The wind and swell have a big impact on the quality of the surf, and the same is true for the bathymetry. But tides also play a role, although it’s a role that’s often overlooked by surfers.
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What Are Tides?
A tide describes the alternate rising and falling of the sea in response to forces exerted by the sun and moon. They begin in the ocean and push toward the coast and they occur twice per lunar day.
How Does the Moon Affect Ocean Tides?
The moon creates a gravitation pull that generates tidal force, causing the waters to bulge on the sides that are nearest to and furthest away from the moon.
These are the high tides, and as the earth rotates, each part of the world will even be subjected to one of these high tides or to a low tide, which occurs in areas that are not bulging.
How Does the Sun Affect Ocean Tides?
The sun also creates tidal force. Its mass is much greater than that of the moon and so its relative force is also greater. However, the sun is around 390 times further away, so the actual force is much smaller.
The sun has about half the tidal force of the moon.
What Are the Types of Tides?
There are several types of tides that surfers should be aware of. Some of these are actual tide types while others describe a phenomenon:
Low tide occurs when the water retracts back into the ocean. It is the lowest level of tide.
High tide is when the water reaches its highest point, also known as “high water”.
During the full moon and new moon, the earth, sun, and moon are in perfect alignment and this creates the biggest difference between high ride and low ride. It occurs twice per month.
A tide that occurs once per day, with one low tide and one high tide. Diurnal tides occur as a result of great interference by continents and they are seen in the Gulf of Mexico.
A tide that occurs twice per day, with two low tides and two high tides. These tides can be seen across the eastern United States.
A mixed tide is when the tides don’t alternate as they do elsewhere, such as a couple of high tides that follow a low tide.
Neap tides are when we notice the smallest difference between high tide and low tide.
A phenomenon that occurs when the edge of an incoming tide creates a wave that travels through a narrow bay or river, going against the usual current.
It is also known as “tidal bore”.
Also known as “harmful algal blooms”, a red tide is caused by toxic algae growth and can cause serious harm to fish, seabirds, marine mammals, and even humans.
Another type of algal bloom that turns the water brown. Unlike a red tide, however, a brown tide is not harmful to humans.
Surfing Different Types of Waves
The tide can affect the size of the waves and swell, dictating how big those breaking waves will be.
If the tide is very low, it could drain the swell. If it’s too high, it could swamp the spot and make the waves mushy.
The following will give you an idea of how surfers can utilize changing tides:
Surfing an Incoming Tide
You can’t beat the joys of riding an incoming tide as the sun comes up. There are other factors to consider, including the wind and swell, but generally, an incoming tide will produce the best waves.
Surfing an Outgoing Tide
You may catch an outgoing tide later in the day, potentially exposing a reef break or a sandbar. It could make for some good evening or twilight surfing.
Surfing a Low Tide
Although low tide surfing offers some great opportunities, it can mean shallow surfing, which is risky over hard bottoms.
Surfing a High Tide
Waves are more likely to turn choppy, making it difficult to find the perfect surf conditions. That’s not to say that it will be a complete wash out, though. You should find some good waves; they just won’t be as common.
What is the Best Tide for Surfing?
The best tide type will depend on the surf spot, but usually, an hour or two after low tide is best.
How to Read a Tide Table
Understanding how to read a tide table will give you some insights into the perfect tide conditions at your local surf spot.
A tide chart or tide table predicts the time of high tide and low tide, as well as the height of those tides. If you check the NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services here, you’ll find tide predictions for more than 3,000 locations nationwide.
To read a tide table, simply click the link above and search for the station nearest to your location. This will tell you what you need to know, with reference to time, tide, and water levels.
You can also check local marinas, hardware stores, bait shops, visitor centers, and other such locations for a tide table booklet.
FAQs About Tides and Surfing
If you still have a few questions about high tide, low tide, outgoing tide, incoming tide, and how all of these things effect the surf, check out the following FAQs:
Does Low Tide Mean Bigger Waves?
The best waves usually occur shortly after low tide, but it will depend on your local surf spot.
Are Waves Bigger On An Incoming Tide?
Yes, an incoming tide typically produces the best waves.
What is a Neap tide?
A neap tide is when there is the least difference between low and high tide. These tides occur when the moon and sun are at right angles to one another.
What is a Spring Tide?
A spring tide occurs when the moon, earth, and sun are in perfect alignment, creating bigger differences between the low and high tide.
A spring tide is so-named because the tide “springs” forth. It does not reference the season and occurs throughout the year.
What is a Crimson Tide?
Crimson tide has nothing to do with tidal forces, but it is an impressive footballing force.
Crimson tide is the nickname of the Alabama college football team, one of the best college football teams in the US.
The name is said to have first been used in 1907. Alabama, known as “The Thin Red Line” or “Crimson White” due to its school colors, was a heavy underdog against Auburn but managed to tie the game 6-6.
Hugh Roberts, a sports editor for the Birmingham Age-Herald, reported on the game and referenced the “Crimson Tide”. It was later popularized by Zipp Newman, a sports editor for Birmingham News.