Tides, Currents, and Surf

Photo by PH1 Henry Newman

Photo by PH1 Henry Newman

To Do Today:

  • PT – Cardio – 1hr Swim // Strength – Back and Shoulders group.
  • Review: The American Practical Navigator, Chapter 9, Tides.
  • Review the NOAA Rip Current Safety Website Here.
  • Review Waves and Tides by Prof. M. Natarajan, Er. K. Mohan and Prof. T. Balasubramanian

Be prepared to face water obstacles in saltwater, freshwater, and brackish water (where freshwater and saltwater meet) when making landfall. These water environments differ considerably from open water and pose distinct problems for swimmers and tactical units. Saltwater obstacles include tides, surfs, and currents. Brackish water obstacles include back bays. Freshwater obstacles include rivers and canals (to be covered tomorrow).


Tides are periodic changes in the surface levels of oceans, bays, gulfs, inlets, and rivers. The Moon’s and Sun’s gravitational pulls cause tides. Depending on the situation, tides can either help or hinder in your endeavor to conduct amphibious or riverine operations. Tides can provide sufficient depths to allow for the passage of landing craft or boats over reefs, trees, and other underwater obstructions. On the other hand, tides can render a river fording site unusable to tactical vehicles. Direction, level of change, and amount of change determine tidal nomenclature. Tides that show change in direction are flood tides and ebb tides. Rising tides are known as flood tides. Falling tides are known as ebb tides. Tides that show extreme levels of change are high tides and low tides. High tide is the period when water is at its greatest depth. Low tide is the period when water is at its most shallow depth.

Tides that show the least and most amount of change are neap tides and spring tides, respectively. Neap tides have the least amount of change in water levels between high and low tide. Neap tides occur at the half moon, when the Sun and the Moon are aligned at a 90-degree angle with the Earth. In this position, the Sun’s and Moon’s gravitational pulls offset each other. Spring tides have the highest floods and lowest ebbs. Spring tides occur at or shortly after the new moon or full moon when the Sun, Moon, and Earth are approximately in line. In this position, the Sun’s and Moon’s gravitational pulls are combined.

Offshore Currents

An offshore current occurs outside the surf zone. Typically, it occurs at bay entrances, in island channels, and between islands and the mainland. An offshore current flows parallel to or away from shore. If the offshore current is created by tides, its current strength and direction vary at different times of the day. If caught in an offshore current, you may be carried in a direction you do not want to go. DO NOT try to swim directly to safety. If the current is moving directly away from the shore, relax and wait until the current dies out or turns toward land. Once the current subsides, use any survival stroke to swim toward shore. If the current is moving parallel to shore, use any stroke to move at an angle across the current and toward shore.

Rip Currents

A rip current occurs when waves pile water against the shore faster than the water can drain. The water flows rapidly along the beach until it is deflected seaward by a bottom obstruction. Then the rip current flows through the surf zone and into open water at a speed of up to 2 knots. This action can cut deep trenches in the sand. A rip current dies out once it reaches open water (usually within a few hundred yards of the shore). A rip current can pull you out to the open sea. If caught in a rip current, DO NOT try to swim against the current. A rip current moves faster than most people swim, and it is impossible to swim to shore once caught in it. Relax and stay afloat until the current runs out. Once the current subsides, use a survival stroke to move parallel to the shore until you are out of the current, then begin swimming toward shore.

Littoral Currents

A littoral current occurs when a wave breaks against a beach at an angle. This current flows parallel to the shoreline and does not pose a great threat. If caught in a littoral current, use the combat travel stroke to swim across it at an oblique angle.


Waves break upon entering shallow water and create surf. The offshore area where waves break is the surf zone, which can present many hazards. Breaking waves often trap air bubbles and create a foamy appearance. Bubbles lower the water’s density and decrease buoyancy. Move through foamy surf as quickly as possible. The type of wave determines your survival technique. Wave action moves you toward shore. Lie on your back or side with your head pointing in the direction of the beach and your feet pointing into the waves.

As one wave approaches the beach, another drains away; relax and do not swim against the draining water. When a new wave is within about 3 yards, start swimming toward shore. Continue to swim until the wave lifts you and moves you toward the beach. Once the wave loses forward momentum, relax and repeat the cycle. If nearing rocks, turn your body and approach feet first to reduce the chance of striking your head and arms.

Plunging Waves

A plunging wave is a breaker whose crest curls forward and falls ahead of its base. Because of its power and underwater turbulence, a plunging wave poses the greatest surf threat. If caught in a plunging wave, you can be pulled underwater and pitched about violently. This can cause you to panic, which can increase your chance of drowning. Perform the following steps to escape a plunging wave:

  • Tuck into a ball with your head against your knees and your forearms locked around your legs, just below the knees.


  • Relax in this position until the turbulence subsides and you float to the surface. This can take 30 seconds or more.
  • Swim toward shore.
  • If threatened by another plunging wave, dive underwater into the wave.

Spilling Waves

A spilling wave does not break. Instead, its crest slides forward without curling. A spilling wave creates less turbulence and poses less of a threat than a plunging wave. If caught in a spilling wave, relax and let the wave carry you to shore.

Surging Waves

A surging wave occurs on a beach with a steep underwater gradient. It never really breaks, but the crest rises while the base slides up the beach with great force and speed. Once the wave reaches its highest point on the beach, it rushes back as quickly as it surged forward. If you are standing on the bottom when a surging wave advances or retreats, the wave can knock you off your feet and pull you into the surf zone. Do not try to stand or walk on the bottom. Swim toward the beach as soon as possible.

Back Bays

Once on the beach, you often face one or more rows of low hills called dunes. Behind the dunes, you may encounter a low-lying stretch of ground thickly covered with scrub trees and bushes. This area gives way to wetlands known as back bays. Back bays consist of muddy islands that are almost submerged during flood tides and separated by channels of brackish water of varying depths. Channel bottoms usually contain soft mud. Back bays pose major obstacles to vehicular traffic. You can cross back bays, but only with great effort. If crossing back bays by foot, consult detailed navigation charts and use the following guidelines to plan your route:

  • Avoid water less than waist deep; walking in shallow water or soft mud is extremely tiring.
  • Avoid back bay islands; these low-lying islands are usually too muddy to support foot traffic.
  • Seek out deep water; floating with a pack is less tiring than walking through shallow water or soft mud.
  • Seek out sand, shell, gravel, or stone bottoms; these firmer bottoms generally ease travel and help conserve energy.


Information contained on this website is for general information and educational purposes only. Please refer to our Disclaimer and Terms and Conditions before attempting any technique described herein.

One thought on “Tides, Currents, and Surf

  1. Eric Tinn

    Very good information here. Having grown up around the water, I know how frequently accidents can occur. This kind of information is exactly what swimmers need before going out in the ocean.


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