A Guide to Surfing on the Gold Coast, Australia
The Gold Coast really is a surfer’s paradise and while you’d think that the most likely place on the coast to have the best surf would be the place named Surfers Paradise, surfing on the Gold Coast really has its home further down the coast with the legendary point breaks at Burleigh, Currumbin, Kirra, and Snapper Rocks, a National Surfing Reserve.
When I was in my early twenties, I lived and surfed on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, just north of Brisbane. But when the big swells were approaching, a group of us would jump in the biggest car we had between us and head down to the Gold Coast around midnight to be ensure we were at Kirra or Snapper Rocks before dawn.
While Noosa, at the top end of the Sunshine Coast, also had great waves in these conditions, there were more options on the Gold Coast. I can still remember the excitement of being able to see the first set roll though and everyone scramble — pulling surfboards out, waxing them down, gulping down coffee from a thermos, and eating bananas for energy for the next few hours.
We’d often stay for the duration of the swell, surfing until we could barely paddle any more. We’d grab a quick lunch, and then wait to see whether we should make the drive to TOS (see below) or head around to D-Bah for our afternoon surf. Salty, sunburnt and sated, we’d drive back up to the Sunshine Coast — until the next big swells came.
Surfing a solid swell on the Gold Coast should be on every surfer’s bucket list.
Our Guide to Surfing on the Gold Coast, Australia
What Makes Surfing on the Gold Coast so Special
In a nutshell: year-round, warm clear water, consistent surf, well-patrolled beaches (35 beaches are patrolled all year) and those phenomenal point breaks. With over 50kms of beaches, it’s pretty rare that you can’t pick up a wave somewhere on the Gold Coast, even if it means taking out a longboard to surf one-foot waves (like in the photo above, taken at Burleigh). They’re just some of the reasons there are more active surfers per capita on the Gold Coast than any other place on earth.
When Should You Go Surfing on the Gold Coast
The Gold Coast — particularly the point breaks — love a good groundswell and these generally hit the Gold Coast between November and July, with the best period around February to March, the Australian summer. During summer the winds tend to turn onshore in the afternoon, but if there’s swell around there are a couple of places that are perfect in the northerly winds that make the point break waves crumble.
What Surfing Gear Should You Take to the Gold Coast
If you’re a frequent surfer, take your normal shortboard or longboard. In between those groundswell days you might want something a little shorter and wider like The Joyride by DHD surfboards. For most of the year, board shorts for boys and bikinis for girls is the surfing uniform of choice on the Gold Coast, but during the colder months in the middle of the year you will be more comfortable in a wetsuit and most locals opt for a springsuit, a short-sleeved, short-armed wetsuit. If you’re taking surfing classes in winter, the school will provide them.
Where to Go Surfing on the Gold Coast
Generally speaking, it’s all about the point breaks but these can be insanely crowded with mid-level and above surfers, many of them visiting from Brazil or Japan. Given how many people can be out at the point breaks on a good day, the chances of a beginner getting a wave are slim so the learners (and those who dislike crowds) stick to the beach breaks.
Best Beach Breaks on the Gold Coast
The great thing about the beach breaks on the Gold Coast is that there is a lot of coastline. Most stretches can have great waves on their day and the crowds will generally be thin. Here are the spots I loved to check out when I used to go surfing on the Gold Coast:
South Stradbroke Island
There was a time when even mentioning the location of the surfing break known as TOS (The Other Side) or ‘South Straddie’ would get you into trouble, but these days the break is an open secret even promoted by the tourism bodies. On the southern tip of South Stradbroke Island, this consistent break came into being with the creation of the Southport Seaway to help the fishing boats make safe passage out to sea. What it created was consistent sandbanks perfect for turning ocean groundswells into perfect hollow waves and when the winds are onshore along the rest of the coast it’s perfectly offshore here. It’s not for beginners and there’s the caveat that it’s a 300m paddle across from the Gold Coast that involves dodging boats and local ‘wildlife’. These days, however, you can catch a ferry across.
There’s a reason that nearly every regional surfing contest I went to met in the carpark here at the other end of the Gold Coast, the first beach over the border in New South Wales — consistency. Just like South Straddie, when the winds are no good for the point breaks, Duranbah (or, the locals call it, ‘D-Bah’) offers great, punchy, often hollow, left and right breaking waves. It’s a real surfing playground to try all your tricks.
Other Gold Coast Beach Breaks
The other beach breaks pretty much face the same direction as each other, meaning that conditions will be generally similar along the coast when it comes to swell and wind directions. While you can luck out anywhere, the best beaches to check are The Spit, Main Beach, Narrowneck, Palm Beach, Mermaid Beach, and Tugan.
Best Point Breaks on the Gold Coast
The jewels of the Gold Coast surfing scene, the right hand point breaks — meaning that the waves break from right to left — are some of the most consistent in the world. While most offer several different sections of waves where surfers sit depending on ability, on perfect days waves can break through all the sections, enabling thigh-busting rides of up to a kilometre. Those kinds of days are why the Gold Coast has such a fantastic reputation as a surfing destination.
