Surf Science

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Congratulations - you're about to become a surfer!

Surfing is one of the most rewarding activities anyone can take up, and Playa Dominical and its surrounding beaches are the ideal place to learn. So stretch your muscles, wax up your stick, and get ready to be stoked!

General Surfing Information:

Wave Formation

Ocean waves are formed by low-pressure storm systems far out at sea, or by localized onshore winds. Waves traveling from a long distance away are called ground swells, and travel across the ocean in orderly groups called sets. Sets of waves generally have between three and eight waves, but can have more, and can travel solo, though not often. Good ground swells for surfers are produced by large low pressure systems in cold latitudes, or by tropical storms and hurricanes, in both the southern and northern hemispheres. Wind swells, on the other hand, are created by strong localized onshore winds that create waves traveling in more tightly packed and less organized sets. Wind swells can produce good waves for surfers, but usually have smaller waves than ground swells, with much choppier water. An easy way to think of the difference between groundswell and windswell: For a groundswell, take a rock, and toss it in the middle of a small pond. The waves that are generated from the rock come from one source, and propagate outwards, until arriving on the shore. A windswell is more like a fan blowing water up onto the shore, and produces choppier, less refined waves. Here’s an example of a northern-hemisphere groundswell: A large low pressure storm system with heavy winds and large swells spins away in the north Pacific, sending a steadily-refining swell southward, which in a few days serves up consistent, well-shaped overhead waves on Hawaii’s northern shores. The same ground swell keeps traveling on to California and then Central America, and if the swell is large enough, good waves will be surfed in Chile. How large the swell will be and how far it travels depends on the sea conditions from the point of origin; a good ground swell is produced with the right combination of wind speed, direction, and duration, size of fetch (area where the wind has blown), and ocean depth. Southern hemisphere ground swells are the same as northern ones; they can produce excellent surf in the Americas, Australia, Africa, etc. Wind swells are different, and while they can produce high-quality surf, surfers always prefer groundswells to windswells. An example of a good windswell: strong onshore winds blow for several days, building the surf up to head high or bigger. The waves are surfable at this stage, but not very good. The storm sytem that's causing the surf to kick up then passes, the winds shift to offshore, and the waves switch to perfectly groomed conditions for just a day or two. Good windwells are surfed on the east, west, and gulf coasts of the U.S., and even the Great Lakes have a dedicated bunch of surfers who actually ride not only wind swells, but small waves generated by the wake of large ships.

How a wave will break depends on five factors - swell size, swell direction, bottom contour, wind, and tides. To have good surf, the first thing you'll
need is a swell hitting the beach. Any given swell will have different characteristics when arriving from different locations; a swell coming in from
the north will break differently than a swell arriving from the south, with one direction usually being preferred by local surfers. You'll also need good
winds and a well-formed bottom to shape the waves, and the right tide. Offshore wind blows from the land to the ocean, and is the kind of wind desired by surfers; offshore wind produces clean, groomed surf, and takes away all chop to the waves. As far as tides and their effect on the surf, every surf spot has a tide that works best; low, medium, or high, and it's best to ask in-the-know locals which tide is best for the spot you plan to surf. When the tide drops, it can expose previously hidden reef, rocks, sand, etc., and when the tide is high, it can cover up the surf spot with so much water that it ceases to have any waves at all. The majority of coastlines in the world have semi-diurnal tides, or four tides per day - high tide switching to low tide and back around every six hours - but there are some places, like the Gulf of Mexico, where there are only two tides per day (diurnal). Incoming tides make for more consistent sets, and outgoing tides make the surf less consistent. How high or low the tide can get depends on your location; tides can be small, only one or two feet, and they can be very large - some places have tides of thirty feet and larger, with the world's most extreme tides going to Canada's Bay of Fundy, which has recorded tides of up to seveteen meters. Every surf spot does have a certain tide it likes best, and this is when you’ll see the savviest surfers getting the best rides. When waves arrive from their origin out at sea to their eventual destination underneath the path of a surfboard, they can have many different characteristics that affect the quality of the surfer’s ride. Waves can either be "mushy"; breaking slowly with a lip that just sort of crumbles over when the wave breaks, or "hollow"; fast-breaking, barrelling waves with lips that pitch out forcefully into the wave's trough.
Or, it can be sort of a combination of the two; medium-powered waves that have a few barrels here and there.

