9 Tips For Surfing Choppy Waves (Improve Your Surfing)

surfing choppy waves at dawlish warren

If you’re like me and don’t live next to a world-class surf spot then surfing choppy waves may be your only option.

But choppy conditions don’t need to ruin your surf, if you’re prepared with the proper knowledge and skills a less-than-stellar surf can be just as much fun as perfect conditions.

Let’s look at our sure-fire tips to make the most of choppy surf packed with advice gained from years of surfing less-than-perfect waves. 

surfing choppy waves at dawlish warren

Seek out shelter from the wind

Rather than heading to an exposed beach or reef try to find a wave that has some form of shelter from the wind.

This can take the form of large cliffs, coastal defences, piers, boulder walls or any large structure you can use to escape strong winds.

Lots of days come with a good swell that’s torn apart as the waves form, if you can just give yourself some respite from the wind it’s amazing how quickly choppy conditions can improve.

The sheltered corners and inlets can provide considerably better conditions and only require a quick search on Google Maps to identify.

Make sure you’re riding the right type of board 

Windy days and junk waves can affect how your surfboard feels under your feet. Onshore winds and choppy surf jumble the face of the wave making it harder to set your rail on the wave face.

This makes pumping and tricks much harder so using a board with a bit more volume, less rocker and forgiving rails can really help you navigate the pocket and shoulder of the wave.

Fibreglass PU surfboards tend to perform better in strong winds with epoxy constructions tending to chatter as they ride down the face of the wave and rotate through different surfing moves.

Using heavier boards like wooden boards or weighty polyurethane surfboards can make a huge difference as well because they help reduce the effect of wind while you’re up and surfing, meaning less chatter.

Chucking in some large surfboard fins or a quad set up for speed can also give you an advantage when you’re trying to beat sections and navigate white water.

In terms of shapes and models any of the following boards provide a more forgiving ride suited to choppy conditions:

  • Fish
  • Grovellers
  • Mini Mals
  • Hybrids
  • Twin Fins
  • Foamie 

Boards like fishes and grovellers have much flatter decks and rounder rails which both help to settle your board on choppy waves.

If you’re dealing with a choppy swell and large waves then bigger boards are a must because all the chatter you feel underfoot is only amplified by the size of the waves.

Catch more waves

Surfing choppy waves can give you much more freedom in the lineup, you can paddle around, hunt down waves and take chances on waves that you’d normally pass up.

Sub-par surf always corresponds with fewer people out in the ocean surfing, leaving you to feast on the incoming swell to your heart’s content.

Unlike clean surf that has obvious set waves, choppy surf has less structure and any wave that looks good on the take-off is worth taking a chance on.

The take-off and impact zone are much more moveable in choppy surf so staying active is a good idea if you want to catch more waves.

Some of the most fun surfs are when you’re catching lots of waves and even though you may be travelling a shorter distance than you would on a good wave you won’t have to deal with the same crowded lineup.

Try to find a suitable surf break

If you’re going to make the most of surfing choppy waves it’s all about finding the perfect surf spot.

As a general rule, reefs, point breaks, shore dumps, wedges and rip bowls will all handle choppy conditions a little better than an openly exposed beachie.

Chopped-up waves can often be cleaned up by the mechanical nature of a reef or a powerful wedge that cancels out some of the wind’s effect.

If you are going to surf a beach break because you’re dealing with a small windswell then try to avoid low tide when the surf will be most exposed to wind. 

As high tide approaches, surrounding landmarks can help add some shelter making for cleaner faces and easier surfing.

In large swells, you can look at river mouths and inlets for some shelter and kinks in the coast can often provide cross or offshore winds.

While it’s never worth travelling a long way for a poor-looking surf report making the effort to find a bit of shelter will help keep you motivated for a rewarding session.

Try out new tricks and manoeuvres

Choppy surf conditions are the ideal way to get reps on new turns and tricks, quickly upping your skill level.

Choppy conditions in particular are more likely to have crumbling white water lips just waiting for you to try and set your fins free or rotate your surfboard into a reverse.

Cross-shore choppy waves can throw up all kinds of waves from short, punchy rides that let you perform one powerful manoeuvre to long flat waves that need six cutbacks, a lot of pumping and some shoulder hop mastery to reach the inside.

Sometimes the best waves to improve on aren’t perfect conditions where you’re vying for position and trying to catch a wave amongst a busy lineup of surfers.

Surf early and late

Surfing first thing and late in the day can be the least windy part of the day for many parts of the world.

This isn’t true everywhere but as a general rule it stands, this is where the word ‘dawnie’ comes from when committed surfers wake up at the crack of dawn to try and score the best possible surfing conditions.

Analyse the surf report 

Knowing how to read your local surf report properly is essential to making the most of choppy surf.

With a combination of surf reporting services like Magicseaweed/Surfline and local weather reports, you have all the ammunition you need to make the most of the conditions you’re met with.

Even with little experience reading surf reports you just need to follow these two simple rules:

Try to surf when the swell period is highest and the wind is lightest, it’s that simple.

If the winds are onshore and it’s going to be choppy either way then a stronger swell period will mean more powerful waves that are less affected by wind, giving you a cleaner wave face to surf.

Surf with a friend

Choppy surf doesn’t have the same draw as picture-perfect peelers, blues skies and sunshine. It’s a lot more duck diving, paddling and hard work

For that reason, we always recommend finding a friend to surf choppy waves with so you can both psyche each other up with the motivation needed to get out in poor surf, especially when there’s no one else out.

Better yet try to find a friend who’s a good surfer so you can take inspiration from their surfing and ask for real-time advice and feedback on you’re own surfing and technique.

Equally, challenging yourself in the hardest conditions can be daunting and having your buddies by your side as you paddle out makes all the difference to your confidence levels in big surf.

Develop your aerial surfing

Choppy waves aren’t too great for rail surfing but for a group of progressive surfers, they offer the perfect opportunity to hone their craft.

For the longest time, messy and choppy waves were viewed with disdain by most surfers. But in 1975 Kevin Reed of Santa Cruz made it onto the front of SURFER magazine with his fins well and truly above the lip of the wave.

Since then surfers have developed aerial surfing into the stratosphere (pun intended).

Taking inspiration from other board sports like skateboarding and snowboarding surfers began to grab the side edges of their boards mid-air and began rotating to land backwards.

This revelation has led to a whole heap of surfers heading out in choppy waves to launch themselves above the lip.

Choppy waves explained

There are a lot of surfing terms and phrases to describe the ocean’s conditions and it can be hard to understand how words actually relate to the state of the ocean and the surf.

Let’s take a quick look at exactly what surfers mean by choppy waves.

What are choppy waves?

Choppy waves are defined as waves affected by cross-shore winds. The wind travelling across the face of the wave creates lots of tiny little waves on the ocean’s surface creating that chattering feeling in your surfboard.

Choppy waves can be affected by cross-shore winds from either direction and shouldn’t be confused with messy waves or surf which is affected by direct onshore winds.

Common questions about surfing choppy waves

We answer your most pressing questions about surfing in choppy conditions.

Are choppy waves good for surfing?

Yes, as long as you’re willing to paddle more choppy waves give you the opportunity to catch more waves and avoid the crowds you see when the waves are pumping.

What does it mean if waves are choppy?

Choppy waves are affected by wind moving across the face of the wave and making the surf less groomed and organised.

What’s the difference between choppy and messy waves?

Choppy surf occurs when winds are blowing cross-hore to a beach, reef or point break. Messy waves happen when the wind is blowing directly onshore in the same direction as the swell. Check out our guide on offshore vs onshore wind to learn more.