Surf break

Surfing a break in Oahu

A surf break (also break, shore break, or big wave break[1]) is a permanent (or semi permanent) obstruction such as a coral reef, rock, shoal, or headland that causes a wave to break,[2] forming a barreling wave or other wave that can be surfed, before it eventually collapses. The topography of the seabed determines the shape of the wave and type of break. Since shoals can change size and location, affecting the break, it takes commitment and skill to find good breaks. Some surf breaks are quite dangerous, since the surfer can collide with a reef or rocks below the water.

Surf breaks may be defended vehemently by surfers, as human activities and constructions can have unintended and unpredictable consequences which can be either positive, negative, or unknown.

In 2008, surfers and environmentalists opposed a toll road project in Orange County, California that would have changed sediment patterns and affected the world-class Trestles surf break north of San Onofre State Beach which attracted 400,000 surfers in 2007.[3]

In 2007, the NSW Geographical Names Register began formally recognizing names of surf breaks in Australia, defining a surf break as a "permanent obstruction such as a reef, headland, bombora, rock or sandbar, which causes waves to break".[2]

One of the largest surf breaks in the world is the Jaws surf break in Maui, Hawaii, with waves that reach a maximum height of 40–60 feet (12–18 m).[4] However waves which break off Nazare in Portugal have been recorded to exceed 80 feet, with estimates of waves ridden up to over 100 feet, from trough to peak. The peculiar ocean bathymetry off Nazare is largely responsible for the very large wave faces.


There are numerous types of surf breaks. These are defined as permanent or semi permanent obstructions that causes a wave to break, rather than by the nature of the wave itself (see under 'Types of surfable waves' below).

Artificial wave pools are an example of technology changing what is considered a 'surf break' or 'surfable wave'.

Some 'surf break' locations may be partly or wholly formed and influenced by human activities (see under 'Human influence on surf breaks' below). These effects are variable and may be either negative or positive with respect to the effect on local surf quality.

Point break

A point break refers to the place where waves hit a point of land or rocks jutting out from the coastline. Bells Beach in Australia and Jardim do Mar in Madeira, Portugal are examples of point breaks.

They can break either left or right, and in rare cases forms a central peak which breaks both ways around a central headland. (E.g. Punta Rocas in Peru). The bottom can be made of rocks, sand, or coral.

Beach break

A beach break takes place where waves break on a usually sandy seabed. An example of a classic beach break is Hossegor in Southern France, which is famous for waves of up to 20 feet (6.1 m).

Sometimes 'beaches' can contain little or no sand, and the 'beach' bottom may be only rock or boulders and pebbles. A 'boulder beach' is an example.

Reef break

A reef break happens when a wave breaks over a coral reef or a rocky seabed. Examples are Cloudbreak in Fiji and Jaws in Maui.

A reef break may occur close to the shore, or well offshore from the shoreline, breaking in open ocean and petering out before the wave reaches the shore. Examples include Queenscliff Bommie in Australia and Dungeons in South Africa. In Australia these open ocean reefs are sometimes called Bombora or 'Bommie' waves, after the aboriginal word for offshore reef, 'bombora'. Sometimes reefs which occur in open ocean but which do not breach the surface are also called 'Banks'. The Cortes Bank off California is an example.

There are also examples of man-made reefs specifically designed and made for surfing. Some artificial harbours also create new reef break waves. Examples include Newcastle Harbour in Australia.

Shipwreck break

'Shipwreck breaks' usually form from sand build up over submerged or partly submerged shipwrecks.

They may be either temporary or more or less permanent, depending on whether the wreck remains in place for a significant period. Examples occur at The Wreck, Byron Bay, New South Wales, and at Stockton Beach, Newcastle, New South Wales.

Shore break

A shore break is a wave that breaks directly on, or very close to the shore. This happens when the beach is very steep at the shoreline. These waves are really just a form of beach or reef break, but breaking very close to the shore.

Rivermouth break

A rivermouth break breaks at or near the entrance to a river or creek. It can break as either a left-breaking or right-breaking wave, or a peak which breaks both ways. The bottom is usually sand, but can be pebbles, rocks, or even coral reef.

