As a novice I’m trying to enter/exit the ocean when the wave activity is lowest. When is the best time? Should I plan my trips for low tide, high tide or somewhere in between?
Depends on the place
in general i’d say low tide. More important is knowing where good put-ins and takes outs are.
if breaking waves are of such concern (and they certainly can be!)I’d try to find someone to show me some ropes.
When the wind isn’t blowing
As Peter wrote, it is dependant on the location, but in general terms, the tide height itself does not cause waves.
The major driver of ocean waves is the wind. If you want to avoid waves, avoid wind.
The tide height can alter the size of the waves caused by the same strength wind in several ways:
Changing tides cause currents. In some places, dependant on geography, these tidal currents can be quite strong. The way that any current interacts with wind-driven waves is quite complex, but it can either increase or decrease the size of the waves, or sometimes both.
Waves grow in size when they move from deep water to shallow water. So if you are in an area where the tidal elevation interacts with the sub-sea geography in a way that causes a shallower area in just the right orientation with respect to the waves, then the waves may be higher at low tide than at high tide. Or the waves may be the same height, but in a different place.
Of course there are some places where tides and geography interact just right to create tidal bores, or standing waves.
You may find this site interesting:
the ‘best’ waves here occur before high tide. the smallest waves are around low tide. just my angle heading right on the shoulder
Depends on the topography of the beach
High tide can swamp out the waves so they no longer break (waves start break when the water depth is about 1.5 times the wave height. The local or current wind conditions usually has very little to do with the largest waves you have to contend with in getting out through ocean surf, the largest waves comes from swells generated thousands of miles a way. Today where I live we have light winds and occaisionaly there are swells that are jacking up to 12 or 14 ft surf when they come onto certian beaches. A half mile away there are easy four foot waves to paddle out over.
The best way to learn about the ocean, tides, swells, waves, is to spend time paddling. Watching the beaches at different tide levels and swell levels, you learn the tricks of where to be and when. The best advice is to find a place that is usually sheltered, a cove or bay.
Generally, Tides Only Matter
when you are paddling an estuary where the flow of water creates tidal races. These can be exacerbated by opposing winds and waves. If you do paddle estuaries, it's easier if you time yourself going with the tide/current, unless you like the workout. Some do.
For novices, best to find protected bays, and you don't have to worry about the effects of the tides, unless certain areas become dry or mud flats.
Sometimes it's nice to time the return on a high tide 'cause you're closer to the car when you return and may be tired from the paddle.
If You’re Talking About Inlets
near high tide is good.
Some Useful Information
It's generally more helpful to know the swell height and direction and predicted winds. For planning trips a few days in advance look at the middle link ...
Remember surf height encountered can be roughly two times the swell height. (Some waves will be larger). The top link will give you an idea a few days in advance
The CDIP buoy data will also give you an idea of how big the waves are real time and you can look at the trends by doing daily plots to see how the waves are developing . Look at San Pedro or Santa Monica whichever is closest to you.
The magic seaweed predictions are pretty good too.
As a rule, low tide early in the morning
Agree it's not the tide itself that causes waves. And good to scout places out.
On the west coast from Santa Barbara to central Oregon (not so much in San Siego) I've seen lots of beaches at low or minus low tide with a sandy plateau bottom that is shallow and slopes very gradually and quite a ways out so that any waves break farther out and just roll in nice and easy. At minus low tide around 6 AM, there often isn't much wind anyway. The lowest minus low tides are always very early in the morning (at least straight out to the coast from Sanoma County, California), I'm not sure why. By 10-11 AM when the air starts warming inland and rising, the cool air rushes in of the ocean to replace it, and the water's deeper over that sandy plateau, that same beach may have 4-6' waves that break very close to shore.