When most people learn to surf, they need small, gentle waves, to get past those first steps without beatin’ their heads against their boards in
frustration. Trying to learn to surf in barrelling conditions is like trying to learn to ski on a black-diamond slope. Once you’ve mastered the basics in
easy waves, however, tube-rides really are as mind-altering as surfers say they are! And as all experienced surfers know, the trick to learning how to
ride the tube is amazingly simple – all you have to do is keep your eyes open, and hold on. Sounds easy, right? But it's not, and the first time you
manage to keep your eyes open inside a breaking wave is such an amazing experience, that it will change your life, GUARANTEED. Getting barreled is one of the greatest thrills any person can experience in their lifetimes, and it is a fact, proven in a Surfer Magazine poll, that most surfers consider riding the tube to be the only thing better than... well, you know.

Beachbreaks, Pointbreaks, and Reefbreaks

The types of waves that can be surfed are called beachbreaks, pointbreaks, and reefbreaks. These waves all have their own characteristics; Beachbreaks tend to be common, with consistent waves and nice sand bottoms, pointbreaks can offer perfectly shaped waves and the longest rides of any kind of wave, and reefbreaks are where advanced surfers go in search of the best barrels. Each wave also has it's drawbacks, though - reefbreaks usually have uneven and/or sharp bottoms composed of rock or coral, pointbreaks can get a little too crowded sometimes and are generally not that consistent, and some beachbreaks can be unforgiving, with difficult paddle-outs. But drawbacks aside, all these types of waves can offer excellent surf, and as any dedicated surfer will tell you, the rewards of surfing are worth more than material wealth.

Lefts and Rights

Every wave that "peels" (runs sideways down the beach for a distance before shutting down) goes either left or right. The way to tell the difference
between the two is simple; when you're lying down on your surfboard, paddling into a wave, you're going to drop into the wave and angle either towards your right or your left. When seen from the beach, someone going left will be going towards your right. Everyone has their preference as to which foot goes forward; if you put your left foot in front and your right foot on the tail, you're a regularfoot. Right foot forward and you're a goofyfoot. So, if you're a regularfoot, and you drop into a wave and go right, you'll be going frontside: facing the wave. Drop into a left, and you're going backside. For goofies, it's left: frontside, and right: backside. Confused yet? Of course - who wouldn’t be? You might as well be spinning hula hoops! But don’t worry about it, it’ll all become obvious the minute you see it for yourself.

Rip Tides

Rip currents, or rip tides, can be dangerous to those unfamiliar with how they work, but to those who follow a few basic rules, rips are nothing to fear.
Most surfers, after time, will learn to paddle out right in the middle of rip currents, in order to get a "free ride" out to the break, and then surf
right alongside the rips, as they tend to sweep the sandbars into desirable shapes.
Here is some general information for beginning surfers about rip currents, and how to deal with them:

1) When starting out, try to always go surfing with others in the water. If you get to your surf spot and there's nobody out, don't paddle out unless the
surf is small and easy, and you are confident in your ability to get out of trouble.

2) When you get to the beach, spend at least ten to fifteen minutes watching the ocean, searching for rip currents. It's not easy to spot a rip when the
surf is small, because there's not much current moving around. On the other hand, it's fairly easy to spot the rips when larger waves are breaking.

3) To spot a rip, look for areas where you can see water flowing out to sea, starting right off the beach. Remember, waves tend to travel in groups,
called sets; waves don’t usually travel solo by themselves. Small surf tends to make for small rips, and large surf means more powerful rips.

Rip currents are caused by sets breaking and pushing water up the beach. When a set of waves breaks, it forces water up the beach, causing it to
temporarily be a bit higher than sea level. The water then has to get back out to sea, and follows the path of least resistance to get back out, running
along the deeper channels on the bottom, whether it be sand, loose rocks, or solid reef. This is where trouble starts for those who disregard learning
about rips before entering the ocean, but if you have some basic knowledge of riptides and how to escape them, you won’t ever find yourself in a situation you can’t handle. Please continue reading the following for more detailed information on rip currents, and how to identify and escape them.