Examples include Mundaka in Spain, and Merimbula Bar in Australia.

They are sometimes called 'Bar' breaks because of the way the sand piles up along the shoreline.

Jetty break

These waves break along or near a jetty. They are also called 'groynes' in some places. Examples include Long Beach in New York, The Wedge in California, and Duranbah Groyne in Australia.

Jetty and groyne style waves are known for often exhibiting constructive interference between different incoming waves to produce a significantly larger, 'wedging' style of wave, due to the unusual extension of obstruction that juts out significantly from the shore, and which wave shape is often favored by surfers. This is an example of a human influence which actually may improve a wave's shape and quality for surfing, however in other cases the effect for surfing may be negative.

Natural 'wedge' style constructive interference can however occur on any type of surf break, provided the local wave dynamics are favorable.

Outer banks

A type of open ocean surf break, these occur where sand build ups occur well offshore to produce breaking waves in the open ocean, which are sometimes called 'Outer Banks', which are similar to open ocean reefs except that they are generally made of sand, and may disappear or change with storms. The 'Outer Banks' in North Carolina is an example. They can also be made of more permanent rocky reefs.

Tidal bore breaks

Numerous tidal bore waves are known, some of which have also been surfed for several kilometres or more and many kilometres from the ocean, making them the longest rideable waves in the world.

They are formed where stronger and larger tides enter a river or deltaic system, allowing the tide to forcefully push and extend up the river, sometimes forming rideable waves. The waves can be singular or multiple crested.

They form at specific times of the day, month, and year due to tidal currents, and can be accurately predicted.

Well known examples include several in the Amazon Basin, in Brazil, at the Severn Bore in the United Kingdom, and in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Standing river breaks

These are waves which are created in some fast flowing rivers or creeks, allowing a surfer to ride a wave for several minutes or more whilst standing or lying more or less stationary within the river. The force of the flow along an uneven river bed allows a standing wave to form, and the surfer to be able to ride the wave successfully. They are relatively rare as local wave dynamics tend to be very specific.

Examples include on the Zambesi River, and near Munich, Germany.

They also sometimes form when an inland lagoon or lake breaches its entry to the sea, forming standing waves in the channel between the lagoon and sea. Examples include at Waimea in Hawaii.

Artificial wave pools

These are waves generated in an artificially created pool with a powerful wave-generating device, to form waves which can be surfed without any need for an existing, natural water environment, such as an ocean or shoreline. Wave pools can therefore be built almost anywhere, and several designs and models (which have also been patented) are under construction throughout the world as of 2016.

In December 2015, former world surfing champion and current professional surfer Kelly Slater revealed a new type of wave pool at an unknown location, which was able to demonstrably show well-shaped barrelling style waves over several hundred metres at around head-high or more, which quality and size had not previously been achieved by any wave pool design or construction. The ability to create genuine, long, barreling surfable waves at locations far from natural shorelines might prove to be a game-changer within surfing culture and history.

Wave pools are currently the subject of much research and development, and there are a number of planned and existing commercial operations.

Types of surfable waves

As opposed to permanent or semi permanent obstructions which cause waves to break, surfable waves are sometimes defined by the nature of their generation.

Swell waves

Ocean swells form from the longer term amalgamation of wind-generated waves on the surface. The stronger the wind and the longer the area over which it blows, generally the larger the swell.

Wind waves

If large enough, local wind-generated chop can be surfed, but usually only after it has amalgamated into genuine swell from a distance.

Ship waves

A large ship such as an oil tanker can sometimes create rideable waves at the shoreline. These are usually surfed only when the waves are otherwise very small, such as in a large inland lake.

There has been unconfirmed reports of an offhsore boat being used to make waves during surf contests when the surf was otherwise very small.

Tsunami waves

Although rare, surfable tsunami waves from earthquakes has been recorded.

One documented place an earthquake-generated tsunami has been surfed is at Punta Hermosa in Peru, at the offshore Kon Tiki reef, where the tsunami-generated waves were ridden about 1 kilometre from the shore, before further rising and crashing into the nearby shoreline. The surfers did not know these were tsunami waves until after the event.

