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The types of surf breaks

Types of Surfing Breaks
This image of different types of breaks does a fairly good job of explaining how different breaks are formed.
The type we see the most often on the Great Lakes is the beach break. Though on the east coast of Lake Michigan we often get sandbars that form in deeper water simulating a bit of the reef break or slab type of break. Though I would never say that they form in quite the same way as they do in the ocean.

Beach Break Spilling wave

Beach Breaks form when the height of wave reaches a depth of roughly half of it’s height. So a beach break can be woefully unreliable in terms of where it will break and how big it will be based on the size of the wave. For instance on a big swell day, a wave could be breaking much farther out than on a day when the swell is smaller. The only way to be able to surf it is to watch it over time, observe other surfers and gauge where the best place is to catch the wave. Beach break waves can vary based on the slope of the bottom from gentle peeling breaks, to steep dumping breaks, though the speed and spacing of swells have a lot to do with the type of break. Surfing a kayak in shallow water at a beach break can often result in pitchpoling, neck-breaker surf conditions. For Michiganders this is par for the course, but for those with more options tread with caution.

Lahinch Donegal Republic of Ireland Reef Break Surfing
Lahinch Reef Break in County Donegal Republic of Ireland

Reef Breaks form where a slab of rock, coral reef, or other undersea bottom feature, (sandbar) forms underwater that happens off shore. Waves at this type of break often are very meaty, powerful and occur in deep water. Bird Rock in San Diego as mentioned in a couple of posts is one such break, as is Mavericks, the big wave site in Northern California in Half Moon bay. Reef breaks often have the tendency to break in a bowl or crescent shape so that it may start to break over a rock at the middle and then wrap around and break at the edges later. I will try to find some video where this occurs. It looks cool as hell on film, but is a little freaky when you are out there grabbing greenwater, and then all of a sudden you’re staring an 8 foot close out in the face. If the reef is particularly shallow this can also make wipeouts horrendous.

mavericks Big wave surfing a reef break in Northern California

Steamer Lane Point Break Surfing
Point Breaks are rarer still in the Great Lakes, Steamer Lane is a very famous beach break because of the surf contest. Point breaks are great for using the sheltered side from the swell to capture wrap around waves that are more uniform with clean lines. Depending on the prevailing swell direction and the way the point juts into the ocean these can be great spots. They tend to break in a predictable uniform manner. But if the swell direction changes you can have a pond with nothing to surf which happens from time to time for the Santa Cruz Surf Fest.

I don’t personally have any preference for one or the other of these types of breaks. Point Breaks and Reef Breaks are nice because you typically paddle out on flat water to catch a wave rather than through an intimidating beat down of beach break to catch even one ride. Knowing which type of wave you are surfing and watching how boardies and other paddle surfers are catching waves will give you a lot of intel on how to surf each type of break. Barring that, you will have to head out and do it by trial and error. I usually use landmarks even when I can watch other surfers. I place myself in the same place in the lineup each time using feature on shore, and then another further down the coast line to triangulate my position.

If you have good videos of any of these particular types of breaks you want to share drop me a line.

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The types of surf breaks