Spotting and Escaping Rip Currents

Rips are easy to avoid, and easy to escape from if you simply keep calm, and know a few basic rules. Always remember this: if you enter the water and you feel water flowing by your legs, parallel to the beach, it may well be part of a rip current, which will eventually change direction and head out to sea.
If you're at all unsure of where the rips are, or if you have any concerns about safety, don't hesitate to ask a local surfer for advice. When you decide
on the spot you want to surf, look back up at the beach and pick some kind of landmark, like a house or a tree, and surf in front of it. If you look up
after you've paddled out and see that you're no longer out front out your marker, you'll know that you've moved up or down the beach. Again - when first entering the ocean, feel for the direction the current is traveling in, using your legs. If there's a lot of current flowing sideways down the beach, it
most likely will eventually change direction and head out to sea. It's possible to get caught up in a rip current in as little as knee-high water! When
caught in a near to shore rip like this, you can go from knee-high water to over-your-head deep in just one or two steps. This is not a common occurrence for beginners when they have proper coaching, but does happen from time to time to those who don’t bother learning some basic safety rules before entering the ocean. If you do find yourself without a surfboard, and suddenly going from shallow water to being caught in deeper water that's heading out to sea, the first thing to do is quite simply to not panic, as rips are easily escapable, as long as you remain calm. Once you’ve got your bearings, look for help! Wave your arms around, yell a little bit (not too much or you’ll feel breathless); basically just do whatever you can to get people's attention.
There is very little doubt about someone who’s in trouble in the water, and anyone who sees you is bound to take immediate action. Other surfers that see someone in trouble will always paddle over to help. When approached by a surfer offering assistance, try your best to be calm, and ask him or her if you can use their surfboard to get in. It's important to remain as calm as possible - the person trying to help you is concerned for their own safety as well, and may swim away from you if you're panicking and trying to grab them. So try your best to be calm when someone assists you, and don't worry about them at all after you get the surfboard - just shift your weight back on the surfboard, hold on very tightly, and let a wave push you in.

The simplest thing to do if you still have your surfboard, get caught in a rip current, and you want to get out of it, is to point the nose of your board
towards the beach, shift your weight towards the rear of the board, hold on tight, and wait for a wave to hit you from behind, pushing you in to the
beach. The purpose of shifting your weight back on the surfboard is to keep the board from nose-diving, and for added stability. If you find yourself in
the "impact zone" - the area where waves are pitching over and breaking - try your best to hold on to your surfboard, unless the wave is too large and
powerful and you have no choice but to ditch your board. If you have to ditch, make sure you get a good breath, and then calmly slip off your board and swim under the wave. First, try your best to look back towards the beach, to make sure that you're board won't smack into anyone. When the wave hits you'll feel it tug on your surfboard and your leash will stretch tight, and begin to pull you by the ankle. It's important to relax your body when you feel this happen, because if you're too tight, the added tension can break your leash. When you come back up, make sure your hands break the surface of the water first – not your head – so you don’t go head-first into your surfboard.

Whether or not you still have your surfboard, if the rip does pull you all the way to the outside break, you've got two things going for you: you have
plenty of time to relax and assess the situation, and you should be able to find help from other surfers. If you can't find anyone else in the water to
assist you, look towards land and try to get someone's attention. If you've searched for a while but still can't find anyone to help you, you'll have to
get to the beach yourself, which is not really all that hard to do; again, it’s mostly about remaining calm. The basic rule for escaping a rip current is
one that most people already know - to escape a rip, swim parallel to the beach until you reach the edge of the rip, then once you're out of the current
you can swim back in to the beach. This information is indeed known by most, however keeping your cool and following the advice is not as easy as you
might think. The temptation is to swim straight back to the beach, against the current, and this is where the trouble begins. If you do find yourself
stuck in a rip current, once again the first and foremost rule is not to panic. Keep your cool, and try to figure out which side of the rip you're closer
to. Once you know the direction you want to move, start swimming at a conservative pace towards the edge of the rip, parallel down the beach. You do not want to fight the current in any way, so you should be swimming down the beach, while at the same time letting yourself be pulled out farther by the rip.
This will make your direction of travel at about a forty five degree angle out to sea. Once you reach the edge of the rip, it'll feel different; the water
will usually be slightly warmer than inside the rip, there will be less choppy water and foam, and the water will usually be much cleaner. Once you get to the edge of the rip, don't just swim straight in; if you do, you may get pulled right back into the same rip that got you in trouble to begin with. You
need to wait until right after a set of waves break until you start your swim to shore, so that you’ll have a short period with less wave action to deal
with. Instead of swimming straight into shore, keep swimming away from the rip, while at the same time swimming towards the beach. Your path to the beach shouldn't be straight in, but again, at an angle of around forty five degrees. Try not to push it too hard – you are not in a sprint in a situation like this, you’re in more of a long-distance run, and you need to conserve as much energy as possible. When you've made it in closer to the beach in the area
where the waves are breaking, take a breath, tuck up a bit without tensing up too hard, and allow a wave to toss you in towards the beach, using the wave’s energy to help propel you towards the shore. Eventually, between wave action and your own swimming, you’ll get far enough in towards shore that you'll be able to touch bottom, and then it's fairly easy to walk the rest of the way in.

