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The four different wave types

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What makes surfing such a cool sport is that it's driven by a natural force - the ocean's power. There are a great number of variables that play a part in determining the size, shape, and power of a wave, and no two are the same.

Based on geomorphology, there are however a finite number of different types of waves. The purpose of this post is to talk about the various types of waves and provide relatable examples for each.

Reef Break

Waves of this type break over a rocky or coral reef. A wave breaks when the incoming swell moves deep water to shallow water located over the reef. Due to the sudden change in water depth, reef breaks often produce hollow, barreling waves.

As with all types of waves, the shape of the wave on a reef break will be heavily influenced by the tide. When the tide is higher, the waves will be fuller and flatter, and when it is lower, the waves will be hollow and barrel-like.

A reef break is more consistent than a beach break, which means the takeoff point only varies with the tide. However, reef breaks can be difficult to get waves at when crowded, unless you're a local surfer or an experienced surfer.

Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii is the best known reef break. Pipeline is a wave that has attracted top surfers from around the world for the last 60 years. It’s also one of the world's most dangerous reef breaks, with a few surfers falling victim to its ravages every year.

Beach Break

Surfers know and love the beach break because it's the most common type of wave. The wave breaks on sand bottom, and depending on the beach slope, will either break in shallower or deeper water.

As a result of the malleable nature of sand, beach breaks have the greatest variability of the different types of waves. In an area with relatively deep water and a flat sand bottom, beach break waves are fairly mellow and are most likely good for beginners.

Beach break waves will tend to be more gnarly if they break in relatively shallow water with undulating sand banks. They tend to be very fast and ferocious, and are not for the faint of heart. Supertubos in Peniche, Portugal, is a good example of this type of wave. As a WSL tour stop, this wave is known for its unpredictability.

beach break

Point Break

Waves of this type break off a point of headland or rock outcrop in the ocean. It is common for point breaks to produce near-perfect waves, since the swell that hits the point and peels gracefully as it makes its way to the shore.

Depending on the beach gradient and tide, point breaks can barrel. These breaks are also more consistent than beach breaks, like reef breaks. In Peru, the Chicama point break is famous for being the longest point break in the world.

Jeffrey's Bay is one of the most famous, and perhaps most iconic point breaks in the world. J Bay is a right-hand-point break that made its mark on the movie The Endless Summer, and is as perfect as it gets. This wave has fast sections, barrel sections, and long mellow sections that allow for nice, long, laid back turns.

Slab

Similar to a reef break but usually a lot more gnarly. Slabs tend to produce heavier, thicker waves then seemingly appear out of nowhere.

The image of a slab wave is one of a fat-lipped wave that swallows everything in its path. Generally, slabs attract surfers who are willing to take a beating, but some slabs can be more forgiving.

Teahupoo or "Chopes," as it is affectionately called, is the most famous slab break in the world. Teahupoo is the epitome of a slab break - deep water, thick lip, and severe poundings if you don't make it out of the barrel. We believe it is best left to the pros.

slab break

Conclusion

Remember to choose the type of wave that best suits your ability level. Reef and slab breaks are normally better suited for more advanced surfers. Beach and point breaks tend to suit intermediate and beginner surfers better.