My Normal Ocean Entry Is Via Inlets
One of the things to keep in mind about Ocean Inlets is the strong tidal currents that can be found in most of them, at least around my area. All of that water moving in or out of the Inlet can easily create currents that move faster than most of us can paddle. A strong outgoing tide meeting incomming swells can build very high swells. An incomming tide tends to flatten the swells a bit or is neutal in terms of swell size. Mean water depth will determine when an incomming swell breaks. In an Inlet, if there is a boat channel and if that channel is deep enough the waves may not break at all. I have paddled out several Inlets in the area here where I am going over swells in the channel and watching breaking waves on both sides of the channel.
Beach launching and landings are more interesting and require several new skills beyond paddling over swells and chop. For me it was class, DVDs, and practice.
Where are you putting in/taking out?
On a beach so you are trying to avoid breakers, or do you have a protected place to put in and are worried that tide phase will create waves once you are out in it? As many above have said, phase of the tide itself is nore likely to cause tidal currents than waves… and particulars of the beach or launch area matter too. If you were trying to come in or out on the back side of Peak’s Island in Maine for example, low tide will give you a lot more honking big rocks to scoot around and between than a higher tide.
All other things being equal (wind, weather) wouldn’t slack tide be the period with the calmest seas? I recognize the soundness of the advice that this paddler should be more concerned with other things than tide level when considering when and where to launch, but need some education from those who live year round on the ocean, and can speak from more experience than this annual ocean tourist. I thought wave action was generally lower at slack tide, and operating on this (mis?)conception, have had it reinforced by prejudicial observation.
Slack tide and waves
Not a scientist here but have some time in guessing wrong on the ocean...
If there is a situation where the normal movement of water due to the tide is challenged by something - a river flow in the other direction so you get outgoing river water and incoming tide, or a narrowed passage for the tide to move thru, or the right kind of change in the bottom - you start getting some notable effects attributable to the phase of the tide. The first produces standing waves, the second produces strong tidal currents and sometimes standing waves if the passage is quite shallow - the degree of which will vary depending on the specific phase of the tide. Water just plain starts piling up due to lack of ability to move itself thru fast enough.
But these are pretty localized effects (tho' the locale can be an entire channel in some cases, like the currents off of Woods Hole). River mouths into the ocean can be pretty notorious because you can figure there'll be standing waves and funky currents at least twice a day. But I am a little flummoxed as to how someone asking this question would be launching into any of these situations.
The thing that most contributes to waves on open water is the wind, which pushes water and makes it pile up. One rule of thumb is that if you see whitecaps at all, you can assume the wind is blowing at least 12 (knots or miles, I forget which). After a certain amount of time, and at high enough winds, it'll actually start knocking the waves down a little - but you likely don't want to be paddling in that.
If you have tide and wind cooperating or opposing each other, it may change the physical force that is in the waves. But the wind is still the more important factor for the existence of waves in open water. Slack tide can, along an open beach, somewhat reduce the amount of water movement and thus the waves, but wind can override that in a heartbeat.
That's why I asked where this person is launching from - I'm not sure where they are expecting to encounter waves.
From a lot of time on the Carolina coast
I have found that regardless of the tide, the wind is what you have to keep track of.
If there is a strong on shore wind, the breakers will be closer together, making it more difficult.
Usually in the morning when there is no wind, or a light wind it is much easier to get in and out.
The only problem with that is if you want a all day paddle, you will be coming in during the afternoon with the wind up and breakers up as well.
Another thing that affects the breakers is the topography of the beach. If it is steep they will be breaking almost on shore. If it is shallow they will be breaking much farther out.
Your best bet to completely avoid the breakers is what Mark says above, and that is to find a large inlet where you can launch on the inside in calm water. The best bet for that will be at high tide, since there will be a lot of water in the narrows where you can avoid the strong opposing currents. Just keep in mind that once you are out you have to get back. You don’t want to be coming back and get caught in some squirelly water.
No two places are the same, so a lot of it depends on your own experience.
I enjoy practicing surf landings in moderate breakers. It will certainly increase your paddling skills, and make your reactions quicker.
If I make a couple succesfull ones each session, I feel good, and on all the rest, I usually come up smiling.
If you wear glasses don’t !
Even with croakies, they will end up getting torn off.