridden by a skilled operator on a good noserider passes the test.

Double-overhead roaring onshore storm surf doesn't cut it.

Second-reefing Pipeline is a wonderfully good wave to watch, but most folks would decline the opportunity to sit outside, pick one off, take the drop and try to pull in across the inside reef, and would not consider it a good wave to ride.

Your own views upon the matter will differ, but the sense of the thing stands. Some deal with smaller waves better, while others deal with larger waves better. But overall, when speaking to the general culture of surfing, the above size definitions will fit the bill for the most folks, most ages, most skill sets. If your own personal particulars allow you to happily indulge in conditions outside the Goldilocks Zone, bully for you! But do not attempt to enforce your own personal particulars upon the world around you. If you do, then there's something the matter with you and it has nothing at all to do with surfing. For myself, I will let the wider world ring in on my waist-high/double-to-triple-overhead bracketing scheme, and shall be happy to abide by such alterations as broad-based consensus dictates.

Ok, let's go have a look at environment, shall we?

A benign environment makes for a broader scope of enjoyable waves.

Frigid or too-hot water and/or air; strong winds; a likelihood of contact with things that cause underwater entrapment or blunt-force trauma; things that puncture, lacerate or devour; crowds or individuals that pose a credible threat; unreasonably-long or dangerous potential swims; distance from help should things go badly wrong; thick kelp or obstructions of any kind; slimy, dirty, or polluted water; and any number of other considerations having nothing to do with the physical aspect of the wave itself will all reduce the scope of otherwise-enjoyable waves.

Each of the abovelisted complications comes in a bewildering array of complexities and combinations, and I do not wish to examine them in the sort of detail which I examined similar aspects regarding wave size.

By now you either understand the sense of this stuff or you should be playing outside somewhere.

And now, we move on to wave shape.

I will define no shape at all as a perfect close-out wherein the wall of the wave, for as far down the line as one might wish to consider, all comes over at the same exact time.

Nowhere to go.

Absolute perfection would be the exact opposite, wherein the wave peels down the line, for as far as one might wish to consider, with complete and exact precision.

Please take note of that "complete and exact precision" part, because it contains an interesting hidden flaw as regards the business of humans extracting enjoyment from a wave.

As these words are being written, we are just now entering the period of reliable artificial wave production via mechanical means, and it is already becoming clear that "too perfect" is too perfect. Pull into a tube where the throw of the lip never varies as it works its way down the line with clockwork precision, and sooner than you might expect, things go from exciting to boring. After a few runs playing with it and wiggling around in there, you find yourself just sort of standing around, waiting for the ride to finish.

Funny how that works.

So perfect is good, but not too perfect.

Shape is affected by chop, lumps, wave-period, length of ride, steepness, sections, back-offs, backwash, wind speed and direction, cross waves, wall length, overwedging, suck outs, boils, ledges and steps, tube pinches, dead spots, warbles, strong offshores chop, tide depth, sandbar profile, swell angle, mixed swells, double-ups, and on and on and on it goes.

No wonder mom and dad could never figure the sonofabitch out.

Combine this array of complexities with personal preference and choice of equipment to ride, and the number of discrete combinations becomes infinite.

The miracle is that we can talk to one another about it coherently in the first place.

Suffice it to say that an uncrowded non-threatening wave that peels off with enough but not too much size and power, is what most people desire, and you won't be far off the mark.

But the devil is in the details.

And there are NO one-size-fits-all answers.

But let us not descend into delusion or bullshit.

"Fun fun fun" is all well and good, but one must never lose sight of the big picture.

It's a big world, and it's full of an awful lot of different waves, different surfspots, different cultures, and different individual people, some old, some young, some skilled, some not.

We must, somehow, learn to communicate in terms understandable by most, if not all.

The guy who grew up on Sunset Point, started out at Val's Reef, graduated to the Peak, and is now surfing Outside Log Cabins, will have a different take on things than someone who grew up in Cocoa Beach, graduated to Second Light, and is now surfing Spanish House.

But show both of them a three-foot overhead wall emptily peeling down a desert point, and they'll both agree that it's a "good wave."

That sweet spot in the middle is easily recognized by one and all.

It's the stuff out on the edges of the graphs that gives everyone trouble.

Size is size, and quality is quality.

Call the size honestly, and do quality the same favor.

If it's two feet with a seven-second period and lumpy, then it possesses neither size nor quality.

Go ride it if you want, we're all just as happy as can be to let you.

Take all the pictures of it that you can. Crop the hell out of them to make it look like it's not closing out. Do whatever you want.

But be honest about it.

Do not engage in attempting to bullshit us about what you rode, or saw, ok?