Low tide pushing up to high tide (the incoming tide) is the best tide to surf. Incoming tides increase the size and power of waves, and an outgoing tide (high tide going to low tide) can create rip currents that negatively affect wave quality.
Different surf spots and conditions favour different states of the tide but the incoming tide will often offer up bigger, more powerful waves.
Whether or not this is the best tide to surf for you will depend on your skill level and ability.
Intermediate surfers may prefer to surf on an outgoing tide when the waves are slightly smaller and not as powerful.
Outgoing tides can also be quieter because the majority of surfers will opt to surf in the best conditions possible.
If you’re willing to sacrifice wave quality surfing on the outgoing tide can be a great option for escaping the crowds.
Let’s take a closer look at how tides affect surfing and find out what’s the best tide to surf.
Surfing on an incoming tide
An incoming tide is any state of the tide from low tide all the way to high tide as the water moves inwards towards land.
The speed and height of a tide are affected by the ocean floor and the position of the sun, moon and earth.
This means that in some areas the tide will only move a few centimetres or inches making it unrecognisable whereas others will experience tidal ranges of several meters or tens of feet.
Areas with considerable changes in tide height will also benefit from more water pushing inwards towards the beach.
This improves the power of the incoming swell and can also lead to an increase in wave height on the beach, reef or point break.
Some setups will be highly tide affected, a reef that provides great waves at low may reduce in quality considerably as the incoming tide increase the depth, reducing breaking waves.
When surfing on an incoming tide is essential
Many surf spots are located on the mouths of estuaries and river mouths and some sheltered waves can even break further up the river or estuary.
During an outgoing tide, waves like these can quickly go from surfable to flat as a millpond, in as little as an hour.
Always check what the best state of the tide is before surfing river mouths or estuaries.
Surfing on an outgoing tide
Outgoing tides are when a high tide recedes back to a low tide moving away from the coast.
Some surf spots will actually benefit from an outgoing tide but they’re less common.
Beach breaks with sometimes benefit from water moving back out to sea, as waves break the outgoing tide runs up the face of the wave causing it to pitch over and barrel.
The dangers of surfing on an outgoing tide
Outgoing tides can pose dangers at reef breaks. As the water flows away from the reef previously submerged rocks create dangerous obstacles while you surf.
Rip currents will often become more powerful as the water moving toward shore in the form of waves will travel back out to sea forming a rip current that normally runs alongside breaking waves.
Rip currents are incredibly dangerous and you should always familiarise yourself with any currents at your local beach.
Always remember that currents may not be present on smaller days, larger swell can awaken previously calm stretches of the beach making them dangerous for all water users, particularly swimmers.
I was surfing a left-hand reef break in Portugal just before dark and I decided to push my luck getting a few waves before dark.
Unfortunately, I’d pushed too far and as I paddled back towards dry land the previously submerged reef was now bone dry leaving me with a 100-meter walk across sharp rocks.
Little to my knowledge rocks were the least of my troubles, the rocks were home to some sharper more dangerous inhabitants.
I’d only gotten a few meters tiptoeing across the rocks in the dying light when my right foot connected with something that was far too sharp to be a rock.
Leaping up I quickly moved my foot and peered through what little light there was to be met with the sight of an urchin, deep purple and covered in sharp spikes.
It took me over half an hour and a foot full of urchin’s spines before I made it dry land.
The motto of the story, if you surf on an outgoing tide make sure you check access to the break and any potential dangers hidden under the surface.
Surfing at low tide
Low tide is defined as two hours on either side of the lowest point of the tide.
You’ll often find that surfing at dead low (right on low tide) will mean the waves decrease in size power and frequency. The lack of water movement means the waves don’t benefit from any extra push created by the incoming tide.
Low tide will be the most exposed a surf break is to wind. Often cliffs near shore will provide shelter at higher tides that quickly disappear as the ocean retreats away from the coast.
Surfing at high tide
High tide is defined as two hours on either side of the highest point of the tide.
High tide can offer pros and cons much like low tide.
Surfing at high tide will often allow you to seek shelter from the coastline in the form of cliffs, jetties, break walls etc
These can all offer fantastic wind shelter at high tide and often offer surfable waves in onshore winds.
Backwash can sometimes be an issue at high tide if the incoming waves begin to break on a wall or object and create a wave that travels back out to sea jumbling incoming waves and creating an undulating effect on the wave face.
Backwash is not always a bad thing, it can make for some fairly dramatic take offs and grabbing your foamie is always a safe bet to avoid collisions with a fibreglass or epoxy board.
So what’s the best tide to surf?
Taking all of the factors above into consideration an incoming tide from mid to low will generally provide the best waves in terms of frequency size and power.
Advanced to expert surfers will normally favour the more powerful conditions but this can lead to more surfers in the lineup decreasing your wave count.
Surfing at high tide or on an outgoing tide the waves. will generally be slightly smaller and less consistent.
As a beginner or intermediate surfer who is looking to improve quickly by catching a lot of waves, you might be happy to sacrifice a little quality to avoid the crowds.