Surfing uses all the human senses. If you’ve surfed the same reef breaks or jetty locations on a routine basis, you may have even come to learn the best times for surfing due to weather and tide patterns. However, that type of natural wave-reading skill takes years of outdoor rhythms and time on the water, and let’s face it, you’re not a dolphin, so you might miss the perfect surfing opportunity due to misreading the weather or ignoring the changes in barometric pressure.
Every surf destination is different. Some surf breaks can send heavy and powerful waves all day long, and some will only pump rideable waves for a short amount of time until the tide changes. Other surf breaks will remain good until an afternoon sea breeze brings in the chop making for sloppy but rideable conditions. But if you want that sweet spot when riding the perfect wave, you have to catch it when the tide is just right.
Well, which one is it? Low or high-tide? Is there a middle ground? It depends. Tide fluctuations occur due to the gravitational pull from the moon when it’s during certain stages. When the moon is at its fullest, oceanic tides tend to rise and fall more drastically. In some areas, tides can drop a few feet or hit drastic falls of up to 15-feet. Most shorelines will have light to moderate tide fluctuations and whether your local break is reef or sandbar, the tides may alter the type of waves.
Other factors such as wind, undertow currents, and barometer pressure will alter wave size, but as tides change, the rideability and condition of the waves may too.
If you’re wondering what a typical surf break will be like during certain tidal periods, below is a brief overview.
When you can see the barnacles and oysters on the pier pilings, you know it’s low tide. Most surf breaks are sand or reef bottom, and with shallow water breaks at low tide, you can usually expect deeper and wider barrels. Shallow surfing is risky, especially over a hard bottom, so experience and local knowledge are key.
On an incoming tide, waves tend to be the best depending on location. Waves may increase in speed and height as the tide rises. Hitting a rising tide at the right location and time could land you 2-3 hours of a solid swell. The middle tide is the sweet spot, and varying on location, the waves could remain near-perfect before reaching maximum high tide.
Like most good things, perfect wave conditions only last a short time. The tide will eventually hit its peak and once at the highest level during the day, the wave sets will likely mush-out and the waves will turn choppy. This isn’t to say you won’t have a fun time in the surf break and it may even be less crowded after the early birds head in for lunch. More than likely though, you’ll want to arrive on the rising tide for the prime wave conditions.
If you can catch an early morning incoming tide during ground or pre-storm swell, you’ll be. Nothing is better than watching the sunrise as the tide brings in a healthy and strengthened swell. If you’re surfing near a pass or inlet, keep in mind early morning can get sharky depending on the area, but with a lower chance for strong wind, and calm moving water, a rising morning tide is best for surfing glassy conditions.
Depending on the planetary position in accordance with the moon and sun, it could be hours before the tide switches. It’s common for the tide to start making its way back to sea around sundown. If you missed the early morning swell, waiting until the tide goes out at sunset can make for some memorable surf sessions. Depending on the surf spot, sunset surf sessions with an outgoing tide can expose a sandbar and or reef break. If the conditions aren’t too choppy, you could surf until nightfall on decent waves. Especially if it was a strong storm or groundswell.
The benefit of surfing an outgoing tide is that when waves push in on a rushing tide, on occasion it may create a standing wave. Depending on the break you’re surfing, for instance, if you’re surfing an inlet, waves pushing onto the coast with a ripping, outgoing tide can make waves stand just a bit longer than they normally would leaving an intricate wave to carve. Also, if you’re in an area where standing waves form from the outgoing current near the shoreline, you can work the standing wave minutes at a time. This of course depends on the crowd of bodyboarders and skimmers who are taking advantage of the standing wave as well.
Depending on your time of arrival, if the waves offshore stopped breaking, you may be able to catch the high-tide waves breaking onshore. Shorebreak surfing is just as fun if not more of a thrill than the traditional sandbar or reef break. However, you must be careful and more so willing to take the chance of damaging your board or body. Heavy shore pounders are not for the beginner riders.
Checking your local tides can be as easy as looking up your area’s local online tidal chart, NOAA buoy reports, or a simple weather app for your smartphone. Specialized tide-telling wrist watches also provide tide times and tide level information. The best tide for surfing in most cases is low, to an incoming medium tide.
Keep in mind low-tide on shallow surf breaks jack the waves up higher, leaving less room between the water’s surface and ocean bottom. Always know the area you’re surfing and avoid shallow reef and rock obstacles if possible.