Secrets of Wave Selection

by Lisa Polisar

They know. They just do.

Okay, so pretend I’m an animal behaviorist. I’m on location at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach observing a pod of…surfers. I’m captivated by something—a strange behavior largely uncharacteristic of this group—surfers who don’t ride waves. Watch them sometime but watch an expert, a really experienced surfer, and you’ll see that when it comes to the tricky art of wave selection, they know something you don’t.

And whatever it is, it’s what separates these surf shamans from beginners. Less experienced surfers tend to boldly attempt every wave. But others are willing to wait it out, sometimes hours, for the perfect set up. This means hanging out till the multitude of variables all stack up in their favor—size, height, angle, tide, timing, position and, most important, placement.

Picture this: the middle part of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, six surfers in the water, and there’s one on an 8’ yellow board who really stands out—he’s waiting. The other surfers in the group go for every wave and make most of them, yet don’t stay up for more than a few seconds. But Yellow Board’s still waiting, and watching. Yellow Board is patient, making a hundred decisions per second. Finally, YB gets into position and it’s a honker. “It was bigger, so it broke further out,” he says. Yellow Board is East Bay resident Lee, 41, who’s been surfing since he was 8. “I saw it coming from a distance and had to paddle to put myself in the perfect spot. I paddled into the peak of the wave and took a few strokes, a couple of kicks, dropped into the pit and realized it was well worth waiting for. This gem of a left had really good shape to it, and slipped through on a day when all the other waves were closeouts.”

So what’s the big secret, and how do you learn it so you don’t waste time getting tired and cold on waves that won’t take you where you wanna go? Lee says it’s often not just one predominant feature, but a combination. “This one (at OB) had all the right elements—good solid ground swell, wasn’t too walled, had a nice tapering shoulder, and the tide was just right. So I knew it was going to break right over the shallow sandbar.”

Ryan, 38, agrees that a lot of factors work into the science of wave selection. He says pre-surf research can help. “A swell can bring a lot of different variables. And being a surfer my whole life has enabled me to pretty much become a weatherman.” And it’s much easier to pre-screen waves and beach breaks than ever before with technology like LOLA. But even so, Ocean Beach can be radically unpredictable. “At OB, you need to really consider all the water that’s moving around out there. Surfers that think they can just paddle out there like any old spot have another thing coming. I see people out there struggling and it’s scary to watch sometimes.”

Miguel, 36, is a native of Peru and has been surfing for twenty-four years. The San Francisco resident learned the secrets of wave selection from Magoo de la Rosa. “From him I learned to be patient and to take your time.” When I asked him about wave selection at specific beach breaks, OB was the first spot he talked about. “I like it because of the power of the wave. It’s very strong, it’s mean, and the energy of that wave is different than any other spot—you have to surf it to understand.” And as OB is a beach break, there’s not a certain spot where it breaks. “You have to be constantly waiting and reading where it’s coming from,” says Miguel. “The riptides move you around all the time, so there’s constant paddling, constant moving. But it’s also more exciting that way.”

Even surf legend Gerry Lopez had something to say on wave selection. And these words are significant, coming from perhaps the most famed tube rider of the entire surfing world. How does Gerry use the science of wave selection to get himself in exactly the right spot for his legendary tube rides? “I always try to catch the biggest rather than the first wave of the set. I don’t like to kick out of a wave and find a bigger one behind that breaks on my head.”

So, what’s the secret? There is no secret. The science of wave selection is just that—a science, involved with a complexity of ever-changing factors and variables. Just to recap the feedback I got from surfers who’ve been at it all their lives:

  • Research—study the weather, tides, swells; use LOLA if possible
  • Anticipate—watch, try to calculate precisely where the wave’s gonna break
  • Placement—look at where you are compared to where you need to be
  • Wait—don’t necessarily take the first wave of the set—be willing to wait for the right one

Have fun out there!

Read more of Lisa Polisar’s writing at

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