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Surf Tip: Understanding How Tides Impact Your Surf Session




Have you ever surfed somewhere and seen good waves moving across the ocean surface, yet were not able to catch this wave as it slowly rolled past you and never broke until it hit the shore? Perhaps you felt frustrated and paddled harder, but still to no avail? Chances are it was high tide. This post is about how tides can impact your surf session. Lets take a look at how "tide" is defined.


First lets talk about what the "tide" is. It is common for beginners to mistake the term "swell" or wave heights for the term "tide." Swell is the hight of the wave produced by storms/wind. Tide is the ocean level that is influenced by the moons gravitational pull. The tide swings from high to low, and does this two times per day. Depending on the time of year and phase of the moon the tide levels can be more or less extreme. Tide in Southern California can range from negative 2 feet to over 6 feet. Lets breakdown how the tide impacts your surf session.


Depending on where you surf; most places are negatively impacted on a higher tide. How so? Usually when the tide rises about 4.5 feet it creates a deep swimming pool like effect( if there is a significant amount of swell in the water like 6 feet or more swell the waves can still break on a higher tide so this does not always apply). When there is a high water level over the sand bar or reef (this is what the wave breaks over) the swell is not able to break. An indicator of high life is less beach along the shore line. A waves typically breaks in water half the size of the wave. So when it is to deep the bottom of the ocean floor does not have to same influence on how the wave breaks thus you see a slow rolling wave that never breaks or crashes in the surf zone. Furthermore you get the shore break effect because that is the only place the wave and the ocean floor can interact.. Not all surf breaks shut down at high tide.


Aerial View of a shoreline. Notice the high tide line is where the lighter sand meets the darker sand


As previously mentioned if there is enough swell in the water waves can still break, but generally speaking most places will swamp out and slow down. So how can you avoid a slow session by surfing at high tide? Learn to read the tidal chart. If you look at any surf report it will make mention of high and low tide (it will tell you the exact time of high and low tide so you will have to do some simple estimation between those windows). You will want to plan your session around mid tide. Too low of tide can choke the swell or create less than ideal timing on how and where the waves break. An indicator of low tide is more beach exposed due to less water, sometimes the reef or rocks will show too. Typically speaking a mid tide is anywhere between 2.5-4.5 feet. So if you can catch your session when the tide is in that range you will most likely have a decent session especially in the San Clemente area.


As you become more aware of how the tide impacts different beaches you can learn to pick specific breaks that can handle different tides. Sometimes waiting for the tide to change on a work day isn't always an option when you if places to be or appointments to be kept. If you need help learning how to surf in Orange County and are interested learning more about how to read the ocean send us an email or book a lesson. Happy Surfing.


-Serene Waters



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San Clemente, California 

Orange County

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Phone (949) 464-7123

James@serenewatersrecovery.com

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