As with virtually any sport, surfing has inherent risks. In surfing, though, poor judgment can be catastrophic for the participant. It’s far better to learn before you go, rather than to learn as you go. When it comes to surfing safety, ignorance is definitely not bliss. Countless surfers have figured that out the hard way. Here’s to learning from their mistakes.
These are a few of the most common hazards in the sport of surfing:
- Powerful waves: The ocean and the waves it produces can be tremendously strong forces of nature. In some cases, even small waves can pack a powerful punch.
- Strong currents: Longshore currents run parallel to shore and can make it difficult to maintain your position in the lineup. Rip currents run perpendicular to shore and develop in deeper channels when there’s a lot of wave action. They can look like rivers as they swiftly carry water back out to sea.
- Solid objects: Large boulders, coral heads, very shallow reefs, cliffs, jetties, and piers can all leave quite a dent in both board and body.
- Sea creatures: Shark bites, jellyfish stings, sea urchin wounds, and stingray injuries can all ruin a perfectly good surf session.
- Other surfers: Collisions with other surfers can also inflict a lot of pain and cause considerable damage to your board.
Here’s some guidance on how to stay safe while you’re enjoying the waves:
Hot Tip: Shore Break
Entering and exiting the ocean can be potentially hazardous, especially at a surf spot that has little or no beach at high tide. So be aware of what the tides are doing before you start your session. If the shore break is dangerous and the tide will be getting higher while you’re surfing, you may want to reconsider or find an alternate entry and/or exit point.
It’s extremely important to choose the right wave size and shape for your ability level. For example: A fast developing wave that’s over head-high, and forms a hollow tube is absolutely unsafe for inexperienced surfers. These types of waves require advanced skills to surf and are notorious for slamming many beginners — and expert surfers for that matter — into reefs and sandbars.
A waist-high wave face that’s moving relatively slow and crumbles or peels as it breaks will be much more enjoyable and safe for the novice surfer and anyone else in the water who may have to dodge their carnage.
In general, the bigger the surf, the stronger the currents. If you find yourself getting pulled farther and farther down the beach by a longshore current, or towards an object such as a jetty or a pier, your best bet is to paddle to a safe point on the shore and walk back up to the break you’re trying to surf. Rip currents are fairly easy to spot, as waves usually don’t break as much where they flow. Experienced surfers sometimes use rip currents to get back out to the lineup. However, the only way to escape the grasp of a strong rip that may be sweeping you offshore is to swim parallel to the beach. So if you’re not a very strong paddler, it’s best to recognize and avoid these currents altogether.
It’s important to identify potential landscape and man-made hazards before your session and steer clear of them while in the water. If surfing at a spot for the first time, ask regulars of that break about the objects for which they normally try to avoid. A very shallow section of reef or a large boulder, for instance, may be very obvious at low tide, but not so easy to see when the surf zone is more filled in. So stay alert and avoid jumping off your board or diving into the water head first.
A shark bite can obviously ruin your session. Staying away from river mouths and seal populations, as well as avoiding surfing at dawn or dusk can reduce the risk of an encounter. More common injuries occur from run-ins with jellyfish, sea urchins and stingrays. To avoid stings, keep an eye out for jellies cruising near the surface; and since urchins and stingrays are found on the bottom, avoid stepping onto the sea floor whenever possible. Use your board to support your weight instead.
The more crowded it is, the more likely there will be some contact with other surfers. Adhering to the following points of basic surfing etiquette can significantly reduce this risk:
- Paddle around the break back to the lineup.
- Take the whitewater to avoid paddling into the path of a riding surfer.
- Don’t drop in on others.
- Grab your board when you fall.
- Don’t ditch your board to duck under a wave.
Play it Safe
As a surfer becomes more knowledgeable about the sport and gains more experience playing in the ocean, safety issues tend to take a back seat to the quest for fun. However, having a safe surf session should always remain the primary goal. So if you’re ever “in doubt, just stay out.”