What Is The Best Tide For Surfing? High or Low, Ebb or Flow?

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So, who is ready for a little surf science? The tide is one of the most important factors when deciding where the best wave-riding conditions can be found. The best tide for surfing is going to change depending on a surfer’s skill level and the types of waves they will be surfing.

Changes in the tide move large quantities of water that can create currents and expose hazards like rocks. Some waves are very sensitive to changes in the tidal range while others seem to break no matter what the water level is doing.   

Surfers analyze a number of meteorological events to forecast when the waves are going to be the best. The tides are an important factor in a long list of events that affect how the waves break on the shore.

This article is going to look best tidal conditions for surfing as they relate to swell, the wind, and crowds.

Beautiful blueish green water over shallow reef in La Jolla

No matter how good the tidal conditions are, a Sunday morning in La Jolla is going to have too many people for beginner surfers to comfortably catch waves.  

Today, just about every surfer has an app on their phone that will predict the tides well into the future. I grew up using a tiny book filled with a year’s worth of tide charts for the region where I lived.

A boat leaving the harbor at high tide in Downtown San Diego

For centuries, watermen have been keeping a close eye on the tide table to plan their ocean-going activities and so should you.  

The Best Tide For Surfing

A small wave reeling down the line on a medium flow tide.

As a general rule, the best tide for surfing beach breaks with slowly breaking waves is the early morning incoming medium tide. There are exceptions to this generalization but higher tides and lower tides can shut down the surfable waves at good beginner surf spots.

In many parts of the world, the morning presents the best conditions with light offshore wind. Sometime in the late morning or early afternoon, the wind direction shifts onshore creating a bumpy surface. 

Glassy conditions and fun waves at Black's Beach in La Jolla

A part of becoming a proficient surfer acquiring the local knowledge about how tides work in general and how they affect the best waves at your local beach. 

Many world-class point breaks only come to life on big swells and very low tides. On very high tides, kids always love surfing the backwash off of a seawall like the one next to the Marine Room in La Jolla. Big waves and big tides expose all sorts of novelty waves that don’t break under normal conditions.

What Is The Tide?

La Jolla Cove at low tide with exposed reef.

The tide is the movement, the ebb and flow of ocean water on the shore in coordination with the movements of the moon and sun. It is one of the most consistent natural phenomena on planet Earth that we can observe and predict. While there is both a horizontal and verticle element to the tide, we record the tide in terms of vertical change over time. A tide chart looks like a series of waves that get bigger and smaller over months. 

La Jolla cove at medium-high tide and a fun wave.

In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton explained that ocean tides result from the gravitational attraction of the sun and moon on the oceans. On average, we see about two high tides and two low tides every day. 

High tide occurs when the Earth spins and the beach in question faces the moon and when it is on the opposite side of the Earth from the moon. Low tide occurs when the Earth spins and the beach in question is perpendicular (at a 90-degree angle) from the

The highest tides of the month occur around the full moon and the new moon. King tides (sometimes called spring tides) are the biggest tidal swings, the highest and lowest tides of the year when the moon and the sun are all aligned.  

Neap tides are the smallest changes between high and low tides. The sun and the moon are perpendicular to the Earth and the gravitational pull of each is in the opposite direction.   

Remember, the Earth rotates every 24 hours and the moon circles the Earth every 29.5 days. 

Flow Tide & Ebb Tide For Surfing

The flow tide, often referred to as the flood tide, is the incoming tide when the movement rises from low to high. 

The ebb tide is the outgoing tide moving from high to low.

Most surf spots break a little better on the flow tide than the ebb tide. This is easier to observe when the swell size is small and the rising tide helps the wave stand up and actually break.

The dropping tide can be good for some reef breaks because it sucks water over a table making a barrel more hollow but dangerously shallow. It is what is known as a slab because the wave breaks by folding in half over a shallow reef. 

How Does The Tide Affect The Surf?

Reef break waves breaking over a shallow low tide.

There are a few different ways that the tide can affect the surfing experience. Besides the actual shape of the wave, a tide could make getting in and out of the water dangerous.

The depth of the water and bottom contours will change on different tides. Beach breaks for learners are a little more forgiving on the tidal swings often breaking enough at both high and low tides.

Reef breaks, by contrast, are oftentimes much more sensitive to changes in the tide. An extreme low tide will expose the piece of reef that causes the wave to break. A lot of times as the tide drops a reef break gets very good, very shallow, dangerous, and then stops breaking altogether. 

High tide waves breaking on the rocks in La Jolla

A very large high tide can shut down a surf spot creating weak waves. The surface contour that forces the wave to break is underneath too much water. 

Lots of point breaks that I have surfed really like a lower tide and a huge swell from a narrow swell direction to turn on. Salsipuedes in Baja Norte can go years without breaking but when it does you won’t forget it. I always got my best sessions at Rincon on the low tide. 

Surfing Fort Point underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Big tidal swings move water that creates currents. I have surfed under the Golden Gate Bridge a few times and can’t stop thinking about the volume of water that flows through that channel on a big tidal swing. Rip currents are exacerbated by big tidal swings that move lots of water.

Every winter there are tons of videos of beginners in Santa Cruz getting hammered by the high tide as a wave refracts off the cliff and throws them into the rocks.

It is always a good idea to spend a few minutes observing the conditions and looking for entrance and exit points.

I know this is super cliche but never turn your back on the ocean. When you are getting in and out of the water, you need to be aware of powerful waves coming from different directions. 

What Are Your Ideal Conditions?

A longboard strapped to the top of a car with palm trees.

I like the cold mornings in La Jolla when the surf is small for winter. Chest-to-shoulder-high long-period ground swell from the northwest and the sand bars fade real nice.

If the high tide is three hours after sunrise, you will get glassy conditions and rideable waves all morning. Not too big of a tidal swing and not too small. Surf the mid-tide on both the flow and the ebb. Maybe take an hour off during the peak of the high tide. 

The weather conditions in La Jolla can change quickly. There is a thick marine layer for much of the year that evaporates a mile in from the water.

TL;DR The Best Tide For Surfing

The best tide for surfing is the rising medium tide.

To summarize or TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) is that for most beginners surfing beach break with a slow-moving type of wave, the best tide is a flow tide around the middle of its cycle. As the tide rises more water is pushed at the beach helping the wave break. 

That being said, there are a lot of exceptions for more advanced surfers. Surfing shallow surf breaks when there are large waves is for more advanced surfers. The Bonzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu is a great example of this. People get killed out there all the time from traumatic brain injuries hitting the coral with their heads.

Learning the tides of your local surf spots is an integral part of becoming a more proficient surfer. There are still some waves that not a lot of people know about that only break and rare conditions. There is some good surf out there for those willing to search.  I love driving up and down the coast to check all the best surf spots when the waves are huge. Even if I am not going to surf, I really want to see the big waves. There are always some surprises where a wave picks up.

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Surfer paddling for a beautiful wave with offshore wind.

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