Is Surfing Dangerous?
Is Surfing Dangerous?
Is surfing dangerous? In any sport, improvement takes pushing physical boundaries, taking risks, and summoning courage. As you improve, you start to read the conditions better, understand the lineup and the rules get better equipment, and learn to avoid injury. Still, in the unpredictable ocean environment, there are risks, and how much risk you’re willing to take on is personal. Each time you check the surf, there’s an analysis of risk vs benefit going on in your head. Before we dive into answering the question of ‘Is surfing safe?’, we highly recommend that you get proper training before heading into the surf. Check out a local surf shop near you for training or safe surfing tips and tricks!
Surfing is not safe. It’s completely dangerous. There are many elements that you can’t control or predict, and it takes perseverance and commitment to learn to surf well. Wave knowledge, honesty with your current ability, and sound decision-making skills will help mitigate the dangers of surfing, but there will always be some risk involved. Each time you surf, look around you and do a risk assessment of the physical, personal and even interpersonal hazards that you might face. This is what lifeguards are trained to do, so it makes sense that if you want to stay safe, you do it too.
Here are the Environmental factors to consider:
- Look at the lineup for at least 20 minutes to see what kind of sets are coming in. Sometimes the ocean looks calm, even inviting, in between giant sets on a clear, windless day.
- Determine what lies beneath the waves: rock, sand or reef? Is there an area of danger that you need to paddle around instead of through? Look for a channel to paddle out safely, by looking at where other people are going in and out. Also notice the path to the water: is it a steep slippery path down the beach? Do you have to jump off rocks or climb down a sea wall?
- Are there other people out in the water? If not, maybe there’s a reason. Did they clear out because of a shark? Or is this a place that looks deceivingly close but is actually a mile paddle or the waves are not as good as they look from shore? There are specific places people surf for a reason, and the opposite is also true.
- Is there a landmark where other surfers put in from the sand, like a seawall, a fence, a tree or a specific house? Once in the water, you’ll need that landmark to mark where the channel is so you can paddle back into it when your session is over instead of surfing into reef or rocks.
- Look at the surface of the water for any bumpy sections that look like a river- those are rip currents, and should be avoided unless you are familiar with dealing with them.
- Check the color of the water. Brown, reddish, or dark green water could be a sign of bacterial growth that could be harmful to your health. If that’s not enough to deter you, consider this: sharks are attracted to brown, brackish water (like river mouths after heavy rains), and they have an advantage in the low visibility, as they rely on their keen sense of smell and movement oversight.
- Look at the sky, and determine how much light is left. This will give you an idea of how long you should surf before paddling in so you don’t get stuck far offshore in the dark, which can be disorienting.
- What is the weather like? Are there dark clouds moving in? Lightning is a bad idea to surf under for obvious reasons, and drilling rain makes it near impossible to see incoming swells.
- Last, but maybe most important of all, look to see if you’re near a lifeguard tower. If so, look for signs posted on the beach that warn of stinging jellyfish, shark sightings, strong rip currents or high levels of bacteria.
Beyond Environmental hazards, there are personal surfing risks. These have everything to do with your equipment, prior knowledge, and level of fitness.
Here’s a breakdown of what to consider:
- Check your Skin Protection: Surfers run a higher risk of serious skin damage due to exposure. Wearing sunscreen and a good wetsuit or rashguard is probably the most important thing you can do to mitigate that risk. For sunscreen, your best bet is a mineral sunscreen, SPF 50 or higher, that claims to be water-resistant for at least 80 minutes. A good wetsuit will ensure that you keep warm, and protect your skin against abrasion if you’re surfing shallower reef. Depending just how cold the water is where you surf, you may need a hood, gloves, and booties, too. It’s important to find a wetsuit that’s not only warm but fits right and has enough flexibility. Wetsuits for surfing are designed differently than for other water sports, as surfing demands more movement and stretch at the hips, arms, and knees than paddling or diving. In warmer climates, rash guards are a good alternative, to protect you from the sun but also from skin blotching and chafing caused by the pressure of your torso against your board.
- Check your equipment. Take a minute to wax your board. Make sure your leash is strong, the right length for your board, and not knotted up in any way. Check the cord that attaches your leash to your board: make sure the knot is still solid and not corroded or frayed. Be sure you have the right board for the conditions you’re heading into.
- Check your fitness: Surfing is much more dangerous if you’re out of shape. You need to be a good swimmer, a strong paddler, and able to adapt or react quickly to changes in the environment. No matter how fit you are, if you go out into waves above your skill level, you could injure yourself or others – or even drown- so it’s important not to be overconfident based on fitness, too. It doesn’t hurt to have an out of water fitness routine that supports your surf progression, like cross-training, yoga, skateboarding, and snowboarding.
- Check your knowledge: There is a depth of specific wave knowledge that comes with years of surfing all kinds of waves, in all kinds of conditions. In Hawaii, lifeguards put out a public safety announcement when the surf is large which simply states, “if in doubt, don’t go out”, meaning it’s your personal responsibility to know when to stay on the sand, and it just might save your life to do so.
Whenever you’re surfing with other people around, there are added risks. Strictly mathematically speaking, there are only so many waves for so many people during the hour or two that you spend in the water. This leads to the creation of place-based rules that you need to know and adhere to. It’s a good idea to learn the rules of engagement that exist to keep everyone safe.
Here are a few basics:
- Are there children playing in the shore break? If so, don’t go out if you think you could pose a risk to them. If you do, make sure you have a leash so you don’t lose your board into the area where kids are playing.
- Take a close look at the surfers in the lineup. Are they beginners? This could mean getting run over or hit by an airborne board. Or, if it’s crowded and people are battling for every wave, take note of that and don’t go out with the expectation that you’ll get a lot of wave time. Maybe check another spot, or go out later. If you do go out, wait for your turn. Dropping in on people or racing them to the peak isn’t just lame, it’s dangerous.
- Know where to go: Some lineups are beginner-friendly, some are not. A lot of beginner surfers are understandably so stoked on surfing that they forget they are adding to the crowd and making it tougher for others to share waves. Overcrowding can be dangerous in critical waves where there are more power and speed needed to make the drop. Usually what it boils down to is that there are “levels” to surf spots, from beginner to advanced, and it’s a good idea to learn which spots are which. It’s dangerous to level up before you’ve earned it. Be patient by getting to know the area, learn to catch waves with an acceptable level of skill at other spots, and earn the trust of other surfers so that they’re confident you won’t drop in or get in anyone’s way.
So, how safe is surfing? That depends on you. Surf progression, personal knowledge, and an attitude of mutual safety will eventually be your ticket to wilder waves. A whole new world of excitement awaits when what used to be dangerous is now safe.