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How Sea State Conditions are Described by the NWS

By Troy Nicolini
The National Weather Service office in Eureka has been using a new wave terminology in the Coastal Waters Forecast. We’ve heard both positive and negative comments and we are using all the feedback we get to continually improve how we serve our marine customers. This article will address some of this feedback but first, here is the official description of our new wave terminology:

Cape Mendocino, wind waves, National Weather Service, Photo by Casey Allen,
The waters off Cape Mendocino are subject to rapid changes including wind waves that can be steep and difficult to master. Photo by Casey Allen

Sea state will be described by providing a total wave height, called “seas”, along with additional detailed wave information when it is useful for the mariner. The amount of detailed wave information provided will depend on the conditions. For example, when there is only a single wave, then that wave’s direction, height and interval will be given. For example:


When there are two distinct waves – one of which may be a wind wave - then the total wave height will still be given, but the two waves that make up that sea state will also be described. For example:


Most of the negative comments have focused on the fact that we don’t include a “wind wave” in the forecast anymore, and this worries boaters because wind waves are very steep and therefore dangerous. While it’s true that you won’t see the term “wind wave” in our forecast, we will still tell you about those same waves - when we can. At the same time, however, there are times when we will not try to include information about waves that would traditionally be known as “wind waves.” To explain the reasoning behind this requires a little background on how wind waves are created.

Wind waves are generated when the wind blows strong enough and over a large enough area of the ocean for a long enough time. When those things happen then we can and will forecast a wind wave, and we will tell you more about it than we did in the past. We will put it in the forecast after the word “including”. As in the example above, we might say “…including NW 5 feet at 4 seconds”. We will give you the interval between the waves to let you know that it is steep. Just remember that if the interval is less than 5 seconds - or is lower than the wave’s height - then we’re talking about a wave that is steep like a wind wave (this rule applies until you get to very long interval waves). For example, in the case above the 4 second interval is smaller than the wave’s 5 foot height so this wave is steep like a wind wave. We’re also giving you the direction now so you can know how this wave might impact your desired heading. So to summarize, in the past we would have said “wind waves 5 feet”. We are now telling you “NW 5 feet at 4 seconds”.

We aren’t calling this wave a “wind wave” anymore because of how fast things can change in the ocean. For example, the strong wind that blows over a lot of ocean for a long time to grow that 5 foot wave might die down 10 nautical miles from the coast. There is still a very steep 5 foot wave but the wind might drop to less than 5 knots. Technically that wave has just become a young swell because it is no longer a wind wave. It’s practically impossible for us to tell you when a wave is a wind wave and when it becomes a swell but fortunately we can easily tell you that the wave is still the same NW 5 foot at 4 seconds. And at the end of the day, it’s a wave’s direction, height, and interval that impact your boat, not what it’s called.

There are situations, however, where we won’t try to tell you about a wind wave. These are when the wind is light, or changes its speed or direction through the day, or doesn’t blow over very much ocean. In these cases we can’t accurately forecast a wind wave, but fortunately the reason we can’t is that they are small. We have never really been able to accurately forecast wind waves in these situations and have been using very crude rules of thumb to give a wind wave height during these situations. By the way, these crude rules of thumb typically over- estimated the height of the wind waves for these situations, which you probably attributed to an inaccurate forecast.

If you want to know what the surface of the water is going to look like for those situations when we can’t forecast an actual wind wave, remember these basic guidelines:

When the wind is less than 10 knots, expect wind chop,

When the wind is between 10 and 20 knots, expect increasing amounts of white caps

When the wind is between 20 and 30 knots, expect increasing amounts of streaking white caps.

When the wind is above 30 knots, expect spindrift (this is when the white caps blow into the air).

And remember that these apply even when the wind doesn’t blow long enough or over enough ocean, to create a big wind wave. Just picture 20 knots of wind over a small bay. There are still lots of white caps but the waves are small because the wind is only blowing over the small area of the bay.

Our commitment to you with this new terminology is to give you an honest forecast where we tell you what we know, but we don’t try to tell you something we don’t know. At the same time, we are allowing our forecasters to spend their time on a more accurate total forecast instead of using their time trying to make up a wind wave for those situations where we really are not able to do so.

We’ll be honest with you: We knew we were asking a lot of folks to let go of the terms “wind wave” and “swell” because of the years of tradition associated with those words. We are encouraged, however, by another case where a terminology change occurred in spite of tradition. For many years the port side of a vessel was called the “larboard” side. You can imagine how often there was confusion when these terms were called out on a windy day. In the end, “larboard” was changed to “port” and communications on deck have been clearer ever since. Please give this new forecast a chance. Compare this new forecast to what you see on the ocean. We sincerely believe that you will find that we are doing a better job using this new terminology, and that we can communicate more clearly with you.

For more information or to provide feedback, go to or call me any time at 707-496-5959

[Troy Nicolini is with the National Weather Service in Eureka. This article was published originally in the Humboldt Area Saltwater Anglers Newsletter. Each issue of the HASA Newsletter contains many articles of great value to mariners and those who plan to fish the waters off the north coast of California. MyOutdoorBuddy encourages all readers who plan to boat or fish in this area to become members of HASA. All HASA members receive timely updates on all club and committee functions including the quarterly e-newsletter. Premium members without e-mail are sent a hard copy of the newsletter. All HASA members are also invited to the Humboldt Tuna Club potlucks, which is a great place to meet your fellow saltwater anglers. More information about HASA is available at or by writing to HASA, P.O. BOX 6191 Eureka, CA. 95502

[Editor's Note: Please share with our readers what you know that will enhance the experience of fishing and boating in Northern California or Southern Oregon. What have you learned? Your experience, no matter where you fish or boat (fresh or saltwater) could be invaluable to other anglers. What not to do is just as important as what to do. Please send your strategies, ideas, tips, techniques and personal experiences to Please include your name and hometown.]

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