Canopy-forming macroalgae are key species on temperate rocky shores. However, there is a lack of understanding of how the relative balance of physical and biological factors controls the establishment and persistence of intertidal macroalgae. Here we present an integrated study of the relative importance of wave-induced forces and grazing for the recruitment and survival of the canopy-forming intertidal macroalgae Fucus vesiculosus and F. spiralis. A set of overtopped breakwaters provided a nearly unconfounded gradient in wave exposure between seaward and landward sides. A biomechanical analysis was performed based on empirical measurements of maximum drag forces in breaking waves, a model of long-term maximum wave height, and the breaking stress of Fucus spp. The estimated maximum flow speed (7-8 m/s) on the seaward side of the breakwaters was predicted to completely dislodge or prune Fucus spp. larger than approximately 10 cm, while dislodgment was highly unlikely on the landward side for all sizes. Experimental transplantation of Fucus spp. supported the biomechanical analysis but also suggested that mechanical abrasion may further limit survival in wave-exposed locations. Experimental removal of the limpet Patella vulgata, which was the principal grazer at this site, resulted in recruitment of Fucus spp. on the seaward side. We present a model of limpet grazing that indicates that limpet densities >5-20 individuals/m2 provide a proximate mechanism preventing establishment of Fucus spp., whereas wave action >2 m/s reduces persistence through dislodgment and battering. In a conceptual model we further propose that recruitment and survival of juvenile Fucus spp. are controlled indirectly by wave exposure through higher limpet densities at exposed locations. This model predicts that climate change, and in particular an increased frequency of storm events in the northeast Atlantic, will restrict fucoids to more sheltered locations.