For the non-surfer, one wave is pretty much the same as another. For a surfer, there are a huge range of waves, and conditions, that affect the quality of a surf session. From here, you can find out about how the surf arrives at your local break, the factors that affect the size and quality of the surf, and all the relevant terminology. (So that at least you can sound like you know what you are talking about.)
Well, take a look at the wave at the top of the page. This image has all the characteristics that any surfer would desire. It's too big and powerful for a novice, but it's features are still desirable.
The surface of the water is nice and smooth, referred to as glassy. There is some spray coming off the top of the lip, so there is a light offshore wind. The wave is breaking in one direction, not folding over in different places along it's length.
The ideal size is purely subjective. Something that's enticing for a beginner will not be so for an advanced surfer. A beginner will look for a smaller one that breaks slowly, and is not too powerful. An advanced surfer will look for a larger, faster, more powerful, preferable hollow a-frame. (See surfer lingo to clarify.)
It's important that the wave starts breaks continuously from one position and peels along its length without other sections breaking. This lets a surfer ride along the unbroken face. A video is probably the best way to see this peeling process.
Here's an image of something that you would not want to surf on. Compare it to the image at the top of the page, it's easy to tell the difference.
There's loads more to learn, and the following articles will help broaden your knowledge.
There are several different types of waves. Find out about the types, learn your lefts from your rights, and what offshore means.
There are a number of factors that influence how waves break. Learn why and how waves break making them rideable for surfers.
Whether swell that is coming in will be surfable depends on several local factors. If you know your surf spot geography and the local weather and tides, you can be at the beach when the best waves are breaking.
All about how the wind generates swell and how the size of the resulting waves is affected by wind speed, duration and fetch.
The best conditions for surfing are dependent on the size of an onion. Confused? Read on and improve your surf forecasting skills.
Take a look at some of the terms that are used to describe wave heights and quality. You'll soon understand when you hear a surfer talk about closeouts, groundswell and corduroy.