Tokyo 2020: Surf Physics

A surfer crouched on his board in the curl of a breaking wave.

Surfing is making its Olympic debut this year with a shortboard competition held at Shidashita Beach, with the event’s timing determined by weather and wave quality. The fluid dynamics involved in surfing could easily fill their own series of posts, so we’ll just scratch the surface here. Check out the video embedded below for a nice overview.

We sometimes think of waves as enormous walls of water moving on the ocean, but the truth is that individual water particles move very little when a wave passes. Instead waves are a method of transferring energy through the water, and surfers harness this energy while negotiating a delicate balance of forces between gravity, buoyancy, and hydrodynamics.

So how do surfers catch a wave? After all, anyone who’s been to the beach or in a wave pool knows that waves can easily pass without carrying you along with them. To ride a wave, surfers orient themselves in the direction the wave is traveling, then they paddle to bring their velocity close that of the incoming wave. Their surfboard helps by providing a large surface for the water to push, accelerating the surfer as the wave approaches. The longer and larger a surfboard is, the less speed the surfer themself has to provide. This is one reason it’s easier to catch a wave on a longboard than on a shortboard. But shortboards — like those used by competitors in the Tokyo Olympics — are far more maneuverable, allowing surfers more freedom in the moves they choose to make as they ride. (Image credit: B. Selway; video credit: TED-Ed; see also M. Grissom and Science Connected)

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