Once considered the best point on the coast, it’s now considered second to the Superbank (see below). This is a good thing for Burleigh, as the visiting crowds tend to stay more towards Coolangatta. Like the Superbank, the beginning of the wave is the most dangerous — very fast and hollow — and most suited to experienced surfers. The wave eventually gets more approachable as it peels off down the point towards the main beach of Burleigh where many beginners try their luck. It’s a personal favourite as it’s in a beautiful National Park and Burleigh has become one of the most coolest suburbs on the Gold Coast. It’s where we’ll be settling in on our next Gold Coast trip.
The most welcoming of the point breaks, ‘The Alley’ features the broadest range of surf-craft you’ll see: surf-skis, longboards, beginners on foam boards, and fishing boats. Canny local surfers who know that the place can produce world-class waves in the right conditions always keep an eye on it. Just like the other points, though, the closer you are to the beginning of the wave, the harder it is to ride. In huge groundswells, The Alley can be the pick of the breaks when surfers are assisted out to the break and onto the waves with jet-skis. Definitely for experienced surfers only then.
What was once my favourite wave on the Gold Coast is now a shadow of its former self, sadly. Due to the controversial sand-pumping at the southern end of the Gold Coast the sand that lined the point has now gone, ruining the break, but ironically creating the Gold Coast’s best ‘new’ wave, the Superbank. The old Kirra was the most perfect wave I’ve seen anywhere in the world; a sand-sucking, grinding, hollow wave that after a wipeout had you cleaning sand out of every orifice for a week — and enjoying every memory of the wave that did it. Like an ageing opera singer, occasionally the old girl gets a chance to take the stage in a huge swell, reminding us of why she was so memorable to begin with — like this day.
The break that has become known as the Superbank gets its name and reputation from when a good groundswell hits and you can ride one wave through the three breaks: Snapper Rocks, Rainbow Bay and Greenmount. Under the right conditions it’s a freak of nature, starting with surfers getting to their feet behind the rocks at Snapper, riding through the barrel and navigating the backwash from the rocks, setting up a long barrel through Rainbow Bay, then setting up for another for Greenmount, all the while getting the evil eye by the hundreds of other surfers wishing you’d fall off so they could get a wave. Just watch this clip of local, three-time world champion Mick Fanning demonstrate this kind of ride.
Home to the annual Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, it’s the first stop on both the Men’s and Women’s surfing world tour. It’s also arguably the world’s most crowded wave and definitely not a good place to learn to surf.
Where to Learn to Surf on the Gold Coast
There are dozens of surf schools on the Gold Coast and the best place to look for one near where you’re staying is on the Surfing Australia website listing all of QLD’s surf schools. I haven’t tested out a surf school since Costa Rica in 2010 so I have no personal recommendations, however, Gold Coast Surf Schools have a good reputation. If you’ve learnt to surf on the Gold Coast and can recommend schools, feel free to leave tips in the comments below.
Safety Tips for Surfing on the Gold Coast
One of the reasons surfing on the Gold Coast is so great is because it’s a very safe place to surf. However, it’s still best to know the potential hazards before entering the water.
- If you haven’t surfed before, go to a surfing school and get lessons. Qualified instructors know the conditions, the use of ‘soft’ surfboards, and the safety lessons you will get from experienced local surfers are invaluable.
- Read the conditions and know your limits. When the surf is big, there will be a rip current somewhere in between where the waves are breaking along the beach. Experienced surfers know how to use these currents, inexperienced surfers often panic when caught in one.
- If the point breaks are pumping and you’re an inexperienced surfer, go somewhere else or just watch from the beach. At Snapper Rocks, with a hundred plus hungry surf nuts who live for these conditions, you are not going to get a wave. In fact, if you’re further in along the break you’ll be lucky to see a wave without a pro surfer on it.
- Never drop-in on another surfer here (or anywhere) or get in their way. If someone’s already riding a wave, it’s theirs. It’s frustrating, but if it’s that crowded, go to another beach.
- Sun protection is vital. The Gold Coast has glorious long hot summer days and when you’re out in the water it’s hard to know if you’re getting sunburnt. Wear SPF30 or higher sunscreen that’s water resistant and those ‘rash vests’ surfers wear have good UV protection.
- Be aware of the marine life. While the northern New South Wales coast has had a spate of shark attacks, the Gold Coast is very safe. There hasn’t been one fatal attack on a beach with shark control equipment in use. Far more common, particularly during summer, are the annoying ‘bluebottles’ (Portuguese man o’ war or Physalia physalis). Similar to but not a jellyfish, these blue-bodies beasts deliver a pretty painful sting from their tentacles. On a breezy summer’s afternoon you’re far better off having fish and chips and a cold beer on the headland than risk a nasty (but rarely serious) sting.