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Wave Period: A beginners guide to Understanding

Wave period. Watersports Warehouse, Cape Town

Whether you’re a neophyte catching waves or a seasoned expert, the concept of ‘wave period‘ has more than likely come up in your post- kite surf banter at the beach at least once during your kite surfing endeavors. Essentially, wave period refers to the duration, measured in seconds, between two successive wave crests—the pinnacle of the waves, to be precise.

What does ‘wave period’ mean?

It signifies the time it takes for two consecutive wave crests to travel to a fixed point. In simpler terms, it is the time, expressed in seconds, between the highest points of the wave. The red arrows in the picture below pinpoint the highest points of the two waves. The interval, in terms of time, between these points is recognized as the wave period.

Wave period. Watersports Warehouse, Cape Town

Why is the wave period significant?

A longer period of wave allows the wave to amass energy gradually over time, rendering it more potent when it eventually reaches its intended destination. Consequently, the wave can better withstand adverse surfing-impairing factors such as winds, tides, and currents, resulting in a more efficient and forceful wave upon reaching the breaking point. Understanding the wave period is crucial as it provides insight into the type of waves to anticipate, a crucial aspect for any avid surf forecast reader.

Slight alterations in the period by a mere second can lead to vastly different surf conditions from one day to another. Larger wave periods translate to superior surfing experiences. Let’s delve into the reasons why. A greater gap between waves means more energy they carry, greatly benefiting surfers—for instance, facilitating a smoother paddle out as you won’t be grappling with relentless, foamy waves. In general, a lengthier period of waves corresponds to cleaner surfing conditions.

How does wave period differ from wave height?

The period refers to the time between successive wave peaks, while wave height pertains to the vertical distance between the highest wave peak and the lowest point of the wave, known as the trough. Typically measured in feet, wave height denotes how tall the wave stands when it crashes onto the shore. Wave period and wave height both influence the type of wave produced, yet they are distinctly dissimilar.

It’s plausible to have a considerable wave height coupled with a shorter wave period, but this doesn’t guarantee optimal surfing conditions. An ample wave height isn’t the sole factor that contributes to an enjoyable surf. The wave height is shown in the picture below as the distance between the two red arrows.

Wave period. Watersports Warehouse, Cape Town

What should you look for in a wave period for surfing?

When analyzing the surf forecast or observing the water from the coastline, a more extended duration between waves bodes well. This metric largely determines the quality of the surf, although it’s not the sole determinant. We’ll look further into this in the subsequent section where we discuss other factors influencing surfing conditions.

So, what qualifies as a favorable swell period for surfing? Ideally, you seek a wave period exceeding 10 seconds. Anything below 10 seconds is categorized as ‘wind slop,’ resulting in rather unfavorable surfing conditions characterized by indistinct individual waves and a surfeit of whitewash. A wave/swell period surpassing 10 seconds implies that the potency of the lengthier wave period will yield higher-quality waves.

Wave Period (seconds)Wave Type
Under 5 secondsKnown as very messy and un-surfable conditions, hard to identify individual peaks and sets and lots of white water to be seen.
6-8 secondsMessy surf conditions, not high quality but offshore wind direction and good swell directions for the location can make this a better session. Not often very clean.
8-10 secondsHigher quality surf conditions. Able to make out individual waves easily and see the shoulders of the waves for good surf due to the medium length period.
10-12 secondsPaddle-outs become more manageable, but the sets tend to be bigger on bigger swells at this period due to more energy being in the water. High-quality, clean and powerful waves are coming at this frequency.
13 + secondsAnything above 12 seconds is set to be an epic forecast if each weather element falls into place. The waves will have the longest time between each other making waves super awesome when you drop in.

What influences the wave period?

The wave period is impacted by the strength and direction of the wind at sea. When the wind sweeps across the sea, its energy transfers into the water, propelling waves that traverse vast distances, often hundreds of kilometers, until they ultimately reach the breaking point on the beach. During this journey, waves consolidate as groups, either growing in size or canceling each other out. In essence, robust storms with substantial energy far out at sea translate into oceanic power and, ideally, an extensive wave period. However, this can be counteracted by tides, currents, other wind patterns, and additional groups of waves.

What other factors influence surfing conditions?

It’s crucial to bear in mind that wave period is just one piece of the complex puzzle determining optimal surfing conditions. A plethora of other factors must align to conjure enjoyable, surfable waves, including wave height, wave sets, swell height, swell direction, wind intensity, wind direction, and currents. Moreover, the type of beach the wave is crashing on, be it a point break or a shore break, significantly impacts the wave dynamics. While this constitutes a broader realm, a robust wave period serves as a promising indicator of a rewarding surf session.

Give us a call, drop us an email or stop by the shop and we’ll happily assist you. Also remember to give us a follow on Instagram and Facebook for regular updates. Remember to check the wind and those time intervals and gear up for fun out on the waves.

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