Secret to Great Surfing? Check the Tides.

by Julie Cox on February 28, 2013

Ever wondered how the really good surfers seem to always know when to paddle out? Bev Sanders caught up to Julie Cox last week to discuss just that.

Bev at Las Olas: What are tides?
Julie: Okay. Tides are basically the rise and fall of sea level. It’s when the water is even with sea level it’s at 0. A high tide is a measurement above sea level and low tide is below. For surfers, high tide is when the water level comes up the shore, lower tides go out sea.

What causes tides?
The combined effect of the gravitational forces of the sun and the moon interacting with the rotation of the earth.

How often do tides occur?
Typically there are two cycles per day, two high tides and two low tides. There are some places in the world where there is only one cycle, but in California and Mexico we experience two cycles per 24 hour period.

For a surfer, what’s the difference between a low and high tide?
Low tide is when the water is receding and being pulled out by the sun and moon. More rocks will be exposed and the water is going out to the horizon.
High tide is when the water is coming in to the land, rises above 0, or sea level, and goes up to a positive number. The high tide rise 3′, 4′, 5′, etc. up onto the land. It’s also effected by the symmetry of the ocean floor, so tides can be really extreme in certain parts of the world where water goes far out or high up on to the land.

Why are tides important to surfers?
Tides help shape the waves. They also give signals that tell a surfer when it’s good to go surfing. Depending on what the tides are doing it makes the conditions better or worse. For example, low tide might be too rocky or closed out, but as soon as the tide changes, a pushing tide coming up to a high tide (flood tide), there’s more water and that can make a better wave. Basically, the waves are feeling the ocean floor, so the tides project when the waves are going to crash, if that makes sense. So if it’s too low tide, the waves may break all at once. If it’s too high of a tide the waves might not break until right on the shore.

So you want something right in the middle?
Yeah, mid-tide is often good.

Where can I get tide information?
To find tide info, download the Surfline app on your phone or check… a really great resource including surfcams. Tech! And of course, your surf shop has the tide charts and local knowledge. Stop in or call.

Can tides be dangerous?
Yes, they can create strong currents. During a full or new moon when tides are most extreme, they can pull or push water rapidly. So if there’s a small channel beneath the surface, it’s going to be pulling that water quickly through it. If you get caught in the channel the current can be dangerous because you’ll get pulled out to sea. Or it can be dangerous because lots of rocks can be exposed if you’re surfing at low tide.
If you’re aware of the tides, then it’s less dangerous because you know what’s coming up. Will it be filling up with water or will it be making things more shallow?

Is a tidal wave different than a tsunami?
Both of those terms are misapplications of the words. Tsunamis are larger waves that occur after something like an earthquake or when an iceberg falls in to the ocean and displaces water. It looks like the tide is coming in or going out when a tsunami occurs, so that’s why people call them tidal waves, but they really don’t have anything to do with the tidal pull of the sun and the moon.

If it’s high tide here, is it low tide somewhere else?
That’s a great question. I think that would make a lot of sense. If it’s pulling water from somewhere around the earth and it’s high tide here, it’s probably low tide somewhere else.

That makes sense. Tides effect shorelines around the globe, and they also effect us personally. For example, our menstrual cycles are connected to the moon, which is very much connected to tides.
Yes, our biology is connected to the sun and the moon. So the lunar cycle is 28 days and when the high tides pull we feel that pull on our bodies in time with the cycle. Very cool.

So we’re not crazy, we’re effected by the invisible powers effecting Mother Earth.

Final question, who’s the official spokesperson for Tide?
Is it Betty White?

That’s right! Betty, Queen of Tide!
Thank you Julie and high tide or low tide, I’ll see you at Las Olas next week.

(laughs) That’s right. Any tide is good if you’re going surfing.

Julie Cox is a professional surfer who lives, works, and designs surfboards up and down the California Coast when not teaching at Las Olas in Mexico. Currently, she’s manager of Mollusk Surf Shop in San Francisco, but prior to that she was director of the California Surf Museum in Oceanside, California.

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1 tb5575 March 1, 2013 at 2:13 pm

That looks like the Scripps Beach break looking toward the cliffs at the Cove in La Jolla?!! My hometown! Love getting the posts and “the tides” have always been a mystery :)

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