Understanding the Ocean: from a surfer’s perspective

A basic course explaining where the waves come from and why, no previous knowledge required

Taught by:  Tony Butt

Next venue and dates Watch this space for more details

Who is it for? 
Surfers and other coastal water-users, particularly those with no previous mathematical or scientific qualifications

What would you get out of it?  
An insight into where the waves come from, what happens to them as they travel towards the coast and why they are the way they are when we surf them, in addition to some knowledge into how to read weather charts, how wave-forecasting models work and how to make the best of the forecasting resources.  The course does not lead to an academic qualification of any sort and there are no exams or certificates at the end.


Number of places 
Minimum 30, maximum 50.

Six hours, over one day, two consecutive evenings or any other format that suits.

So far, the course has been run with great success in Spain, England, Ireland and South Africa.  

Some comments:

The course was really interesting, taught in a friendly and professional way.  Tony is highly qualified and explains everything really clearly.  The course is very practical – it teaches you stuff that you can apply like how to interpret all those symbols and weather charts and how to predict the surf.

One thing that stood out was the teacher’s positive attitude – he explained all the difficult concepts really clearly and made the classes fun.

Tony’s explanations, with lots of simple-to-understand diagrams and practical examples, with close attention to the audience’s needs, made everything easy to understand despite the complexity of the subject.

Approximate content

One hour per subject including questions and practical examples

1. Introduction and basic concepts
  • Intro to the course
  • Anatomy of a wave
  • Weather charts
  • Where do waves come from?
  • The Coriolis force

2. Generation of waves on the ocean surface
  • The wind around a low pressure
  • Growth of waves from a flat sea
  • Growth from a sea already containing waves
  • Limiting factors

3. Propagation of free-travelling swell
  • Difference between windsea and swell
  • Wave speed in deep water
  • Dispersion
  • The formation of wave groups

4. When the waves approach the coast
  • Wave velocity in shallow water
  • Refraction
  • Wave shoaling and height transformation
  • Wave breaking

5. History of wave forecasting
  • What did we do before the internet?
  • Development of numerical wave models
  • Surf forecasting and professional wave forecasting join up

6. Practical wave forecasting
  • Significant wave height and period
  • Surf forecasting websites: limitations
  • How can we improve on the basic forecasts?
  • Case studies and practical examples

Tony Butt has a PhD in Physical Oceanography and worked part time with the Coastal Processes Research Group at the University of Plymouth for about ten years. He now makes a meagre living writing about waves and the coastal environment for the non-scientific audience.  He has had a regular column in the Surfers Path magazine since its foundation in 1997 and has published hundreds of other articles on waves and the coastal environment. He is the author of Surf Science: an Introduction to Waves for Surfing (2014) and The Surfers Guide to Waves, Coasts and Climates (2009), in addition to numerous chapters, forewords and contributions to other books.

He also works with NGOs like Surfers Against Sewage and Save the Waves, trying to convince 
people that the coastline is one of the most delicate and poorly-understood parts of Nature, and that the more we interfere with it, the more problems it will cause us.

Tony has surfed hundreds of different spots around the world, and in the last 20 years or so become a respected big-wave surfer. He dislikes crowds, contests, towsurfing and the intrusion of greed and materialism into the world of surfing.  Despite that, he has been invited to several international big-wave events, including the Big Wave Africa contest at Dungeons and being pre-selected for the Eddie Aikau.  He has also appeared in several UK and international television documentaries on big-wave surfing.

He lives most of the year in a forgotten corner of Northwest Spain, where he has recently been pioneering a couple of new big-wave spots. He makes one long-haul flight a year, to spend the southern winter in Cape Town, South Africa.