Surfing is a surface water sport in which the surfer rides a surfboard on the crest and face of a wave, which is carrying the surfer towards the shore. Waves suitable for surfing are found primarily in the ocean, but are also sometimes found in lakes and rivers, and also in man-made wave pools.
Many variations of the sport exist and the definitions of what constitutes a suitable wave, and craft has expanded over the years.
Bodysurfing involves riding the wave without a board, and is considered by some to be the purest form of surfing. Other variations that have existed for centuries include paipo boarding, stand up paddle surfing, and the use of boats or canoes to ride waves. More modern craft that are used include bodyboards, inflatable mats (surfmatting), and foils.
As documented in various surfing documentaries (including “Fair Bits”) other objects have occasionally been used instead of surfboards, including water skiis, wakeboards, desks, guitars, and doors. When more than one person uses the same craft to ride a wave together, it is known as “tandem” surfing.
Three major subdivisions within stand-up surfing are longboarding, shortboarding, and stand up paddle surfing (SUP), reflecting differences in board design, including surfboard length, riding style, and the kind of wave that is ridden.
In tow-in surfing (most often, but not exclusively, associated with big wave surfing), a motorized water vehicle, such as a personal watercraft, tows the surfer into the wave front, helping the surfer match a large waves higher speed, which is generally a speed that a self-propelled surfer cannot match.
Surfing-related sports such as paddle-boarding and sea kayaking do not require waves, and other derivative sports such as kitesurfing and windsurfing rely primarily on wind for power, yet all of these platforms may also be used to ride waves.
The Fundamentals of Surfing
Swell is generated when wind blows consistently over a large area of open water, called the wind’s fetch. The size of a swell is determined by the strength of the wind and the length of its fetch and duration. Because of this, surf tends to be larger and more prevalent on coastlines exposed to large expanses of ocean traversed by intense low pressure systems.
Local wind conditions affect wave quality, since the surface of a wave can become choppy in blustery conditions. Ideal conditions include a light to moderate “offshore” wind, because it blows into the front of the wave, making it a “barrel” or “tube” wave. Waves are Left handed and Right Handed.
The most important influence on wave shape is the topography of the seabed directly behind and immediately beneath the breaking wave. The contours of the reef or bar front becomes stretched by diffraction. Each break is different, since each location’s underwater topography is unique. At beach breaks, sandbanks change shape from week to week. Surf forecasting is aided by advances in information technology. Mathematical modelling graphically depicts the size and direction of swells around the globe.
Swell regularity varies across the globe and throughout the year. During winter, heavy swells are generated in the mid-latitudes, when the North and South polar fronts shift toward the Equator. The predominantly Westerly winds generate swells that advance Eastward, so waves tend to be largest on West coasts during winter months. However, an endless train of mid-latitude cyclones cause the isobars to become undulated, redirecting swells at regular intervals toward the tropics.
East coasts also receive heavy winter swells when low-pressure cells form in the sub-tropics, where slow moving highs inhibit their movement. These lows produce a shorter fetch than polar fronts, however they can still generate heavy swells, since their slower movement increases the duration of a particular wind direction. The variables of fetch and duration both influence how long wind acts over a wave as it travels, since a wave reaching the end of a fetch behaves as if the wind died.
During summer, heavy swells are generated when cyclones form in the tropics. Tropical cyclones form over warm seas, so their occurrence is influenced by El Niño & La Niña cycles.
Their movements are unpredictable. They can move Westward as in 1979, when Tropical Cyclone Kerry wandered for three weeks across the Coral Sea and into Queensland before dissipating.
Surf travel and some surf camps offer surfers access to remote, tropical locations, where trade winds ensure offshore conditions. Since winter swells are generated by mid-latitude cyclones, their regularity coincides with the passage of these lows. Swells arrive in pulses, each lasting for a couple of days, with a few days between each swell.
Surfers represent a diverse culture based on riding the waves. Some people practice surfing as a recreational activity while others make it the central focus of their lives. Within the United States, surfing culture is most dominant in Hawaii and California because these two states offer the best surfing conditions.
However, waves can be found wherever there is coastline, and a tight-knit yet far-reaching subculture of surfers has emerged throughout America. Some historical markers of the culture included the woodie, the station wagon used to carry surfers’ boards, as well as boardshorts, the long swim shorts typically worn while surfing.
The sport of surfing now represents a multi-billion dollar industry especially in clothing and fashion markets. The Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) runs the world tour, hosting only the best competitors in some of the best surf spots around the globe. Other people make a career out of surfing by receiving corporate sponsorships and performing for photographers and videographers in far-flung destinations; they are typically referred to as free surfers.
When the waves were flat, surfers persevered with sidewalk surfing, which is now called skateboarding. Sidewalk surfing has a similar feel to surfing and requires only a paved road or sidewalk. To create the feel of the wave, surfers even sneak into empty backyard swimming pools to ride in, known as pool skating.
Eventually, surfing made its way to the slopes with the invention of the Snurfer, later credited as the first snowboard. Many other board sports have been invented over the years, but all can trace their heritage back to surfing.
Surfboards were originally made of solid wood and were large and heavy (often up to 12 ft or 3.7 m long and 150 lb or 68 kg). Lighter balsa wood surfboards (first made in the late 1940s and early 1950s) were a significant improvement, not only in portability, but also in increasing manoeuvrability.
Most modern surfboards are made of polyurethane foam (PU), with one or more wooden strips or “stringers”, fibreglass cloth, and polyester resin (PE). An emerging board material is epoxy resin and Expanded PolyStyrene foam (EPS) which is stronger and lighter than traditional PU/PE construction. Even newer designs incorporate materials such as carbon fibre and variable-flex composites in conjunction with fibreglass and epoxy or polyester resins.
Since epoxy/EPS surfboards are generally lighter, they will float better than a traditional PU/PE board of similar size, shape and thickness. This makes them easier to paddle and faster in the water. However, a common complaint of EPS boards is that they do not provide as much feedback as a traditional PU/PE board. For this reason, many advanced surfers prefer that their surfboards be made from traditional materials.
Other equipment includes a leash (to stop the board from drifting away after a wipe-out, and to prevent it from hitting other surfers), surf wax, traction pads (to keep a surfer’s feet from slipping off the deck of the board), and fins (also known as skegs) which can either be permanently attached (glassed-on) or interchangeable.
Sportswear designed or particularly suitable for surfing may be sold as boardwear (the term is also used in snowboarding). In warmer climates, swimsuits, surf trunks or boardshorts are worn, and occasionally rash guards; in cold water surfers can opt to wear wetsuits, boots, hoods, and gloves to protect them against lower water temperatures. A newer introduction is a rash vest with a thin layer of titaniumto provide maximum warmth without compromising mobility.
There are many different surfboard sizes, shapes, and designs in use today. Modern longboards, generally 9 to 10 feet (3.0 m) in length, are reminiscent of the earliest surfboards, but now benefit from modern innovations in surfboard shaping and fin design. Competitive longboard surfers need to be competent at traditional walking manoeuvres, as well as the short-radius turns normally associated with shortboard surfing.
The modern shortboard began life in the late 1960s and has evolved into today’s common thruster style, defined by its three fins, usually around 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 m) in length. The thruster was invented by Australian shaper Simon Anderson.