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Understanding the Parts of a Wave (For Beginners!)

As an aspiring surfer, before you head out to the lineup, you need to observe the conditions of swells, tides, and the wind. Hence, it’s handy to know the names of different wave parts before you start forecasting your surf and how they could affect your surfing experience.

A few of the standard wave vocabularies a surfer needs to know are terms such as amplitude, barrel, crest, swell, and wavelength.

A wave is a repeating pattern of motion that transfers energy from place to place without entirely displacing matter. Disturbances and vibrations cause waves in water at the surface of the water body. 

Water waves happen in pools, poodles, lakes, and the ocean. Ocean waves are commonly caused by wind. When the waves move across a deep water surface, the water goes up and down. Most surfing takes place in the ocean.

This article will cover the basic terms or names of a wave, its parts, and why a surfer needs to know these names. Please keep reading to learn more.

What are the parts of a wave?

Photo Credits: CAVAN IMAGES

All water waves have some common features, including the trough, the crest, wave height, amplitude, wavelength, and frequency. These parts are common in both deep water or ocean waves and shallow water waves. Let us get into a detailed breakdown of these parts.

What is the inside of a wave called?

The inside part of the wave is known as the barrel. A barrel is the hollow-faced part of a breaking wave where there is a gap between the face and the lip of the wave as it curls over. 

The lip is the uppermost part of a breaking wave where a surfer maneuvers. Most surfers aspire to get to the inside of a wave, also called the green room or the tube.

What is the top of a wave called?

The top of a wave is called a crest or peak, and it is the highest point above the rest of a wave. 

When a deep water wave reaches the shore that is about a half of the length of the wave, it starts to “feel the bottom.” 

The wave slows down, grows taller, and gets shaped like peaks reaching varying heights and breaking forward.

What is the height of a wave called?

The wave height is the vertical distance between the trough and the crest and is called length of the wave or wavelength. 

The strength of the wind determines the height of a wave, the amount of time it blows, and its fetch. 

The size of a wave ranges from small ripples to vast walls of water that can go up and above 30 meters. The term “significant wavelength” is also commonly used to describe the height of a wave. 

What is the low point of a wave called?

The lowest or minimum part of a wave is called a trough. The trough is also the part between two successive waves below the still water level. The distance between one trough and another is called the wavelength. 

It’s important to note that not all waves are caused by the wind. When there are seismic activities in a large water body, long wavelengths of waves known as tsunamis occur.

What is the highest point of a wave called?

The highest point of a wave is referred to as the crest. The height of a wave crest is determined by the direction and speed of a tide, where a fast surge results in a high ridge. 

The depth of water or the roughness of the sea bed can also affect how high a wave goes. The wind’s speed, duration, and fetch also contribute to high or low crests.

What is the white foam on waves called?

The white part of the wave is called seafoam, beach foam, ocean foam, or spume. It forms when bubbles of the aerosolized water droplets pop, and looks white and frothy. 

The foam is usually made of protein lipids and other organic matter from algae in the water.

Other wave-related terms surfers need to know

Other terms related to waves you should be familiar with when starting to learn how to surf include:

  • Amplitude – this is equal to half of the wave height. It is the vertical distance from crest to average surface level or still-water level and it is also referred to as crest to “rest.”
  • Frequency – frequency is determined by how many waves pass a fixed point within a set period of time.
  • Plunging breakers – these are breaking waves whose crests curl over and collapse suddenly.
  • Spilling breakers – these are breaking waves whose bottom slopes gradually and slowly over a big distance. Usually a foam line forms as the spilling waves advance to the shore. 
  • Surging breakers – these are large waves that suddenly hit bottom in shallow water
  • Swell – a series of mechanical waves formed due to distant weather systems, where wind blows for longer periods of time.

Why do surfers need to know the parts of a wave?

Knowing and understanding the parts of a wave increases a surfer’s wave reading skills. Reading waves helps you estimate where and when a wave will break and, in turn, betters your surfing skills when you’re out for practice.

Being a better surfer gives you a chance to see a wave coming and know where to catch it. Hence you’re likely to always be in the right spot to enjoy the sport. 


Surfing would not be a sport without waves. Understanding the basic terms used to describe the different parts of a wave lays a good foundation for surfers who will, in the future, predict their surfs. But learning the terminologies is not all it takes to be a great surfer. 

No matter your age or level at the sport, get an excellent introduction to surfing by enrolling at Tommy Tsunami Surf School in Half Moon Bay, California by clicking this link.



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