How Tides Work (and What Boat Owners Should Know)


If you want to operate a boat safely and effectively, you need to understand how the tides work. Most people know that the tide is responsible for higher and lower levels of water, but they don't fully understand the mechanics behind this phenomenon or how to navigate a changing type. In this guide, we’ll teach you all the basics.

The Basics of Tides

Let’s start with the basics of tides. Tidal forces are the result of gravitational forces exerting their influence over the earth. As you're likely aware, the earth is made up of mostly water; most of its surface is ocean. The earth is also a sphere rotating around the sun, with a smaller spherical object we call the moon orbiting it. Each body in this celestial system exerts at least some amount of gravity on the other bodies and on everything on each body’s surface.

When the moon reaches a certain point, directly over a body of water, its gravitational force pulls up on the water. This is responsible for what we call “high tide.” At least, that's the simple explanation. Gravitational forces are more nuanced and complex than that; in fact, the moon exerts a compressive force on the earth, causing it to bulge in the middle, which is why oceans on the side of earth directly opposite of the moon also experience high tide at the same time.

We also need to acknowledge that the sun exerts some gravitational force on earth as well. Depending on the alignment of the sun and moon, the tides may play out in different patterns. For example, when the sun and moon are on the same side, in perfect alignment, high tide will be higher than usual.

Tides aren't just about the level of the water, either. Tides are responsible for tidal currents, which can change how you navigate in the water.

As a boat enthusiast, you really don't need to know the physics or the mechanics of the interactions between celestial bodies. It's just some helpful background information to give you more context for why tides occur and the patterns in which they occur.

What Boat Owners Need to Know

So what do you need to know as a boat owner about how tides work and how to navigate tides?

  • Tides are influenced by a variety of factors. First, you should understand that tides are influenced by a variety of factors. In addition to the position of the sun and moon, you also have to consider current wind speeds, the development of currents, the depth of the water, and dozens of other variables.
  • Local tides vary. Because of these variables, you also need to understand that local tides are going to vary. High tide in one location is not going to be the same as high tide in another location, nor is the pattern of transitioning from high tide to low tide going to be the same from one location to the next. You may be very familiar with the tidal changes in your hometown, but if you go across the world to travel, you may experience some very different conditions.
  • Tides are (mostly) predictable. Within a local area, tides are mostly predictable. If meteorologists make reasonable predictions about astronomical events and weather patterns, we can discern how and when tides will form.
  • Spring tides tend to be stronger. Spring tides don’t have anything to do with the season we call spring. Instead, we use the phrase spring tides to refer to tides that occur when the sun and moon are together. This usually occurs during the full moon and the new moon.
  • Neap tides tend to be weaker. By contrast, we have neap tides, which occur when the moon is waxing or waning. Neap tides tend to emerge a week or so after the spring tide ends.
  • Flooding and ebbing occur from tides. Different currents emerge from rising and falling tide. If you want to navigate safely and reliably, you’ll need to take these current forces into account.
  • Tides affect fishing. You should also be familiar with the impact that tides have on fishing. When the tide is low, fish tend to spend more time hiding in structures and protecting themselves from predators. When the tide is high, fish tend to be more active, and you might be able to find them where water was absent during low tide.
  • Boats handle differently. Different boats are going to handle tidal currents in different ways. Some boats are more capable of withstanding the changes of ocean currents, with greater power and navigability. Others are going to require more manual control if you want to be successful.
  • Big tidal differences lead to increased speeds. The bigger the difference between high tide and low tide, the faster the speed of the currents that result from the tide are going to be. It's important to pay attention to this, as the changes in tides can make it easy to predict what you're going to face. If you notice there's a big difference between high tide and low tide, you should be prepared for some tumultuous waters.
  • Mobile apps can help you significantly. You don't have to have a PhD in physics to understand local tide conditions or to understand how to change your approach in the work accordingly. These days, there are dozens of mobile apps that can help you calculate local tidal conditions and plan accordingly. Don’t rely exclusively on a mobile app – but do use one to supplement your other observations.

Tides can be a bit complicated and a bit confusing, especially if you’re new to the world of boating. But if you pay attention to the changes in the water that emerge from tidal differences, you should have no trouble adapting – especially if you’re piloting a reliable boat. If you’re looking for a new boat with reliable handling, you’re in the right place. Browse our selection of new and used boats today!

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