Science du Surf

surfeo en costa rica surfeo en costa rica
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:


Ocean waves are formed by storm systems out at sea, or by localized onshore winds. Waves traveling from a long distance away are called groundswells, and travel across the ocean in orderly groups called sets, until breaking on an exposed stretch of coastline. Wind swells, on the other hand, are created by strong 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 groundswells, with much choppier water. A good groundswell is typically produced by a large low pressure system in cold latitudes, in both the southern and northern latitudes. Here’s an example of a northern-hemisphere groundswell: A large low pressure storm system spinning away in the Bering Sea off Alaska, with heavy winds and large seas that after several day’s churning away in frigid seas, throws up consistent, well-shaped overhead waves on Hawaii’s northern shores. That same swell keeps traveling on to California, Central America, and if the swell is large enough, all the way to Chile before eventually fading out; how large the swell will be and how far it travels depends on the conditions from the storm of origin. Southern hemisphere storms are the same as northern ones; they can produce excellent surf in South and Central America, Australia, South Africa, etc. Windswells are different, and while they can produce top-quality surf, surfers almost always prefer groundswell to windswell. An example of a good windswell: A hurricane enters the Gulf of Mexico, skirts the coast, and treats those good wave-hungry folks with a short but sweet few days of rapidly changing conditions. With luck, they’ll get some real world-class surf for a day or two (that’s right, the Gulf of Mexico ROCKS with the right conditions). Even Lake Michigan has a dedicated bunch of surfers!

To put it simply, the closer a strong–winded storm gets, the bigger the windswell. Sometimes, the winds will rapidly shift during a hurricane or large winter storms, and if they shift in the right direction, i.e. “offshore”, they’ll make the surf go from big-and-choppy “Victory at Sea” conditions to big-and-perfectly-groomed dream waves in an hour or less. And yes, a matter of fact, it can truly be said that the only people who actually Bienvenido hurricanes are surfers. Trust GISC on this one… they just do it quietly…

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 are 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 doing the hokey-pokey! But don’t fret; it’ll all become obvious the minute you see it for yourself.

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 and consistent, with nice sand bottoms, pointbreaks can offer perfectly shaped waves and some of the longest rides of your life, 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 beachbreaks can be unforgiving, with difficult paddle-outs. But drawbacks aside, all these types of waves can offer excellent surf, and as any long-time surfer will tell you, the rewards of surfing far outweigh the hazards.

Types of waves

How a wave will break depends mainly on four factors - swell, wind, bottom contour, and tides. To have good surf, the first thing you need is a swell hitting the beach. You also need good winds - offshore or light side/onshore, a good bottom shape, whether it’s sand or reef, and the right tide. “Offshore” wind is a wind that blows from the land to the ocean, and is the kind of wind desired by surfers; “offshores” produce clean, groomed surf, and take 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 locals which tide is best for the spot you plan to surf. When tides change, they can expose previously hidden reef, rocks, sand, etc, or they can cover up the surf spot with so much water that it ceases to have any waves at all. And at the right tide, the place can come alive!

Every surf spot does indeed have a certain tide it likes the 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 streaking path of a surfer’s board, 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 crumbles over when the wave breaks, or "hollow" - fast-breaking with a lip that pitches 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.

Most surfers, when starting out, want and need small, gentle, mushy waves, to get past those first steps without beatin’ their heads against their boards in frustration. Trying to learn to surf in barreling conditions is like, well, trying to learn to ski down an Olympic slalom course. Once you’ve mastered the basics, however, barrels 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. Sounds easy, right? Oh, but it’s not, not at all, and the first time you keep your eyes open inside a breaking wave is such an amazing experience, that it’s memory is sure to raise goosebumps well into old age! It’s 100% true that getting barreled is one of the greatest thrills anyone can hope to experience, and it is a fact, proven in a Surfer Magazine poll, that most surfers consider riding the tube to be better than... you know.

Rip Currents

Beachbreak rip currents, or rips, are dangerous to those unfamiliar with how they work, however 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 a big rip current, in order to get a "free ride" out to the break, and then surf right alongside the heaviest of rips, as they tend to sweep the sandbars into desirable shapes.
Here is some general information about rip currents, and how to deal with them:

1) 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 very confident in your ability to get out of trouble.

2) When you get to the beach, spend at least 10-15 minutes watching the ocean, searching for rip currents. It's not easy to spot the rips 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) 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 often travel solo by themselves.

Rips are caused by sets breaking and pushing water up the beach. When a set of waves breaks on a beach, they force water up the beach and make it actually a bit higher than sea level, so of course the water has to get back out to sea, and follows the path of least resistance. When the water starts to flow back out, it will follow the deeper channels on the bottom, usually in sand, but sometimes following the course of underwater reef. The water, while still on the beach, is pushed up higher than sea level by wave action, so it will flow down the beach until it finds a deep channel in the sandbar, and then head out to sea. This is where trouble starts for those who have no previous knowledge of how to deal with rips... the simplest advice is to learn how they work! 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 escape them.

