If you are visiting the coast or doing any kind of watersports on the ocean, it is essential to understand if the tide is coming in or out.
Even if you plan a straightforward dog walk or a sit on the sand, you will want to know whether the tide will be low or high. Nothing is more disappointing than turning up to find the waves crashing against the rocks with not a grain of sand in sight. More importantly, on some beaches, a fast incoming tide can leave you stranded on a sandbank.
If you plan on heading into the sea, it is even more important to be confident about the tide being on its way in or out. This knowledge will not only keep you safe but also improve your experience.
Luckily there are some clues to help you judge for yourself when you are at the coast and tide timetables that can give you advance information.
The best way to tell if the tide is coming in or out is by looking at a tide table. This is data that you can easily find online for your local beach, that will tell you when high and low tide is, and everything in between. However, if you can’t get a tide table, you can use visual clues like seeing what direction the water is flowing, or if the beach is wet or dry.
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Quick signs to tell if the tide is coming in or out
Learning to interpret visual signs is a great way to develop your understanding of tides. Ask yourself the following questions to gather the information that will help you decide if the tide is going in or out.
Is the beach wet or dry?
You can look for visual clues like seaweed or wet sand in dry weather to tell if the tide is coming in or out. If the sand above the waterline is wet, you can usually assume that the tide is on its way out. If everything is dry, the tide is probably on its way in. Of course, this is much harder to interpret if it is raining.
Seaweed clumping at the waterline signifies that the tide is coming in. A rising tide leaves behind more debris than a falling tide.
Which way is the water flowing?
If you are in or close to a harbour, look to see if the water flows in or out.
When the tide is rising, the water will flow into the harbour so if you know where the entrance is, observe what direction the water is heading in. If it looks like the water is moving into the harbour, the tide is coming in.
You can use visual cues to help. It could be as simple as watching out for any seaweed, what direction is it moving in? If there is no wind, anchored boats will point into the oncoming tide, so if all the boats are facing one way, then it’s probably the tide doing that.
It is a skill to identify the movement of the water, and it will help if you practise at different times to improve your accuracy.
Are there waves, or is it flat?
This one will test your observation skills. You may notice the waves changing if you’re on the beach for a while. Generally, in the UK, waves are bigger as the tide comes in, and they flatten off when the tide goes out.
Remember that weather conditions and different environments may also influence the size of the waves, so it is the change in the size you are looking for.
Where is the water?
It might seem obvious but start by looking where the water is in relation to the beach or harbour.
If the water is far from the beach or harbour, it will likely come in before too long. In some areas, the harbour will drain completely, leaving the boats moored on dry docks. Similarly, you may see a vast expanse of sand at low tide with the water almost out of sight.
If the sea is already covering the beach or the harbour is full, the tide will probably start going out soon. The more familiar you are with an area, the easier it will be to predict accurately what the tide will do next.
Info at lifeguard station or cafe
If the beach has a lifeguard, there will be a notice board somewhere that will say what time high and low tide is for the day. If you can’t find the notice, just ask the lifeguard.
Quite often cafes or surf/windsurf shops will have small printouts of yearly tidal data for the local beach. These come in very handy and are well worth picking up and keeping in your car.
Use a tide table to tell the state of the tide
The best way to know exactly whether the tide is coming in or out is by using a tide table. Knowing where to find a tide table and how to read one is crucial for planning your trip to the coast.
What is a tide table?
There are tide tables published for most coastal locations across the globe. They are used to predict the times of low and high tides that occur every day in a locality.
How to read one tide table
To get the most out of the information in a tide table, you need to know how to read it.
- Check the date: You need to look at the correct date because tide times change daily, and you will not get accurate information if you check the wrong day.
- Check the time: On every day, you will see the times that the tides will be high or low. If you are looking on the internet, you will also see how long until the next high or low tide and whether the tide is currently rising or falling.
- Look at the levels: You will also see figures known as datum if you want more information about the tides. These indicate the expected water level at low or high tide measured in metres. A negative number will be a shallow tide, and an increased number will mark a very high tide.
Where to find a tide table?
The easiest way to find a tide table for an area is to use Google. Your search results will offer you a few sites that will show the tide times for your chosen place.
On most sites, you can use postcodes for the UK or the name of a beach or location.
Popular sites for Tide Tables that you can bookmark are:
What are tides, and what causes them?
A tide is the horizontal and vertical movement of the ocean’s surface water. This definition is saying tides go up and down as well as in and out. There are two high tides and two low tides each day.
Tides are created by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun alongside the earth’s rotation, and they happen at different times depending on the cycle of the moon.
Like gravity keeps our feet on the ground, it also pulls the ocean towards the moon.
- A bulge of water (a high tide) will be created nearest to the moon, making the first high tide of the day.
- A second high tide will occur when a second bulge is created on the opposite side of the earth from the side facing the moon.
Understanding tide time
High tide happens twice a day, but the times change, and you may be wondering why?
Tides are predictable, unlike British weather, as they are based on the moon’s rotation around the earth and the earth’s rotation around the sun. This means that tide predictions are very accurate.
Why aren’t they at the same time every day? Well, it is because there are about 6 hours and 12 minutes between high and low tides.
Understanding tidal range
You may notice that sometimes a high tide can be very high, and for some reason the low tide makes the water go out much further than normal.
The tidal range is the difference in height between low and high tides. The range varies depending on the time, weather conditions, and moon cycle.
During Spring tides, the range will be at its greatest as the gravitational forces of the moon and sun are aligned. These occur at full and new moon phases.
Neap tides mean that the water moves more slowly, and the range will be much smaller. Neap tides happen in the first and third quarters of the moon’s phase.
Why is knowing about the tide important?
On a personal level, knowing about the tide is essential for being safe at the beach or in the sea. It will also maximise your experience. The best tide for you will depend on the activity you will be doing.
Fishing boats rely on tide knowledge to know when it is a good time to go out and get back before a low tide drains the harbour and to have the best chance to get a good catch.
Paddleboarders, kayakers and swimmers will find it safer to go out in a slack tide where the movement of the tide is least. This occurs for about an hour on either side of a low or high tide. Conditions and the current will be safer at this time, and it will be easier to paddle or swim.
Snorkelling and diving are best enjoyed just after a high slack tide with little current, and the water will be more transparent to create better visibility.
The best tides for surfing are a bit more complex as the benefits of a high, or low tide will depend on the local environment. In general, surfing on an incoming tide, an hour after a low tide until an hour before the high tide, will help avoid rip currents but get longer waves and larger swells.
Anglers will catch more fish if they opt for a moving tide. Often the best results will be two hours before a low tide as the fish are drawn into shallow waters to feed.
Children will enjoy the beach more at a low tide when exciting rock pools are revealed filled with sea creatures to explore.
For regional conditions, it is always worth asking the locals who can advise you about various aspects of the local tides that can affect your experience. In addition to checking the local tide times and learning to look for clues, this will improve your safety and enjoyment of the sea.
About the author
Watersports Pro is managed by Ollie, who has been in the industry since 2007. A paddleboard and advanced windsurfing instructor, Ollie has travelled the world teaching these sports.
Now based on the South Coast of England, he shares his experience and knowledge on watersportspro.co.uk.