Exposed sandy coasts are predominantly physically controlled environments where benthic communities are structured by the independent response of species to the physical environment, with minimal biological interactions (swash exclusion hypothesis). This prevalence of physical control may be regarded as a typical property of exposed coastal areas. In an offshore direction, the importance of wave effects on the benthos will diminish until a depth is reached where they are no longer significant [wave exclusion hypothesis (WEH)]. This loss of a coastal property may be used to define an offshore depth limit of the coastal zone. We used a large set of benthos data from the SE North Sea to test whether an offshore limit of the coast can be clearly recognised despite strong small-scale variability and how this limit would vary seasonally and from year to year. In accordance with WEH, both species density and total abundance of macrobenthos were low in the surf zone, strongly increased with depth, and averaged over all sampling dates became relatively constant below 30 m depth. Seasonally, these gradients were weaker during summer recruitment than during autumn. Species richness, by contrast, showed no significant difference with depth. In single years, the depth of the turning point from increasing abundances to constant abundances varied between 20 and 31 m (equivalent to 40–80 km off the coastline) depending on wave height. We conclude that this zone can be derived from benthic community gradients.