Surfable seismic-style waves generated from landslides, volcanic eruptions or meteorite impacts into the ocean are all possible, but all of these are very rare, unpredictable, and have not been documented as being surfed.

Glacial calving waves

Waves have been surfed and documented from the action of calving ice from glaciers, which falls into the adjacent water and forms a tsunami-type wave which surges away from the glacier.

Storm surges

These form when a large storm or hurricane forces water in front of it, due to the combined action of strong winds over long distances. The water can pile up towards the shore and create a moving surge of water.

These surges can be surfed, although they have not been specifically documented.

Backwash and sidewash waves

These occur where waves are formed from the returning backwash of a wave which has previously gone up a steep shoreline or beach, or sometimes reflected from an ocean rockface or wall. They can sometimes form a surfable wave in a direction oblique to, or opposite from the original wave direction. An example was shown in the film Endless Summer, in Tahiti, called 'Ins and Outs'.

Backwash breaking parallel to or obliquely to the angle of the shore is sometimes also called sidewash, which can form from the reflection of a wave breaking against adjacent obstructions such as jetties, groynes, or rockwalls, or simply from the action of backwashing waves which strike a shoreline at an angle.

Sidewash and backwash is relatively common, and may amplify another incoming breaking wave's size due to constructive interference. When this process happens with an open ocean swell the resulting wave can also be significantly larger due to constructive interference from either deep water refraction or diffraction, or both. This type of effect is suggested to occur at two of the largest surf breaks in the world, at Nazaré in Portugal, and Jaws in Hawaii.

Backwash and sidewash also sometimes form in conjunction with rips on beaches.

Standing river waves

These are formed from the action of fast flowing water over an uneven river or creek bed. The dynamics are very specific and not many naturally occurring surfable standing river waves are known, but examples include on the Zambesi river and near Munich, Germany.

Some rivers can also exhibit a surfable wave 'front' during flash flood events, particularly within narrow canyons. These have been ridden by people on surf craft caught in a flash flood event, such as on an inflatable tyre, although not usually intentionally. It is technically a wave front, with a breaking wave which can carry one downstream, so may be classified as a 'surf break', but others may classify this as simply a type of river riding.

Tidal bore waves

These form where strong tidal currents enter a river or deltaic system, pushing shorewards and creating a surfable wave, and can extend for many kilometers. Surfable examples are known in China, Sumatra, the Amazon Basin, and the United Kingdom. They can be multiple or single crested wave fronts.

Artificial wave pool waves

These are made in an artificially created pool with a powerful wave generating device, to form generally small waves, which can be surfed without any need for an ocean or shoreline.

They are currently the subject of much research and development, and there are a number of commercial operations.

Human influence

'Surf break' locations and the quality of surf may be negatively or positively affected by human activities.

In some cases, surf breaks themselves may be partly formed from the influence of human activities. These include from the construction of local jetties (e.g. at Ocean Beach, New York), or from the dredging and dumping of nearby river sand (at Coolangatta's 'Superbank', Queensland, which sand sourced from the nearby Tweed River which commenced in the late 1990s and has now formed an almost continuous 2 km long sand bottomed point break), or from sand build up around local shipwrecks (such as at Stockton Beach, New South Wales). These effects may be either temporary, or more or less permanent.

The effects of human influences are variable, and may be either negative or positive with respect to the effect on local surf quality, and in some cases may affect one nearby surf break positively and another negatively.

Generally speaking, local surfers are opposed to potential unintentional consequences of local constructions or development which may not have adequately assessed or considered the effect on local surf quality, particularly where the local surf quality is considered substantial or culturally or socio-economically significant. Such effects may not have been taken into account during various development proposals.

There are examples of world-renowned surf breaks which have been significantly and negatively effected or destroyed by various engineering or other human influences, although it is important to note that some renowned surf breaks have also been markedly improved by various human influences.

Construction of jetties and rock groynes

These constructions create local sand build up which may improve the local surf quality.

Examples occur at Ocean Beach New York, and Duranbah Groyne New South Wales. They are also called 'groynes' in some places.

Negative effects on surf quality from such constructions are also known.

