Roy Harrell: Surf forecasting still leaves a lot to be desired



Roy Harrell: Surf forecasting still leaves a lot to be desired

Apr. 3, 2012

Traditionally, spring is a good time for surf here on Delmarva. Surf-producing, low-pressure systems associated with coastal storms usually seem more frequent, as we traditionally see a lot more unstable weather this time of year. But so far, this spring seems to be lackluster at best.

As a result, there’s a lot of frustration among area surfers at the lack of waves. To make it worse, some well-known forecasting models always seem to show a good possibility of some decent surf six to seven days out, but as we get to the two- and three-day window, the forecasted swell seems to magically disappear into a thigh-high, short-wind swell that only bumps up for a few hours.

I’ve learned the hard way that you have to take all long-term forecasts with a grain of salt. Due to the nature of our weather systems, it’s practically impossible to accurately forecast anything more than a couple of days out. The best you’re going to get a week out is the good probability that a storm system hitting the West Coast will more than likely be near the East Coast in a few days.

That’s why local TV weather programs spend so much time telling us in the evening what kind of weather we had today rather than focusing on the forecast. Their rate of accuracy depends upon being able to stick their head out of the window.

Today we have every conceivable resource available that our surfing forefathers could never have dreamed of. We’ve got 24-hour weather channels, surf forecasts by a half a dozen different outfits, live surf cams and ocean buoys reporting swell heights and wind speeds. And we still manage to probably get skunked as much as they did back in the day.

Personally, I use all the tools I can to plan my surf sessions. But in spite of all the technology out there, one of the best tools I have is the telephone and a good set of eyes on the ground. On a surf day, my phone starts ringing before daylight. And usually at least one good buddy is already scouting the beach in person. Even then, it’s a race against time as the wind is always forecast to go hard and contrary by mid-morning or something like that. And so it still comes down to just physically checking it yourself and making the best out of what nature serves up.

The buoy system has been around for a long time, and maybe that longevity has made it one of my favorite tools for determining wave quality. Here on the East Coast, we don’t get the advantage of many long-period swells. So, for our purposes, anything showing six seconds or less on the buoy is probably not much more than wind chop. But from seven seconds on, you can count on a more organized swell. Obviously, the more seconds, the more energy is actually in the water, which means there is more of a real wave at the beach. But don’t discount those seven-second wave periods. You might be surprised to find a peaky little windswell with just enough punch and wall to log in a fun session…


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