To sum it up, if you’re out in unsafe conditions, and you have to get in without any assistance, the most important thing for you to do is to remain as
calm as possible, and try to time the sets so you'll have a good shot at getting in without getting trounced by a big set of waves. Wait on the outside
until a big set comes, wait until the last wave in the set breaks, and then swim in at medium speed in towards the beach. Eventually you'll get in closer to the beach, and you can let a pile of whitewater push you the rest of the way to shore. When you're swimming in, try to make sure that you aren't heading right back into the same rip.

ALWAYS REMEMBER - If you do get hit by a wave and held underwater, never panic and scratch hard for the surface! It doesn't matter if you got just a half of a lungful of air, you'll be alright if you just simply relax. Here's something to consider: when big-wave surfers take a wipeout on a thirty or forty foot wave, like Waimea Bay in Hawaii, they're almost never underwater for more than twenty seconds. A twenty second hold down would be considered an extremely long time by any experienced surfer. On waves that beginners are likely to ride, from around knee to head high, wipeouts are nothing to fear; even on a powerful wave, you'll be underwater for no more than five to ten seconds. It is a natural reaction to panic and try as hard as you can to get up to the surface, and every second you're underwater seems to feel like ten, but once you learn to relax, you'll find that being tumbled around by a wave is not bad at all. It’s actually kind of fun; it just depends on how you look at it.

Don't forget that your surfboard isn't just for riding waves, it is also an excellent lifesaving device and your primary means of getting out of trouble
should a bad situation arise.

Pointbreak rips usually have a current that moves up or down the point, and not straight out to sea. Currents at pointbreaks can be strong, especially
after a big set rolls through. When a set breaks at a pointbreak, the breaking waves tend to create a current that travels down the point, in the
direction surfers are riding. Tides are a large factor in how strong a pointbreak current can get, and it's best to ask a local if you're unsure of the
direction of the current. Also, there may be a specific entry and/or exit zone at a pointbreak, for example a patch of sand in between rocks, or an area where the waves are not breaking strong, allowing for an easier paddle out.

Reef break currents depend mainly on four factors - swell size, swell direction, tides, and bottom contour. The tide and the shape of the reef are what
determine where the currents will be, and swell size and direction determine the strength of the current. When the surf is big, the current tends to get
stronger, and when it's small, it gets weaker. Reef breaks usually have a very specific entry and exit point, and it's important to use these spots to
get in and out of the water. When surfing a reef break for the first time, watch the waves for at least thirty minutes, and talk to locals about the spot.
Ask for any tips they might have - most surfers will be glad to take a few minutes to point out the places to surf and the places to avoid. Observe where most of the surfers are entering and exiting the ocean, and always use the same location. Be aware that most reefbreaks have their resident experts who will know the wave very well, and if you see them paddle out in a spot that everyone else avoids, well then you need to avoid it too, and use the spot everyone else is using. Reef break bottoms are composed mainly of rock and/or coral, are usually uneven, and may be jagged and sharp, especially in the case of coral. Reef break cuts should always be cleaned thoroughly, as they will almost always become infected if left untreated. Surfers in far-flung locales use the "lemon sqeeze" treatment: cut a lemon in half, and rub it vigorously into the wound. It stings (oh yea) but it is a great way to sterilize the wound.

All strong currents can be dangerous, however most injuries are actually caused by other surfers. Accidents with other people and their surfboards do happen, but if you follow a few basic rules outlined in the following section then you shouldn't have any problems.