Construction of artificial harbours

These may create changes to local surf dynamics which can be either negative or positive with respect to surf quality. Most were made in previous decades and centuries and the effects on surf quality at the time were not known. Examples include at Newcastle Harbour, in New South Wales.


These unintentional 'constructions' may allow sand to build up around the wreck, sometimes forming surfable waves.

Sand dredging and dumping

Sand dredging and dumping from nearby rivers can affect the quality of nearby surf breaks, due to changes in the amount of sand available to form over the bottom. In many sand bottom point breaks, more sand often means better quality.

The 'Superbank' in Queensland is a world class surf break, partly formed from the influence of nearby sand dredging and dumping. This sand is sourced form the nearby Tweed River, which dredging program began in the late 1990s. This program has generally improved the surf quality, forming a now more or less continuous 2 km long sand bottomed surf break, linking up what was previously 3 different point breaks (Snapper, Greenmount, and Kirra) into now one more or continuous surf break, and now also one of the longest point breaks in the world.

Whilst the surf quality at Snapper and Greenmount has generally improved, the bottom section of the break, the world-class Kirra point break, which was formerly considered one of the best in the world, has generally suffered.

Proposals have been put forward to attempt to alleviate or change the program, to attempt to restore the quality of previous surf at Kirra, however it is not clear how the improvements made to nearby Snapper and Greenmount would also be then affected. There may be an optimum amount of sand dredging and build up which allows all three breaks to be generally improved, as was perhaps the case in the early 2000s.

Artificial reef breaks

'Artificial reef breaks' are an example of a construction which intentionally alters the local seabed dynamics to attempt to improve the local surf quality. The success of these has proved to be variable to date, with both positive and neutral cases known.

Reactions to local artificial reef construction proposals is mixed and variable, and is usually examined on a case by case basis.

Artificial wave pools

Artificial wave pools use a powerful wave generating device which creates surfable waves without the need for a coastline or shoreline. They can therefore allow surf activity to occur many kilometers inland from the sea or ocean.

They are the subject of current research and development, and a number of commercial operations are in existence.

Artificial standing waves

These form where lagoons disconnected to the ocean are deliberately breached, which allows a narrow fast flowing channel to form which lowers the water level and re-connect the inland water system with the ocean. Sometimes surfable 'standing waves' are formed and surfed during these events, which can become a cultural attraction.

Reef bombing

This is largely an illegal fishing activity which occurs in some countries whereby explosives are used over coral reefs to kill and stun the fish, allowing them to be then netted and caught more easily. The practice is largely illegal, as it negatively effects both marine life and also changes and destroys the local seabed and coral topography, creating largely negative effects on local surf conditions.

Development and stabilization of sand dunes

The mobility of sand dunes sometimes allows a greater supply of sand to be deposited in adjacent local point breaks, creating more even surf conditions on these point break style waves. When these dunes are destroyed or stabilised, the supply of sand may be reduced, effecting local surf conditions. This has occurred at the Bruce's Beauties surf break in South Africa, where wave quality was no longer the same once the adjacent dunes were developed with residential style housing. Areas adjacent to river systems where the supply of sand is reduced can also be similarly affected.

See also

Look up break, beach break, point break, or reef break in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


  1. Turner, Sarah (2006-02-05). "The best surf break". The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-04-02. Above all, it's a quality wave, it's reliable, it's a classic big wave break
  2. 1 2 Silmalis, Linda (2007-04-08). "Surf break names recognised". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-04-02. THE tradition within the surfing community of naming the local break is set to be recognised with the NSW Government to create a formal register
  3. Flaccus, Gillian (2008-02-07). "Officials Pick Surf Break Over Toll Road - Local News". Fox News. Retrieved 2009-04-02. Surfers and environmentalists threw a roadblock in front of a proposed toll road through one of the world's best surf breaks
  4. Hurley, Timothy (2002-11-18). "Maui's monster surf break getting bigger by the day". Retrieved 2009-04-02. Jaws — or Pe'ahi, as many locals call it — offers some of the largest surfable waves on earth. About a dozen times each winter, wave faces reach 40 to 60 feet and more from trough to peak, taller than a four- to five-story building
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