If you’re new to surfing or spend a lot of time around surfers, you’ll likely hear them throwing around the words offshore and onshore like they’re going out of fashion.
While it might sound like they’re talking about a new wind farm, it relates to waves and how wind affects them.
Let’s take a look at why surfers are so obsessed with the wind, what offshore vs. onshore wind means and how a good understanding of wind direction can help you find better waves to surf.
What is offshore wind?
Offshore wind is a wind that blows from the land towards the sea. So if you’re looking out at the ocean assessing the waves, you’ll feel an offshore wind blowing onto your back.
How does offshore wind affect the waves?
When an offshore wind blows from the land towards the incoming waves, it changes how waves behave and break. The opposing wind will blow any other ripples or small swells away, leaving a smooth, groomed ocean surface in between waves.
Because it eliminates smaller swells, it will also increase the swell period (the time between each breaking wave) which can lead to larger waves. It’s important to remember that while a longer period produces larger, more powerful waves, it also means there are much longer gaps between set waves, making the lineup more competitive.
What is onshore wind?
An onshore wind blows from the sea towards the land in the same direction as the swell and breaking waves. If you’re looking out to sea an onshore wind will be blowing directly towards you.
How does onshore wind affect the waves?
Unless you’re an advanced surfer or trying to escape the crowds, you’ll probably try to avoid strong onshore winds as a general rule. The wind blowing behind the waves adds texture to the water’s surface and creates other small waves that quickly deteriorate the overall surf quality.
It’s important to mention that light onshore winds up to 10mph or 15km/h will have little to no effect on the incoming waves, and you can still find great waves to surf often with fewer surfers in the water.
Take a look at the examples below to familiarise yourself with what offshore vs. onshore wind looks like:
Is offshore or onshore wind better for surfing?
Offshore winds are best for surfers looking to surf clean, organised waves with an easy paddle out.
Some advanced surfers looking to perform aerial manoeuvres prefer onshore winds because they create extra ramps and lips in the wave, making it perfect for launching yourself and your surfboard sky-high!
Check out our guide on whether onshore winds are good for surfing to learn more about onshore winds and the surfers that actively seek out waves most of us avoid.
Why is offshore wind considered the best for surfing?
Most surfers are looking to ride waves for as long as possible. The nice, clean faces produced by offshore winds lend themselves to long, predictable rides that allow surfers to perform their manoeuvres precisely.
It’s also much easier to paddle into and catch offshore waves due to their obvious shape and a defined peak (where the wave will break first). Onshore waves tend to lose much of the uniformity that clean offshore waves do, meaning that you’ll likely have to move around to find peaks rather than sitting in a pre-determined take-off spot.
If you’re hunting some tubes, offshore winds will also help wave barrel. The wind moving up the face of the wave stops it from breaking until the very last moment, creating the iconic tube that many surfers see as the holy grail of surfing.
How much offshore wind is too much when you’re surfing?
Believe it or not, you can have too much of a good thing. When the offshore wind gets over 20-25mph, it can affect how your board behaves in the water.
As you paddle to catch waves in strong offshore winds, you’ve got more drag to deal with from the incoming wind. This means you’ll have to paddle much harder to catch your waves, and by the time you gain enough speed to start standing up, you’ll be in a much steeper, more critical section of the wave.
This can often lead to amateur or beginner surfers getting caught in the lip as the wave breaks and being sent tumbling over the falls.
Why do some surfers like onshore winds?
When it comes to the offshore vs. onshore winds conversation, a small group of outliers actively seek out windy, onshore waves like they’re a gold mine.
Surfers like Albee Layer and Matt Meola have made it their mission to go and find some of Maui’s windiest waves to try and perfect their aerial antics. Check out the video below where Albee finally lands surfing first double spin thanks to some less than favourable winds:
What is cross-shore wind?
You’ve probably guessed already, but cross-shore winds happen when the wind blows directly across the length of the beach, hitting the waves at a side angle.
There are three types of cross-shore wind:
- Cross-shore – True cross-shore winds blow from one end of the beach to another, running parallel to the shoreline.
- Cross-offshore – Cross-offshore winds blow from the coast to the ocean at an angle.
- Cross-onshore – Cross-onshore winds blow from the sea to the coast at an angle.
Let’s take a closer look at what this means in a real-life scenario:
Now you’re all over the offshore vs. onshore debate; you can try surfing in various wind conditions to see what you prefer.
While offshore winds tend to offer the best waves, you might want to give the crowds a miss and see what surfing in moderate to light onshore winds is like.
If you’re unsure about the conditions at your local beach and how to read the surf report, head over to our helpful guide on finding the best surf conditions for beginners to find out more.