Head (High) Trips

Ego checks and naval models inform our “How big is it?” calls.

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In the surfing world, wave size is a constant point of reference to the ride experience, most frequently equating to the degree of difficulty, terror, free-fullness, fun, perfection, and danger that certain surf conditions impose on our liquid game board.

Not only that, but in our culture, verbalizing on that facet reflects on one’s surfing IQ. It assesses honesty, judgment, bravery, ego, and ability to voice a wave’s size with whatever accoutrements are appropriate to the number assigned. But when confronted with the need to state a size, we are often presented with a conundrum.

Just what does size mean when it comes to a wave? From a physical standpoint the various dimension points to consider include overall height, base, period, length, and degree. Our concern usually focuses on the front slope of the wave that we attempt to slide down. Yet as a wave is always in flux there are no constants, which is a crucial part of the entire game’s magic. It is indeed a movable feast. 

For a general swell event at a particular break, size is usually defined by observing, then averaging, several of the largest consistent set waves. A longer time observing sets adds dimension to the accuracy of the answer. 

This is all fine and good, but how does one actually construct a valid size rating at any point of a single wave without use of a tape measure? For singular waves, answers actually do exist in a technically measured sense. At any instant the wave face does have a “size” relative to a 6-foot-tall human. However, the perceived truth of size relies on judgment to relate the two. Your call relies on your impulse for accuracy. Options include measuring from trough bottom to peak tip, be it front (normally used by surfers) or back (normally used by boaters). It also depends on determining what portion of the wave being measured (we’re talking surfing waves here) is considered relevant to a rider. 

The answer can become another debate, about where one starts to estimate size at the bottom. This is particularly in play when sizing a wave in a photograph. Some say the bottom of the trough, the lowest point between swells. Perhaps the Navy might, being didactic in their views. 

For me, since it’s about riding the thing, it begins up the frontal slope from the beginning of significant curve increase, where your ride just might intersect the face. Say about mid-curve. From that bottom point it’s to the upper tip of the lip bounce, the peak height. If your self-confidence is enough, that point becomes the most manly size grab, adding to the gravitas of your surfer persona. 

It is important to remember that one must find a frame of reference when making the call, usually based on a relative point of view between two points, one being the wave top, the other something of a known height. The wave’s viewpoint often is a beachfront porch, rooftop, car top, or some such spot. Comparing the level of the wave’s top to the height of your position from sea level, you must speculate on that comparison by using any other object of known size in the field of vision to aid in scale, to sense whether the wave is taller, equal, or shorter than where you stand. All a bit tedious, right? But it gets you in the ballpark.

Another common mode of expressing size is by roughly comparing the wave’s measuring point to human height, and defining the wave size to be “head-high” or “double-overhead,” etc. Of course, this is best done when a human is actually on the wave. It’s something we can relate to and grasp quickly. And it does away with all the quibbling.

Feature image: Has any component of surfing analytics inspired more gnashing of teeth? Buzzy Trent’s “increments of fear” still holds. Ricky Grigg, pictured at Waimea Bay, 1969. Photograph by Don James/Courtesy of SHACC.