Los Angeles Times

Surf the Web, then hang ten

The perfect wave.

It's the ideal surfers have been searching for since man first put board to water centuries ago. It's the genesis of chaotic elements, a rare alignment of natural phenomena that for lucky wave riders present at just the right moment means one thing -- surf ecstasy.

The fantasy conjures images of crystalline water, empty beaches and corduroy lines of swell, but the perfect wave isn't found only in far-off, exotic places. It can happen right here in Florida. You just have to know when to look.

Deciphering Mother Nature's code -- that's the hard part.

We call it "surf forecasting." And while it's not string theory, there are a few tricks of the trade. You don't need a crystal ball to predict waves, or some mystical old-man-of-the-sea insight to figure it out, just a computer -- and some advice from the experts.

A surfing weatherman speaks

"The position of a low-pressure center in relation to the beach is the key," says veteran Florida forecaster Bob Freeman.

And he should know. This Cocoa Beach surfer has been watching the weather for signs of surf since 1967, when he started feeding radio station WKKO AM with daily reports from his work post on the Canaveral Pier.

"At that time, WKKO would have an afternoon surf report right after school. I would sit there on a stool, look over the water and give the report."

Back then, he remembers, the best source of information "was pretty much just the local TV news station. They would show lows [pressure systems] moving down or they'd show where they thought a hurricane was at the moment. But that's all the info we had."

The information age changes everything

Things have changed a lot since then. As the Internet blossomed, a floodgate of information useful for predicting surf broke open.

"When I wake up, No. 1 I look at the [coastal-surf] cams and get reports," says Surfline.com East Coast forecaster Mike Watson.

Armed with a master's degree in tropical meteorology from Florida State University, this Gulf Coast native provides daily surf reports and long-range forecasts for one of the most popular surf sites on the Web.

"I have a long laundry list of sites that I usually hit up," he explains. "From there, it's looking at the overall pattern . . . the big view of everything."

A relatively straightforward system

Both say the recipe for surf is simple.

Wind blowing over the ocean for an extended period produces swells. The stronger the wind, the bigger the swells. The longer that wind affects the water, the greater the power of the resulting swell. And when those open-ocean swells run into land, surf happens.

Predicting that event requires the right information, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers nearly everything you'll need to know. And it's all public domain and free. All you have to do is find it.

Here are three places to start.

Wave Watch 3: This well-established wave-prediction model offers color-coded maps showing estimated wave heights across the globe. It's the surfer's best blueprint for forecasting, useful for its depiction of where swells originate.

Numerous sites offer WW3 graphics, but my favorite is the Navy's North Atlantic WW3 Analysis (www.fnmoc.navy.mil/PUBLIC/WAM/all-natl.html), because it gives a big picture of what's happening in our local waters in 12-hour increments over a six-day period.

National Data Buoy Center (www.ndbc.noaa.gov/Maps/Flori da.shtml): These bobbing sensors are the surf forecaster's "ear to the ground."

Strategically placed buoys relay one-hour averages of swell heights, providing surfers with physical evidence of waves. They also show the period of the swell, the all-important factor that determines power. The greater the period, the stronger the waves will be when they reach shore.

Station 41009, anchored 20 nautical miles offshore from Cape Canaveral, is the tell-all buoy for Central Florida. Any readings greater than 10 feet and 10 seconds, and you should be heading for the beach.

NOAA Coastal Marine Forecast (www.nws.noaa.gov/om/ma rine/zone/south/mlbmz.htm): This site offers a forecast of wind strength and direction, giving surfers a preview of surface conditions five days in advance.

For a current picture of local winds, I check the National Weather Service's Area Weather Observations Page (www.srh.noaa.gov/mlb/currentweather.html), where you'll find hourly updates for locations up and down the coast.

With all this useful data floating around cyberspace, Net-savvy surfers should never arrive to a surprise -- theoretically. But never expect the ocean to act the same way twice. There's no substitute for experience. And luck.

"Even with all the models, sometimes you've gotta go with your gut," says Watson. "Nobody's going to hit it 100 percent of the time. It's impossible."

"Luck is having a day off," advises Freeman.

Amen to that.

Eric Michael can be reached at 407-420-5259.

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