We love our homes and that includes our respective coastlines and home surf breaks. But from an objective perspective let’s look at which coast of the US, the East or West, is better for surfing.
When you consider swell windows, wave size, and surf break types it’s easy to say that the West coast has better surf than the East Coast. However, the East Coast has its own surfing merits which include smaller crowds and warmer water in the summer.
Let’s examine what makes for the best surfing conditions on the East Coast and the West Coast of the US and answer once and for all (until the next time this conversation comes up), “Is Surfing Better On The West Or East Coast”?
Is Surfing Better On The West Coast Or The East Coast?
Let’s take a look at the factors at a high level that determine which coast has the better surf.
|West Coast||East Coast|
|Swell Window||The easy winner.||The easy loser.|
|Seasonality||Summer, winter & fall are great. Spring, well, not so much.||Winter is cold and good. Summer is hot and flat. Fall is hurricane season.|
|Beach Breaks & Point Breaks||Has both.||Beach breaks and shifting sands all day long.|
|Crowds||Don’t even start.||Manageable, especially in the winter.|
|Water Temperature||From very cold to sometimes the average joe will trunk it.||Winter is terribly cold. Summer is sweltering.|
|Wave Size||From knee-high to double overhead and bigger at some spots.||From flat to overhead.|
|Wave Quality||Depends on the season and the surf break.||Just wait for the offshores when the hurricane passes.|
Hands down, the Pacific Ocean provides a bigger swell window compared to the Atlantic Ocean. You can legitimately surf every day, all year long on the West Coast.
There will be a few days that you will need to break out the “small wave gear” to catch a wave, but generally, there is something to surf just about any day of the week throughout the year.
Swells show up for days on end and when one swell is ending another one is frequently beginning.
The Atlantic on the other hand has much smaller swell windows and much longer lulls between swells, like week-long lulls at times. If you want to hedge your bet to see the biggest lake in the world, just go to New Jersey in July. It will be hot, humid and just about nothing to surf. This brings us to seasonality…
Seasonality of Surfing Conditions
Overall, we need to give seasonality to the West Coast. Here’s why we think the West Coast has better waves than the East Coast when it comes to seasonality.
- Summer – The south swells are dominant. You may need to drive to get to it, but you will find head-high waves on the weekly.
- Fall – Just about anywhere is good on the West Coast during the fall. The great white sharks are back, too.
- Winter – The crowds thin out (a little) and the big wave spots start to activate.
- Spring – The wind picks up by 11 am but you can still find a good wave in the morning and sometimes before dark.
- Summer – It’s hot, humid and you need a big surfboard.
- Fall – This is the best season by far on the East Coast. Lifeguards and tourists go home and you can surf anywhere. The water is warm and the waves are good. If you were good all year, Santa may bring you an early Christmas present in the form of hurricane surf.
- Winter – You will be cold. The water can be warmer than the air. You may wonder what possessed you to put on a 6mm wetsuit, boots, gloves, and Vaseline on your face. The confusion is replaced by joy when you can paddle out and sit on the peak all by yourself.
- Spring – The water is still cold and it is windy. Summer is looking good at this point.
Continental Shelf & Continental Slope
If you look at the bathymetry of both the East and West Coasts you will notice that the West Coast has an abrupt and steep Continental Slope that meets a very short Continental Shelf. This means that much of the wave energy that is created in the Pacific Ocean ends up reaching the shoreline.
Whereas the opposite is true of the Atlantic Ocean which has a relatively short Continental Slope that meets an elongated Continental shelf which results in less wave energy making it to shore. That means fewer waves and smaller surf for the East Coast.
Winner: The West Coast.
If you have ever watched the weather report, you noticed that prevailing winds travel from west to east. When there are massive fires on the West Coast residents on the east coast report that they can see the result in their skies. The opposite is not true.
As you may know, when the wind blows across a body of water it starts to pick up the water and creates little waves. This is called fetch. As the fetch gets bigger it turned into swells. This swell travels across the water until it reaches a stationary object (read: coastline) and results in waves.
This means that prevailing winds on the West Coast are pushing waves to the West Coast shoreline. This also means that those same prevailing winds that travel across the continent are pushing the Atlantic Ocean’s water offshore and combatting any swell that is incoming towards the East Coast.
The prevailing winds make for better waves on the West Coast.
The Pacific vs The Atlantic Oceans
The Pacific is a reported 64 million square miles. It is the world’s largest ocean and covers about one-third of the surface of the Earth.
The Atlantic is about 30% smaller than the Pacific with 41 million square miles. It covers about 20% of the Earth’s surface.
There is more going on in a bigger ocean that generates more surf.
Winner: The West Coast.
Surfing Beach Breaks vs Point Breaks
Beach breaks are made of sand and shift around with tides, storms, and currents. The waves that break at these surf spots can also change quite a bit due to the shifting sand. This is life on the East Coast.
Point breaks are created by a solid bottom, be it rock or reef. They are more predictable surf-wise than beach breaks because the bottom doesn’t change all that much. The West Coast has both beach breaks and point breaks.
Winner for better surf and variety of waves: West Coast.
This is where the East Coast shines. The fewer waves on the East Coast and the harsher temperatures result in fewer surfers. You can easily find a peak to surf for you and your buddies just about any time of year.
The West Coast on the other hand has surf breaks that typically have 100 of your closest friends every day of the week on them.
Winner for less surf crowds: East Coast.
Water Temperature & Neoprene
The East Coast can be very cold in the Winter and requires a thick wetsuit but can also feel like a bathtub in the Summer. You can frequently surf in just board shorts up through early Fall.
The West Coast has a small window in the Summer that allows for wearing board shorts comfortably, but generally, you are wearing a full wetsuit for most of the year.
With both coasts, the further north you go the more neoprene you need to wear.
Winner: With the right gear, you can surf just about any temperature on either coast just fine.
Which Coast Gets Bigger Waves? The West Or The East Coast?
The reason you never hear the phrase “Mavericks of the East” is because the East Coast doesn’t have one.
The West Coast has Mavericks and Ocean Beach in San Francisco. There are also big wave spots further up the West Coast and some in Southern California.
The East Coast doesn’t have big wave spots. Overhead is a big swell on the East Coast and double-overhead is rare and rarely good.
Winner of the bigger wave award goes to: The West Coast
Which Coast Has Better Quality Waves
This can be a toss-up. There are some good, good waves on the East Coast. They just come in smaller batches than on the West Coast.
The West also has good, good waves and more waves which means you are more likely to actually get a good wave.
If we had to go with quality, just 100% quality and no other factors, we would have to give it to the West Coast. There is just more power on average with the waves on the West Coast than the East Coast. Power brings speed and speed allows you to make turns when you surf.
Winner: The West Coast (Sorry East Coast)
There you have it: The-East-Coast-West-Coast-best-surfing showdown. When it comes right down to it, the best wave is where you are. From knee-high to double overhead and bigger, all waves are fun. Go find a bump and ride it.