How To Read The Buoys

Its not black magic or palm reading, but rather it's understanding the buoys that keeps Ian Walsh in the right place at the right time. Photo: Aeder

Although most of us would never admit to it, there are tens of thousands of surfers that understand buoy readings about as well as we understood Inception. Unfortunately, there’s a whole mess of good intel the buoys are offering that’s falling on deaf ears. To set us wise on just what the buoys can tell us, we called on Ian Walsh, a man so in tune with the inner workings of forecasting that he doesn’t even bother to read buoys anymore; buoys read him.

General Forecast Vs. Buoy Readings

“A general forecast can help you get a picture of what a swell could produce while an actual buoy reading confirms just how big or small the swell really is. The numbers coming off of a buoy are a pure reading of what the ocean is doing at a certain point in time. It really is a much more accurate depiction of the size, angle, and winds of an oncoming swell. A general forecast, on the other hand, is just a prediction of what the swell might end up doing.”

The Period

“When you start reading the buoys, you’ll hear the term ‘period’ used a lot. The period of a swell refers to the time between each wave in a set and has a ton to do with the size, speed, and the overall condition of a swell. If a buoy reading says ‘10 feet at 20 seconds,’ that means it took 20 seconds to pass between the top of first wave (which was 10 feet) in the set and the top of the second wave in the set.”

Long-Period Vs. Short-Period Swell

“If you’re tracking a big storm out in the ocean that’s sending swell to a surf spot far removed from the storm, you’re looking at a long-period swell. These types of swells are a lot cleaner and more organized because the swell has had a bunch of time to clean up as it heads through the ocean.

“If that same storm was much closer to the shore, then it would give off a shorter period read on the buoys because it’s had less time to get to the lineup. As an example: a reading of 10 feet at 20 seconds would be considered a long-period swell while a reading of 10 feet at 12 seconds would be a short-period swell. Again, a longer-period swell will be cleaner while a shorter-period swell will be a bit more mixed up and look like storm surf.”

Dialing Your Buoys

“Once you start to pay attention to the buoy readings, you’ll begin making associations with readings on days that were really good at certain spots. If we see a swell forecast for Jaws that’s supposed to be really big, I’ll check the buoys as the swell starts to finally hit Hawaii. If it’s above a certain size and period, then I know it could be on and I’ll start checking the angle of the swell to make sure it’ll hit the reefs right. Every wave likes a different size, angle, and swell direction, you just need to do the research to figure out the right readings. Once you get that dialed, that opens up a lot of doors and you’ll probably be getting barreled a lot more.”