To non-surfers, there are two kinds of waves: big ones and small ones. But there’s a little bit more that determines if a wave is big or small.

“Basically, wind makes the waves,” said Ron Aromando, who owns Kennebunk Outdoor Surf and Skate with his wife, Lorraine. Ron runs the store while his wife is the primary surfing instructor. In his 33 years of surfing, he’s learned a few things about waves.

“Wind generates the swells — it’s almost that simple,” he said.

He’s talking about two types: groundswell and windswell. Windswell is created locally by the winds. These are small waves and often called chop. Ron said “most of the time they come right on top of each other.”

Groundswell is created by winds and storms farther out to sea. As wind pushes these waves, they build up size. The greater the distance they travel, the bigger they get.

As they travel, groundswell waves tend to group into sets. The waves hit the beach in patterns. They can come in sets of two to 10, usually four or five.

California gets better surfing waves than Maine because the jetstream carries storms across the Pacific Ocean. It brings great waves to the West Coast. But here in Maine, most storms come from the west — across land — and out to sea. Unless we get a hurricane or nor’easter traveling up the coast, we don’t have an opportunity for great surfing waves.

The direction the beach faces also is a factor. If it faces the same way the wind is headed, it’s going to allow waves to break in more shallow water.

Let’s look at it this way. Say it’s a north wind. That means the wind blows from the north toward the south. And it’s blowing from a south-facing beach, such as Higgins Beach in Scarborough. The waves are coming into the wind that is supporting them a little. That means they last longer in shallow water.

Primarily what makes the waves break is the ocean floor. That break is a sign that the water at the top is traveling faster than the water below the surface. It slows down because that below-surface water starts to drag along the bottom as it approaches the beach.

The wave will break when the depth (from water surface to ocean bottom) is half the wave height (from water surface to top of the wave). The closer to shore the wave breaks, the longer the ride for the surfer.

So when the bottom slopes gradually — Ron calls this “slopey” — toward shore, waves will break in deeper water and lose power.

“Waves tend to crumble and be gentle,” he said, which isn’t such a bad thing if you’re a beginner or just like it like that.

But when waves approach a beach that suddenly gets shallow, the fast moving water breaks closer to shore. The top quickly overtakes the bottom and rolls forward. This wave is steep and hollow, which creates that tube of water that symbolizes a great surfing wave.

How much the tide matters depends on how you look at it. Technically, the tide has nothing to do with waves. But Ron said you get “little more push with incoming and higher tides (But) tides matter most at the steep beach.”

If the ocean floor becomes suddenly shallow close to shore in low tide, that change will be farther from shore when high tide brings more water to shore. That beach can become slopey at high tide.

But which waves should you be surfing. Ron said beginners need to start on little waves. It’s like skiing the bunny slopes when you start skiing. But while skiers graduate to moderate slopes soon, Ron said surfers need to be more patient.

That’s because surfing has the slower learning cove. Conditions vary so widely on the water. It’s hard to get consistent practice. sticking to the beginner waves, you get more exposure to different situations.

Of course, you’re going to want to challenge yourself, try something bigger. How else do you become a better surfer?

“I rather see someone go out on a bigger day if they’re a good swimmer rather than a good surfer,” said Ron. He means sooner or later you’re going to have to swim. And good swimmers will have a better chance of making it to shore.

“Also, you need to not panic,” he said. To get past the panic, “you need to be out there without your board.”

One last warning. You need to be careful about getting surfer’s ear. That’s when continued exposure to cold wind and water causes the bone surrounding the ear canal to develop new, bony growth. This growth accumulates and can cause a loss of hearing.

The best preventative measures are ear plugs or a neoprene hood. Ron prefers the hood because it protects more than his ears.

Carl Natale is a Registered Maine Sea Kayak Guide and freelance writer. You can read more about his adventures at and send questions to:

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