Forecasting surf in the Pacific Northwest can be tricky. Use this NW surf forecast guide to begin to get a handle on how it works.
Even with all the best satellite, radar and your own experience, you can get stumped and not find good waves. The key to figuring out forecasts is to surf often in a variety of conditions and different breaks throughout the year.
Many of these breaks are on very scenic beaches and areas, so if you don’t get waves after a three hour drive to the coast, go for a beach or mountain hike. Some of us bring our touring boards or sea kayaks for coastal touring.
Also, as surfers since we’re always monitoring the weather and and tides thus become amateur oceanographers and weather men/women. It’s fun to learn the science of how it works out there!
Most WA surf spots can be a day trip or over-nighter if coming from Seattle. Places like La Push and Hobuck are further out and are more comfortably a 1-2 night trip.
Where is the Surf?
WA surfers usually go to the SW coast to Westport (Westhaven State Park) or to Crescent Beach on the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Port Angeles.
There are many other spots in both regions including near La Push and Neah Bay. Give me a holler if looking for specific spots or regions. Surf even sometimes breaks on the south end of San Juan Island and west side of Whidbey Island.
In Seattle we’ve been surfing freighter and tug waves on Shilshole Bay for nearly 15 years. Surprisingly good waves for an inland waterway.
Long Range Forecasts
I don’t trust the TV weather forecasters when they predict weather seven or more days out. That type of forecast can give you an idea of what’s coming but the day before or day of will be the best bet a mostly accurate reading.
Surf Apps. For WA forecasts, I use the the NOAA Marine Forecast page (not an app) and may cross check it with SurfForecast.com. Cross checking is a good idea as not every source is 100% accurate.
I don’t trust sites like Magic Seaweed as they’re not local sites and tend to over forecast or give star ratings to forecasts. Often 5 star days end up crowded and flat. Surf Forecast I believe is more accurate than Magic.
NOAA Buoys (Links Below). For the day of, I’ll check NOAA buoys close to where I’m surfing. These will give you real time accurate readings of swell direction, height, period, wind direction and speed and even water temperature.
Surf Forecast Terms
Swell Direction and Size. For the Strait of Juan de Fuca you want a NW or W swell for best results. S doesn’t get in but SW can on occasion. If you were on Vancouver Island, you’d want a SW or W, but not a NW.
NOAA will give compass directions which are used to determine the exact angle of the swell. Anything above 270 is NW.
On the Strait, I’ve surfed E swell from wind generated waves coming from Puget Sound. Many don’t know about these and they don’t pack the power of an ocean wave but are doable in a pinch.
Westhaven State Park works best for S to NW providing it can wrap around the jetty to get in.
Waves for Everyone
Each coastal beach has a specific direction people prefer or for the type of waves they want. We’re not all out there for the same type of waves. Short borders may like big steep drops as they require a powerful wave to catch and/or like to rip on a large wave face. Whereas SUPs and kayaks can easily catch waist high (2′-3′) waves.
Beginners should start out small (2′-4′) to prevent getting pummeled or into trouble. Over time you’ll figure out which you conditions you like best for your skill level.
Swell Height vs Wave Height
A 5′ swell may not necessarily become a 5′ wave. Different types of beach shape or bathymetry (topography of ocean floor) vary and thus affect how waves develop. A reef break may be a consistent wave shape whereas a beach break like Westport will vary as the sand shifts as each wave comes in. Experience at each break teaches you how this works.
This is the distance between each wave crest (top of wave). Period is measured in seconds. It’s fun to see a forecast with a 8 second period then go out and count exactly 8 seconds between each breaking wave.
Storm surf is lower around 5-9 seconds. This means the waves will be closer to each other and more messy (not green waves) thus making it harder to catch waves and recover after a wipe out.
Calmer seas and less wind but more powerful waves will come from 12-18 second period which is more preferred by experienced surfers. If a surf app forecasts a 18+ second period, a ton of folks will be out! But not all beaches benefit from it, thus you may see lots of board with cars driving around, but few waves.
For the Strait, southerly winds are preferred as it creates ‘offshore conditions’ building up wave faces which keeps them greener and non-broken longer, thus more ridable. W is ok and will push swell in. North creates ‘onshore’ conditions which flattens waves faces making ‘mushy’ waves thus less clean wave faces to surf. These are great waves for beginners as few will be on them. E wind can slow incoming swell ‘killing sell’ as a friend once put it.
Westport offshore would be E (or NE, SE) winds. S or N or W would be more onshore. Hobuck by Neah Bay, offshore is NE.
Popular Wind Apps
WindAlert – Great real-time info. Tends to over-forecast wind.
Windy – Great app to learn how wind and waves work here.
SailFlow – Preferred by kiters etc. Similar to WindAlert
NOAA NW Marine Forecast (Also on VHF channel 1-4)
Each beach requires a specific tidal level for specific types of waves. Surfers have a preference for a specific level for what they like. For example, I prefer a high tide at my favorite break for long rides from the outside to the beach. Low tides close-out (wall up then crash on or near beach) which is great for short boarders, but not as good for SUPs who can’t always take a steep drop and quick turn.
Some breaks work better on an ebb and others on the flood.
In Seattle for Freighters, we need a lower tide for our breaks to work at all. These low tides only occur Spring – Fall. Floods bring in waves quicker but it’s on and done set. The ebb helps sessions last longer.
I determine tides using a few tools depending on what’s available if I have an internet connection. I use a printed book by Captain Jacks to check tides prior to a trip and keep a copy in the car. Good apps include Mobile Graphics, Tides Planner, NW based Dairiki and NOAA.
In reading tide charts, note that those are just predictions. Wind, current and recent heavy rain (flooding) will speed up or slow down tides. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is hard to predict – it can be 1-2 hrs off the charts in either direction. A friend in ‘PA’ tells me the local paper has the best tide table. Best to arrive early.
Strait Tip: If it’s flat, wait for the tide to change, often it’ll bump up!
Learn Surfer’s Etiquette
And always use a leash (to avoid loose boards) and use Surfer’s Etiquette on the water to prevent collisions and negative feelings toward you by other surfers.
My 3 key etiquette rules are – One person per wave. Don’t take a wave if others are paddling out directly towards you. When paddling back out after a ride, don’t paddle out directly in line with those surfing in.
Lastly, share waves. SUPs and kayaks can take more waves than traditional surfers, which can lead to jealously or a sense that you’re a wave hog. Sit a few out or give that surfer who’s been patiently waiting for a perfect wave his/her turn. Learn Surfer’s Etiquette here.
If new to surfing or traveling, ask a local surf shop for tips on where and when to go for your skill level. Take a lesson if you haven’t surfed before, this will save you tons of lost waves!
Check out my book Stand Up Paddling Flat Water to Surf and Rivers for tips on how to SUP surf as well as surf forecasting, beach types, etc.