I don’t consider 5-foot waves as the biggest waves out there, nor do I think of them as the easiest to surf on. I suppose they’re the transition between ripping and dropping in — and while 5-foot waves do attract a lot of surfers, I know a lot of people who choose to stay away from them because they’re quite treacherous.
Right now you might be thinking, “5-foot waves? Pfft… That ain’t much on Tourmaline!”
Different surfing spots have various interpretations of wave heights. In some places, 5-foot waves are considered mellow, but in other surfing spots, 5-foot waves can drag you underwater with its rip currents and kill you if you’re not a pro.
It’s a complicated topic, but in this article, I’ll teach you everything you need to know about surfing in 5-foot waves including its dangers and some beginner-friendly tips on how you can surf on them.
Table of Contents
What do 5-foot waves look like?
The photo above will give you a ballpark of how high a 5-foot wave is; however, you should know that this scale differs from other surfing locations. Aside from that, they are also known in other terms such as knee, waist, chest, head high, overhead double, and triple.
Hold up… that’s not even the end of it. There’s another measurement exclusively known amongst surfers called the Hawaiian or the Haleiwa scale wherein the 1 to 3 ft. overhead in most places is only considered as 3 to 4 ft. waves in Hawaii. In this famous surfing spot, 3-foot waves can easily snap board and break bones, while 5-foot waves mean death — sometimes, literally.
There are a couple of reasons why the North Shore peeps have their own wave scale. Back in the days when California, Australia, and Hawaii are the only places famous for surfing, the Hawaiians would often downplay their wave size to the Californian surfers who visit their beach. When these non-local surfers get awestruck by their waves, the Hawaiians will say “Meh, they’re really not that big.”
Another reason for this absurd scale is to avoid their lineups and beaches from getting too crowded. The North Shore lifeguards used to announce small wave sizes to limit the number of tourists coming for their surf breaks.
And then there’s the ‘surfer modesty’ that plays a minor role in the Haleiwa scale. During the early days of surfing, the pros would try to trivialize their accomplishments by downplaying the sizes of the wave they successfully rode in.
Until today, the surfer’s perspective of wave sizes is still stereotyped. If you’re not careful, you are at risk of being called a kook if you mistakenly identify a wave bigger than how the other surfers see it.
5-foot waves vary from spot to spot, and it also depends on different surfers’ perspectives. With that said, you need to rely on your best judgment and abilities to figure out if you can surf big waves as such.
Surfing 5-Foot Waves
Perhaps the reason why you’re here is you’re a beginner who frequently surfs on low waves and is now up for more challenging rides. You could be searching for tips on how to ride the 5-foot waves. Or you could also be looking for the last straw of hope and motivation to continue chasing such difficult waves.
5-foot waves or bigger are hard to come by. So on days when they occur, beginners stay back to the shore to drink their morning coffee while hardcore surfers finally get in the water to get some stoke on. On these rare occasions, the waves are hollow and barrels are better. There’s also less crowd in the lineup because only a few people are able to ride these waves.
Being a beginner who is about to try surfing on 5-foot waves or higher can be nerve-wracking. But unless you’re 100% fully adapted to surfing smaller waves, I suggest you stick with 1 to 2 feet waves first before making the jump. The sea will let you know when you’re ready — if the water wiped you out and you can’t get back up to your board, take that as a sign to swim back to the shore and surf with smaller waves first.
Now, if you’ve tried surfing on a 5-foot wave before, you’d know that dropping in on them is as difficult as catching them. They can go by so fast without even giving you a chance to drop in.
So to increase your chances, you need to know how to read waves. Look at the horizon before going into the water. You must position yourself to the part where you think you’ll be able to catch the most waves.
Since 5-foot waves move fast and riding down their face needs the right momentum, you don’t have the luxury of time to second guess if you will drop in or back out last minute. If you want to catch that wave, you need to commit to the drop as soon as you see it coming towards you.
Don’t back out last minute because it’s dangerous and you may injure other surfers if you lose your board in the event of a wipeout. Determine if the wave is too big for you, and if it is, it’s best to get back to the shore and just sit it out.
Being an excellent swimmer and paddler also plays a role because big waves move faster than small ones. If you move slow, then you won’t be able to pop out and drop in at the right moment. Of course, the key to becoming better at paddling is to paddle more, and for smoother pop-outs, do inclined push-ups and practice popping up prone from the floor.
Another beginner-friendly tip when it comes to surfing bigger waves is to choose the right size and volume of your surfboard. These will depend on your weight and the location where you’ll be surfing. Also, surfboards with a straight rocker are more suitable for surfing 1 to 2 feet waves because they’re able to generate more speed. Meanwhile, those with steep rockers give more control and resistance that’s perfect for big waves.
