In late winter on Puget Sound, daytime tides begin to get lower. By May we'll have -2 tides every other week. June brings the extreme lows of -3.5 and sometimes lower. I love watching the tide drop to see what's underneath to check out the dry reefs, sandy drain channels, patterned sand, and exposed plant and sealife. And the daytime lows allow us to surf freighter waves in specific locations in Seattle 3hrs from the coast.
What does the low tide mean to us?
A Long Haul..
For some, a longer walk to the beach is required to get wet. A local surf shop which rents SUPs usually doesn't tell their customers about such things. So after a 300yd haul with heavy boards to the beach, they're often disappointed when they get there and realize the tide is low and they have another 200yds before hitting the water line.
Stranded in Mudflats..
In some coves, inlets, and bays, the tide will completely empty out leaving a mudflats. Willapa Bay on WA State's SW coast dries out leaving a almost 2 mile wide and several mile long mudflat. In France, the castle on Mont St-Michel becomes surrounded by an expansive mudflat at low tide. In the UK a few years ago, several beach walkers on an another expansive mudflat were stranded when the incoming tide came in so rapidly they couldn't escape.
Paddlers have become stranded, or rather were stuck in the mudflats in Washington State and have had to be rescued by Coast Guard helicopters. NW writer Joel Rogers wrote of timing the tides wrong at Willapa Bay on the SW coast in his book, "The Hidden Coast", where he slithered across the mud'spread eagle' to get out. Much like ice, the flatter and lower you are the easier it is for self removal. My partner Christy reminds me of an overnight kayak trip where we didn't time the tides right. We had to haul our heavy kayaks through knee deep mud much which also had a bad odor. All our gear required cleaning afterwards.
Despite the popularity of the Turnagain Arm tidal bore in Alaska, many get stuck in the mudflat surrounding the bore. A local woman told me about several folks who were stuck in waist deep mud and required considerable work to be extracted by the Coast Guard.
Learn About Your Surfing Beach...
If you're a surfer, you can check out your beach at low tide to see why it breaks the way it does. On the Washington coast years ago, I remember former surf shop owner Jeff Abandonato pointing out a small ridge in the sand. He explained that when the tide comes in, the waves always jack up on that spot. In Gerry Lopez's book, "Surf is Where You Find It" he writes of going to Pipeline at low tide to see where all the crevices are between the reefs so he'll know how to get out if pushed into a cave or under a ledge. Friends once spotted a perfect barrel wave on the WA coast and wondered why they had never seen one there. Tired after a long day surfing, they didn't go in. Upon arriving home in Seattle they inquired about it and found that the 'reef' creating the hollow wave was actually a re-bar studded foundation for a house which had washed into the sea.
More Tips on Paddling in Saltwater...
- Always check the tide before you leave home. Tide charts are now available as apps for your phone. I use Salt Water Tides, and there's several others.
- In areas where there are mudflats, find out what the minimum tide level is before departing. Leave on a rising tide. Areas such as Willapa Bay in WA State require a 5' level for paddling. Any less means getting stuck in the mud, sometimes a mile from shore.
- Nautical charts will show where mudflats are located. Usually at the mouth of rivers or in bays, inlets, and coves. Here's a link to NOAA's Online Chart Viewer.
- Bring a VHF radio and cell phone when paddling in areas with mudflats in case you do get stuck and need to call for help.
- If you get stuck and are near shore, lay flat on the mud and crawl out, similar to the technique of moving on thin ice.
Here's a list of low tide and mudflat shorelines in and around Puget Sound. The Trip #'s are those of my new book, "Kayaking Puget Sound and the San Juans." Click Here.