Tips For Surfing Messy Waves (How To Surf Better)

surfing messy waves

For lots of surfers, messy waves make up the majority of conditions at their local surf break.

So instead of waiting for a small window of swell with the optimal wind we firmly recommend getting stuck into some junk waves.

Yes, you’ll have to paddle and duck dive more but you’ll be rewarded with fewer people in the ocean and you can still hunt down some good waves.

With that in mind, we’ve created the definitive guide to surfing messy waves packed full of insight and advice from real surfers.

surfing messy waves

Find protection from onshore winds

Taking the time to find a spot that provides shelter from incoming onshore winds is always going to provide better conditions than an exposed beach, point or reef break.

The addition of a large sheltering cliff, jetty, rock wall or pier can all help reduce the impact of winds and provide you with cleaner waves to surf.

When it’s really blowing a gale, shelter can be the difference between surfable conditions and a blown-out jumble of white water.

Surfing a higher tide will give you more protection from the coastline and cliffs and can make a huge difference in cross-shore winds.

Large ground swells with onshore winds can wrap around headlands and light up spots that are flat for lots of days a year.

Understanding swell period

Swell period (or wave period) in simple terms is the time between each wave.

If you were to count the seconds between a wave crashing into you while you stay in one spot you’d have the swell period.

The higher the swell period the more powerful each wave will be. Messy wind swell is characterised by a low swell period in the 4 to 9-second range.

As a general rule, you want to try and surf onshore waves that have at least a 7-second swell period. Much below this and waves will be close together, lacking in power and a nightmare paddle out

Pick the right board for surfing messy waves 

You’re going to want a surfboard with a forgiving template and more volume for messy surf.

The volume and buoyancy of bigger boards will help you to travel over flat spots and navigate the lumps and bumps in choppy waves.

Try to aim for a board with less rocker, a wider tail and rounded rails, all of these work together to reduce the effect caused by choppy conditions and can make your pumping (generating speed on the face of the wave) and bottom turn much easier.

While there isn’t a single right type of board for messy waves we’d recommend any of the following:

  • Mini mals
  • Grovellers
  • Fish
  • Twin fins
  • Soft tops/foamies

While avoiding:

  • Shortboards
  • High-performance longboards
  • Asymmetricals

Picking the right board construction

Picking the right type of board extends past the model into what the surfboard is made out of.

Because you’ll be contending with wind you’re going to need a board with a little bit of weight. This helps reduce the bumps and chatter you feel when you’re riding along the face of messy, waves. 

The best boards are normally traditional PU polyurethane surfboards which are heavier than epoxy surfboards or if you’re lucky enough to own one a, wooden board.

Aim for a wider outline rather than a longer one, large bumps in the face of the wave can submerge the nose of a longer surfboard.

Aim for quantity over quality

When you’re out in messy surf you need to change your mindset.

In clean surf, the rhythm of set waves and a crowded lineup often leads to a scarcity mentality, you drop anchor and wait for the best wave in the knowledge you’re not going to get many opportunities.

But on windy days the chance of perfect waves is replaced by wind swell. It’s much harder to predict how waves form and what they’ll do after they’ve broken.

Set waves are replaced by a consistent stream of onshore waves with less variation in wave height.

These two factors alongside the much quieter lineup mean you can paddle for just about any surfable wave that comes your way.

Small windswell will break for a shorter distance helping you to get lots of reps and the extra take-offs will do wonders for improving your pop-up technique.

Improve your manoeuvres and tricks

Expert surfers will often use messy waves as a training ground for progressive surf tricks and manoeuvres.

The random nature of onshore waves throws up all sorts of sections from crumbling lips perfect for blow tails to full-blown ramps to help shredders launch themselves into aerials.

Part of the beauty of messy, windy surf is you’ll be met with all kinds of waves forcing you to work on every aspect of your surfing.

Aim to surf in the morning or late afternoon

Surfing first thing and an hour or two before dark is generally the best way to avoid the worst of the onshore wind.

Even though a surf report may show onshore winds all day long you’ll nearly always see a drop-off in the early morning and late evening.

We’ve all seen a glassy peak in the early morning get torn to pieces later on by seasonal onshores that blow through the day before subsiding a few hours before nighttime.

This goes hand in hand with the ‘dawnie’ when surfers get up at the crack of dawn to try and catch the best and quietest waves of the day.

Keep your expectations low

Onshore waves are going to test you physically. You’ll be paddling nearly constantly and surfing lots of waves.

Most waves will be short-lived and it can be frustrating until you’ve built up your skill level in surf that’s messy and disorganised.

But if you can find a power peak or a little sandbank that’s working you can have really fun surfs.

It’s a great way to improve your surfing

Surfing in the hardest conditions is going to improve your turns and manoeuvres when perfect conditions do eventually arrive.

The ability to quickly react to changing sections on the wave is an invaluable skill and helps make you a better all-rounded surfer.

Even if you live somewhere with consistently good waves it’s a good idea to get out in onshore waves every now and then to test your skills.

Surfing messy waves is better with company

Try to join another good surfer who’s going to be able to take advantage of messy surf and motivate you to up your surfing skills.

The hardest thing about onshore waves is getting is convincing yourself to paddle out (even more so for cold water waves).

Chances are the waves will be much better quality than they looked from the shore and the hard work paddling out will be well worth it.

Messy waves explained

We answer common questions about surfing messy waves.

What is messy surf?

Messy waves are characterised by onshore wind. That’s any wind that’s blowing from the sea toward the land, in the same direction as the swell.

How do I know if the conditions are going to be messy?

You can use websites and apps like Magicseaweed or Surfline to check your local surf report. If your nearest beach doesn’t have a report try to use another beach or reef nearby that faces the same direction.