Reef breaks vs beachies: (generalised) nuances from a SUP surfing point of view.

We appreciate not every paddlers is going to fancy stand up paddle surfing. maybe in dribbles but nothing too hectic. There are some, however, that will progress and start to tackle more bona fide spots on better swell days. In which case this article may help.

If you’re a SUP surfer then you obviously have a love for riding waves – the clue’s in the name. But what type of surf break you paddle at can be a factor. In some areas stand up paddle surfers will most ride reefs whereas at other it’ll be beach breaks. So what are the differences?

Although it’s hard to categorise each spot accordingly, as local anomalies, bathymetry and other factors can influence the way a wave breaks, there are certain traits which allow us to describe in general fashion.

Beach breaks

A beach break is essentially a wave spot where the surf breaks on top of sand. For many sailors this can be the preferred type of wave riding spot as beaches are perceived to be friendlier – although this is isn’t always the case. Some beach breaks can feature waves that are harder dumping than rocky bottom surf spots.

When most think of beaches the picture is of gently shelving sand where waves roll in from a long way out. As the swell’s pulse of energy hits the shallows the bottom drops out and the wave trips over itself, the head throwing forwards and creating the breaking part of the wave.

A typical SW beach beach wave with a dumping inside section, even with small swells. Good to hit if you can.

In many cases a beach break will have numerous peaks to choose from. The downside is take off points can move and change as the sandy seabed shifts via oceanic energy. Tide can also be a factor in terms of sand deposits meaning no two SUP surfing sessions are ever quite the same.

Dumping high tide beach break swells – not for the feint hearted!

Some beach breaks can be offer softer sandy bottoms while others can be hard packed. Many SUP surfers (especially new to waves paddlers) consider reefs to be hazardous to health when actually a hard breaking packed sand beach can be far more brutal. At some locations waves fire straight in from deep water and unload ferociously. This may be a sand bottomed launch but it’ll still snap paddles, break boards and sometimes bodies! In the UK beach breaks have a habit of closing out. Especially those in the South West where many wave heads gravitate. In contrast the NE coast has abundant reefs, which although need more swell and can be fickle, are often easier to SUP surf at.

Mellow, beginner SUP surfing friendly beach break waves.

Another thing to watch out for are rips. Rips at beach breaks form either side of sand banks where the main point of wave energy is focused. In simple terms waves rush in before that expelled energy finds the path of least resistance to head back out to sea. Channels forge and can be used by experienced riders to get outside and avoid the majority of white water. You do get long shore drift occurring (current flowing along the shore) in some areas as well and flash rips can materialise and disperse in the blink of an eye. Rips can either be your best friend or worst enemy depending on how well you understand them. Even at beaches without as much surf energy rips can form so there definitely worth learning about.

Reef breaks

In contrast to beach breaks reefs are surf spots with surf breaking over the top of rocks. These rocks can be flatbed in nature (such as the north coast of Scotland) or more undulating with peaks and troughs. The nature of the coastline, to some extent, dictates what type of reef you’ll get. Just as with beachies reef spots can be gently sloping or be more slabby in nature, the wave rushing in from deep to dump all its energy on a rocky seabed. Sloping reefs tend to pick up a lot more swell, although not always.

Waves breaking on solid matter are generally more predictable as the underneath doesn’t move. Sometimes the tide does affect things, as does wave size. Generally though reef waves break in the same place, making it easier to read for the SUP surfer. Reef breaks often provide longer ride as well. The wave starts breaking at one point and from there it peels until you gybe off into the channel. This also means you can calculate risk much more easily. The deeper you enter the wave the more powerful it is. If you stay on the shoulder it can be a little like waterskiing against a steep wall and you will not get drilled (too hard) even if you do fall.

Classic reef point break set up, although calm on this day.

Reefs often have a defined channel that can be used to get out, which can make things a lot easier if it is bigger. There are anomalies, however. As with beach breaks rips can form and take the path of least resistance. At a reef point, for instance, water flows parallel to the coastline meaning riders will be dragged away from the impact zone into deeper water. So the risk of actually coming in contact with the reef is quite low. This flow can also be dictated by wave size and tide.

Reefs usually offer longer SUP surfing rides.

One of the most problematic issues with reef breaks versus beaches though is launching and landing. Once out on the water most seasoned SUP surfers would cope fine, even with bigger sized waves. How easy the launch is depends on each individual spot and also the tide. At some spots you have a beach with no or little waves to launch from, as easy as it gets. Even if you need to launch from rocks (such as jumping off), there’ll most likely be a corner with hardly any swell activity. The biggest risk here is to slip and ding your board.

At every location it’s up to the paddler how much risk he/she takes. If you charge hard and go for big fat lips, dinging boards and putting holes in skin (especially feet) can be a common occurrence when SUP surfing at reefs.

Rocky reef break waves are more predictable than beach style waves.

Another advantage reef breaks is clearer water (although as with every SUP surfing scenario not always) so you can see what is underneath and how deep. Also from a distance you can often assess depth by the waves, a rule of thumb being that when a wave breaks with normal power, the height of the wave is similar to the depth underneath. Also when coming in on a wave, where it is bubbling in between sets, there can be rocks underneath. The wave following you may jack up and break at this spot so better extend your bottom turn a bit, around the hollow section, and hit it further down the line.

As we said at the start of this article the differences between reef and beaches can be generalised as each set up will have its own unique traits. If you’re new to any spot it’s worth taking time to assess what’s going on, how the locals do things and get some advice. Most SUP surfers are a friendly bunch and will be happy to help. Learn about each spot and you should be fine – knowledge is key after all.

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