Sandbars, Crowding and Etiquette

Besides looking for rip currents, you want to spend some time on the beach looking for those good sandbars. What exactly is a good sandbar? For surfers, it’s a patch of sand underneath the waves that produces well shaped breakers. Of course, you can't see the sand itself, so what you can look for are areas where surfers congregate, which will usually have better formed, “peeling” waves. If you’re on the dawn patrol and have it all to yourself, it’s simple to spot the best sandbar – just look for a place where the waves are consistently breaking, without closing out and shutting down. If you see waves shutting down hard (called “closeouts” in surfer lingo), then it’s best to keep looking for a sandbar, or perhaps to wait for the tide to change a bit. Sometimes, sandbars that are completely exposed at low tide can become covered eith water as the tide comes in, and turn into great, albeit temporary, surf spots.
Sandbars are the key to catching good beachbreak surf, and while a quality sandbar, with a shallow center and a deep area on one or both sides will usually produce good waves, the best sandbars will just about always have the most people, so it's a good idea to look for a sandbar that still has decent waves, while having a smaller crowd. When you paddle out there and see a wave you want to catch, and paddle over to it and take off, you need to look back and check that nobody is already up and riding the wave. If you take off on a wave in front of someone, you're basically stealing the wave, as the surfer who was already up and riding has to give up the wave or risk having a collision with you. You can think of it this way: imagine you're taking off on a wave. You've made the drop, and now you're angling across the wave's face - going "down the line" - when someone takes off on the wave, right in front of you, nearly causing a two-person crash. But they don’t crash, and keep happily riding away while you wipe out, eating sand and sputtering along in the whitewater! That would be a pretty blatant drop-in. The easiest way to avoid drop-ins is simple - stay away from crowds! Crowds tend to get competitive, and there are always those in the water who don't care so much about having fun as they do about showing off and catching all the waves they can.

If you do get dropped in on, it was probably just an accident, and in any case, there’s no need worry about it. You’re surfing; what could be better?
However, if the same person seems to be “accidentally” dropping in on you agian and again, you might want to say something about it; nothing much, just a "hey dude, I was behind you on that wave" is usually enough to stop it from happening again. Of course, paddling away from the hazard is always the best option. There will be times when you too will drop in on another surfer by accident. It's no big deal; everyone does it once in a while. Just apologize, and give a wave back to them if the opportunity presents itself.

Think dawn patrol, and evening sessions! And try never to fall victim to the tendency many surfers have, which is to not really check which sandbars are good, but to simply paddle right out into the biggest crowd they can find. The reason surfers paddle out in crowds is simple - the belief is that if
that's where the crowd is, that's where the waves must be best! That may actually be true, but remember- if you're surfing with a lot of people, you're
not likely to get many good waves. On the other hand, if you paddle out on a sandbar that has slightly lower quality waves but also has less people,
you're bound to get more waves and have a better time. Also, if you're going surfing and you notice that there are not many people out, say just a few
people on a good sandbar, don't immediately paddle out right where they are - there's plenty of waves around, and no need to intrude. Instead, look for your own sandbar, paddle out there and have some fun. Having a good time while you surf doesn't just mean to ride the best waves you can - it means enjoying some time in the ocean, riding a few waves, and taking in life at a slower pace. The best surfer in the water isn't really the one you see riding each wave perfectly; it's the one who's having the best time. He or she might surf like crap! But of course, it doesn't exactly hurt to surf well...

Always remember why you decided to go surfing in the first place – its fun! Consistently impart this attitude to others in the water, and you’ll have the
time of your life, every time you head out.

Have Fun!

The best thing you can do for both yourself and others in the water is simple - just enjoy yourself! It's hard not to have a good time in the surf, but
everyone has a bad day every once in a while. If you find yourself getting frustrated, ask yourself why. Are you missing waves that you're trying to
catch, and wiping out on the ones you do manage to get into? Maybe someone has dropped in on you a few times, or hit you with their surfboard and didn't apologize. Hey, don’t worry, be happy! Remember to always stay in a relaxed frame of mind, and encourage others to do the same. Share waves, smile, and give a kind word to both friends and strangers alike. Hoot for others when you see them get a good wave, and soon you'll hear other surfers hooting for you on your good ones!

If you'd like more information regarding rip currents, safety issues, etc.,
please feel free to email me at

Happy surfing!
Jason Butler

Green Iguana Surf Camp
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