Escaping Rip Currents

Rips are easy to stay out of, and easy to escape from if you simply keep calm, and remember 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's probably part of a rip current, and will soon 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 do 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 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 will eventually change direction and head out to sea.

You can be caught in a rip current, or rip tide, in as little as knee-high water! When caught in a very-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, if they have proper coaching, but does happen from time to time to those who don’t bother learning some basic steps before entering the ocean. If you do find yourself without a surfboard, and suddenly going from shallow water moving sideways down the beach to being caught in deeper water that heads 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, in our staff’s experience, paddle over to help you. When approached by a surfer offering assistance, try your best to be calm, and simply ask him or her if you can use their surfboard to get in. It's very important to remain as calm as possible - the person trying to help you is concerned for their own safety as well, and may just swim away from you if you're panicking and trying to grab onto them. So try your best to be polite if 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 first 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 simply 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 very important to relax your body when you feel this happen, because if you're too tight, the added tension can break your leash. And when you come back up, make sure your hands break the surface of the water first – not your head – so you don’t go eyeball-first into a surfboard fin.

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 searched for a while but still can't find anyone to help you, you are probably out in conditions you had no business entering in the first place. If you ever find yourself here, you'll have to get to the beach yourself, which is not really all that hard to do; it’s simply 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 cool and following the advice is not as easy as you might think. The temptation is always to swim straight back to the beach, and this is why people drown in rip currents. So, if you do find yourself stuck in a rip current, 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 swim, start swimming at a conservative pace towards the edge, 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 45-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 do 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 also need to wait until right after a set of waves break until you start your real paddle in to shore, so that you’ll have a short period with less wave action. Instead of swimming straight into shore, keep swimming away from the rip, while at the same time swimming towards the beach. Again, your path shouldn't be straight in, but at an angle of around 45 degrees. Try not to push it too hard – you are not in a sprint in a situation like this, you’re in a long-distance run, and you need to conserve as much energy as possible. When broken waves reach you from behind, broken whitewater waves, take a breath, tuck up a bit without tensing up too hard, and use 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 being pummeled 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 are going in, try to make sure that you aren't heading straight back into the same rip that got you in trouble to begin with.

ALWAYS REMEMBER - If you do get hit by a wave and held underwater, never ever panic and scratch hard for the surface! It doesn't matter if you got
just a 1/4 lungful of air, you'll always be alright if you just simply relax. Here's something to consider: when big-wave surfers take a wipeout on a 30' or 40' wave, like Jaws in Maui, they're almost never underwater for more than 20 seconds. A 20-second holddown would be considered an extremely long time by any experienced surfer. On waves that beginners are likely to ride, from knee high to slightly overhead, wipeouts are nothing to fear at all - 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 seems to feel like ten, but once you learn to relax, you'll find that being tumbled around underwater by a wave is not bad at all. It’s actually kind of fun; it just depends on how you look at it.

Always remember - your surfboard is not just a toy that's fun to ride, it is 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 breaks are the most dangerous types of waves, though they generally offer the best tuberides of any kind of wave. They are for surfers who have mastered the basics, and want to move up to a more challenging skill level. 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. Professional surfers use the lemon treatment - cut a lemon in half, and rub it vigorously into the wound. Hurts horribly all right, but it is the best way to sterilize the wound. Reef break currents depend mainly on three factors - swell size, swell direction, and bottom contour. The shape of the reef is what determines where the currents will be, and swell size and direction determines the strength of the current. When the surf is up, the current tends to get stronger, and when it's flat, weaker. Reef breaks usually have a very specific entry and exit point, and it's very 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 30 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 every reefbreak has its resident expert surfers 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. Once again, ask a local surfer if you're unsure.

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

Surfing Etiquette

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 with your friends, riding a few waves, and taking in life at a slower pace. The best surfer in the water isn't the one you see riding each wave perfectly; it's simply 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.

Drop Ins

When you see a wave you want to catch, and paddle over to it and take off, you want to 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 angrily 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. And sometimes locals can get a bit possessive of their turf…

If you do get dropped in on, remember - 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 over and over 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 as well drop in on another surfer by accident. It's no big deal; everyone does it once in a while. Just apologize, and try your best to give a wave back to them if the opportunity presents itself.


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 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 spot 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 be the most crowded ones, so it's a good idea to look for a sandbar that still has decent waves, while having a smaller crowd.

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 in a crowd, 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 decent 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.

Have Fun!

The best thing you can do for both yourself and others in the water is simple - just enjoy yourself! It's easy to have a good time in the surf, but everyone does have 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

Jason Butler