Risks and Dangers
In some surfing locations, 5-foot waves are really not that life-threatening. Surfers go to the Black Beach in San Diego, California, Tourmaline Beach, and Ventura Surfer’s Point when the wave height reaches 5 feet, and if you look at the World Meteorological Organization’s Douglas Scale, you’ll see that wave height of 1.25 to 2.5 meters or 4 to 8 meters are only considered as moderate condition in most places.
But on the flip side of the coin, the Great Lakes’ strong currents with similar wave heights can cause multiple deaths and drowning to the tourists visiting there every summer. According to National Weather System’s report, the most number of drowning incidents in Lake Michigan happen when the wind speed reaches 25 knots and the wave height reaches 3 to 5 feet. Swimming in this condition is considered risky and deadly at most.
That said, the condition of 5-foot waves varies. Some locations have gentler 5-foot waves, while others have overhead waves that will constantly get you trashed. The constant paddling against the currents will take up all your energy, leaving no room for surfing. So if you’re not used to surfing in 5-foot waves or more, it’s best you transition to it slowly to avoid any unfortunate events from happening.
I can’t stress enough how important it is for surfers to always check surf reports, as well as the wave and swell conditions for the day. Sure, you can just eyeball the waves, but it won’t hurt getting a second opinion about the weather conditions.
Aside from surf reports, you must also check the wave sets. Just because the first wave you saw was chest-high doesn’t mean the next one will be the same. Similar to wind, the waves and currents are unpredictable and may change drastically at any moment.
Are 5-foot waves better than small waves?
Most surfers began their careers surfing on 2 to 3-foot waves. Even Kelly Slater, 11-time World Surfing Champion, grew up surfing in small waves. If I’m asked which one I prefer — small waves or big waves 5-foot and over, I’d choose the little waves. Surprised?
The thing is, I see surfing as a sport that’s all about having fun and making friends. It’s having conversations in the lineup in between sets, and not getting scowled or shouted at if you accidentally dropped in at the wrong time.
With bigger waves, I’ve noticed that a lot of riders get frustrated when they fail to ride those pumping overhead waves. They get a little too hard on themselves.
In contrast, surfers riding 2 to 3-foot waves are more laidback because these waves are faster and easier to catch. These kinds of waves also allows them to maintain a relaxed composure throughout the session.
With smaller waves, surfers are able to generate more speed and master their turns with their longboard. They rip and shred without having to worry about getting pulled underwater by the currents and hitting their heads off the reef.
Now, the main advantage of smaller waves is the lesser crowd. Because when the surf reports read small waves, aggro surfers won’t bother to show up at the beach.
The only thing that I dislike about surfing in small waves is when the tide starts to drop, and the waves become inconsistent and choppy. When this happens, it’s time to head out and call it a day.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Are 5-foot waves dangerous for surfing?
If you’re an entry-level surfer, transitioning to 5-foot waves when you’re not fully adapted to surfing smaller waves is dangerous; however, it’s useful to take note that there are different wave scales depending on where you are surfing. In Hawaii and Lake Michigan, 5-foot waves are already considered dangerous and deadly; however, in surfing spots like Siargao and Ventura, this wave height is only considered as a moderate condition.
There are also risks of hostile surfers in 5-foot waves. If you’re a beginner who accidentally gets in their way, there’s a big chance you’re going to get yourself hurt. You may also cause injury to other surfers.
Q: How do you surf a 5-foot wave?
Chest-high to overhead waves can be intimidating to surf on, but the key to surfing them successfully is to constantly get out and keep on surfing them. You may fail the first few tries, but a slow transition will help you adapt to these waves.
Keep in mind that your safety comes first. If you’re in doubt of the wave condition, you’re not committed enough, or you find it hard to get back up after being wiped out by a big wave, you should stay out of the water and get back to shore immediately.
Q: Can beginners surf 5-foot waves?
No, it’s highly dangerous for beginners to surf 5-foot waves. The ideal wave height for entry-level surfers is 1 to 2 feet only wherein the beach breaks are gentler and more frequent. There is also less crowd on the beach when the waves are smaller. This leaves you more space for practice. As you improve, you’ll be able to surf bigger waves.
G’day, my name is Rach Taylor and I’m the proud Founder of Surf Hungry. I am a former Australian Olympic athlete and Australian representative surf sports athlete. I’ve worked in the surf industry and lived at many of Australia’s best surf spots, sparking a life-long love of the ocean and a passion for surf sports which also rubbed off on my two young sons! I am also lucky to spend a lot of ocean-time in my favorite second home, Indonesia. In addition to SurfHungry I have founded several other websites in my areas of passion, namely coffee and rock climbing, and am also a regular rowing content contributor.