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Do Waves Break Left To Right?

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As a surfer, you may have occasionally come across breaking waves. Since surfing is all about determining and catching the correct wave, understanding how a wave behaves is important

Waves can break from either the left to right side or from the right to left side. Generally, the direction a wave breaks in is largely determined by the wind direction and the slope of the wave. Sometimes, a wave breaks in neither direction and falls in on itself, resulting in a closeout.

Breaking waves can be quite difficult to deal with if you are unaware of their nature. This is because not all breaking waves are similar to one another, and mistaking one for the other can have dire consequences. Therefore, you must know the different breaking waves and the appropriate way to ride them.

A wave breaking from left to right

Which Direction Do Waves Break In?

Since not all breaking waves are similar, it’s often tricky to predict which way each wave will break. However, to get a good idea of the direction of a breaking wave, you can compare the angle it is making with the skyline. 

Whichever side of the wave is making the steepest angle with the skyline, that’s the direction the wave is going to break in. Moreover, you should always ride in the direction of the breaking wave. 

Left vs. Right Break

A breaking wave can be classified into two categories: a left break or a right break. The name depends on the direction the wave breaks from the perspective of the surfer. If a surfer catches a wave and it breaks from right to left, then the wave will be classified as a left wave and vice versa.

However, the direction of the breaking wave will be different from the perspective of an observer. If you are watching from the shore, a wave breaking to your left will break to the right of the surfer, and hence will be called a right wave. 

A-Frame Wave

The A-Frame wave, also known as the Split Peak, is generated when an incoming wave breaks on both sides. These waves resemble an upside-down “V” or an “A”, hence the name A-Frame wave. If you are in the center of this wave, you have the choice of moving to either side as soon as the wave splits in two.

Close-Out Wave

Sometimes a wave will not break in either direction and won’t make any angle with the skyline. This means that the wave is likely to ‘close out’. A close-out wave is the biggest enemy of most surfers. 

This type of wave breaks abruptly from each end and cannot be ridden because of its vertical direction. These waves commonly occur near the shores, where the tide is extremely low and the water too shallow.

These challenging waves normally collapse all at once, even though they appear to form a tube. This can trick a lot of beginners and lead them into making the wrong decision of attempting to ride them. 

Why Do Waves Break

Breaking waves are formed due to a wave falling and crashing down on itself. This phenomenon can occur anywhere on the surface of the water body. However, it is mostly seen near a shoreline since the height of such waves is larger in areas where the water is shallower.

When waves approach the beach, the resistance provided by the sloping seafloor has a huge effect on their shape. The seabed obstructs the movement of the wave’s base, but the upper section of the wave continues to flow at its normal speed. 

This results in the wave beginning to tilt forward as it nears the shore, eventually splitting into smaller waves. 

Onshore vs. Offshore Winds

The direction of the wind also causes breaking waves to originate. There are two types of winds that surfers have to deal with occasionally; onshore and offshore winds. 

Onshore WindsOffshore Winds
Destroys the peak of the wave.Causes waves to have a more defined peak
Blows from the sea towards the shoreBlows from the shore towards the sea
Travels in the same direction as the wavetravels in the opposite direction to the wave
Instead of breaking, the wave closes outThe wave is more likely to break either left or right.

Ideally, if you are looking to ride breaking waves, make sure that the wind is blowing offshore. Moreover, no two breaking waves are the same. Once the wave breaks, it can take different shapes depending on the environmental conditions and the shape of the seabed. 

Type of Breaking Waves

As mentioned earlier, breaking waves can take different shapes and forms depending on various conditions. Most of these waves can be ridden by surfers, however, the more dangerous waves such as plunging waves should be avoided by beginners. 

Spilling Waves

A spilling wave occurs when the crest of the wave crashes on its front. This mostly happens when the floor of the water body has a consistent slope, causing the wave to steepen as it progresses towards the shore. As the wave travels along, its energy is gradually reduced, making them easier to ride.

Moreover, spilling waves break for a longer period than other waves and have a more consistent shape. This makes them ideal and fun to ride for both new and experienced surfers.

Plunging Waves

Plunging waves are most common at tidal extremes, such as high or low tide, or near shallow sandbanks. When a plunging wave is not parallel to the shore, the portion of the wave that reaches the shallow water breaks first. As the wave continues, it will peel laterally over the surface of the ocean. 

These waves crash with tremendous force and have a significantly steeper crest than most waves. As plunging waves progress, their crest gets even more vertical before coiling over and falling into the wave’s trough. 

Moreover, these waves generate more energy than a large spilled wave and unleash that energy with a huge impact. Therefore, if you spot a plunging wave, it’s best to avoid it as quickly as possible unless you want to end up with broken bones.

Surging Waves

Surging waves are formed when massive and steep surges of water strike the shore. These waves travel at incredibly quick speeds. Surging waves also lack a crest, so it’s difficult to predict which way these waves are going to break. 

Moreover, these waves can be deadly as they cause a very strong backwash to occur. Therefore, these waves should be avoided not only by surfers but also by people sitting at the shoreline.

What To Do When a Wave Breaks

Regardless of whether a wave breaks towards the left or right, you should know how to deal with it and be able to ride it smoothly with minimal risks involved. This includes knowing how to position yourself on a breaking wave and controlling your board according to the momentum of the wave.

Step 1: Start Paddling

As soon as you spot an incoming wave, lay down on your surfboard and start paddling towards it. Ideally, you would want your chest to be in contact with the surfboard as you paddle. 

You must paddle using full-range arm motions. This will provide you with a great deal of momentum to meet the wave. Moreover, make sure to paddle properly and not thrash your arms around, or else you may cause yourself to become imbalanced on the surfboard.

Step 2: Control Your Speed

Secondly, manage the speed of your board. The speed of your surfboard should similar to the speed of the wave. You can easily determine the ideal speed when the wave is approximately two meters away from you. This will allow the wave to carry you with the minimum effort required. 

Step 3: Stabilize Yourself on the Board

Lastly, you should make sure you are properly balanced and stable on the board. The speed that you gained while paddling and the momentum provided by the wave should help you ride a breaking wave. Now all you have to do is to achieve the perfect balance on your surfboard.

As the wave starts to break either to the left or the right, you need to stabilize yourself on the board as quickly as possible. One way you can do this is by using a cobra’s stance on the board; bending your knees and moving forward to the tip of the surfboard. 

Frequently Asked Question

What is a Surf Break?

When obstructions such as coral reefs or headlands cause a wave to break near the shoreline. Such a wave is known as a surf break. These waves often form a barrel that eventually collapses after a while.

When do Waves Start to Break?

Waves break when they travel from deep water into shallower water. As a result, most waves break near the shoreline. However, waves can form and break, even in the middle of an ocean if the amplitude is enough. 

Do Waves Break at a Certain Depth?

A wave usually starts to break when the depth of the water is 1.5 times the height of the wave. This can happen anywhere, from near the shoreline to even in the middle of the ocean. 


Waves often break in unpredictable ways and can go either to the left or to the right. However, with enough practice and knowledge of the different types of breaking waves, you can easily determine which direction a wave will break towards. Not only this, but with the right training, you can ride these waves effortlessly! 

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