Is Surfing Dangerous? (+ 10 Precautions Every Surfer Should Take)

Robert Elgar

Is surfing as tranquil and majestic as it may seem, or is surfing dangerous?

The idea of speeding down a perfect wave, tucking into a barrel, and popping out the other side into the warm sunlight.

Hitting soft water when you fall and not a care in the world. Surfing seems like the perfect sport.

Statistically speaking, surfing is safer than sports such as snowboarding, skateboarding, and even football.

However, there are potential dangers in surfing. In fact, everything you do could be dangerous if you are new to surfing and don’t know what you are doing.

If you want to keep yourself and others safe, you should know the following risks and what precautions to take before and while hitting the waves.

1. Hypothermia & Sunstroke

Taking note of weather conditions before hitting the water could be the difference between a fun afternoon in the ocean and a case of hypothermia or heatstroke.

Hypothermia can occur when your body continuously loses heat faster than it can replace it. Hypothermia can lead to shivering, confusion, and low energy levels.

Your body loses heat 24 times faster in water than on land due to water’s high thermal conductivity, meaning that hypothermia is still a risk in warmer waters.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, heatstroke can pose a real threat, and in extreme cases, the need for a hospital.

In simple terms heatstroke, also known as sunstroke, is the result of the body overheating due to over-exertion or prolonged sun exposure.

How to Avoid Sunstroke and Hypothermia

By taking note of the weather, you can (almost) entirely remove the dangers of these two conditions.

Look at the sky and take note of cloud cover, sunlight, the potential for rain, and wind conditions.

Always make sure you are well-hydrated before taking to the sea and remember to always listen to your body.

If you are feeling cold, it is better to take a break and sit in the sun for a while, or if it is a hot sunny day, then stand in the shade with a cup of water.

2. The Size of the Waves

Huge waves pose one of the biggest dangers while surfing. It is not so much the wave itself, but the lack of knowledge or experience with large swells that could be fatal.

For a 33 ft wave (roughly 10 meters), the lip can exert up to 410 tons of weight. That is over 80 fully grown elephants.

With waves this size, you will find it impossible to duck dive under, and wiping out will result in the feeling of hitting a solid surface instead of that soft water you were expecting.

Although it is unlikely you will be facing waves anywhere close to this size, even an 8 ft wave can hold you under the water and keep you tumbling for what may seem like an eternity.

How to Stay Safe in Large Swell

Firstly, and most importantly, although you need to push your boundaries to improve, you should make sure that you know your limits.

If the swell is bigger than you are comfortable with, make sure you are going out with someone who has experience in those conditions.

Make sure you know what to expect when duck diving, riding the wave as well as when wiping out. If you have an idea of what might happen, you are less likely to be caught off guard.

Perhaps more importantly, remember to stay relaxed and calm.

Don’t panic if you find yourself pinned down by a big wave. It may feel like you are under the water for minutes, but in reality, it is not usually more than a few seconds.

3. Currents, Riptides, and Undertows

Every year hundreds of people die from being pulled out to sea from riptides, currents, and undertows.

Although these ocean currents are unlikely to pull a surfer underwater, they hold a strong potential of draining their energy.

Finding yourself exhausted in the back of a lineup or while facing a large set poses a strong potential for drowning.

How to Stay Safe With Ocean Currents

Pay attention to what is happening in the water before entering. Look for areas of water that seem all rough and inconsistent. These areas are most likely opposing currents that result in rips and undertows.

Make sure you set a landmark on the beach or surrounding land so you can take note if you are drifting too far away from your starting point.

Most importantly, if you find yourself caught in a strong current, never swim against it.

You should always swim across a current and allow it to pull you as far out as it lasts. Once the current subsides, you can paddle around the rip and back towards shore.

A riptide will only take you as far as the back of the break, so do not panic. Bide your time, conserve your energy, and you will be just fine.

4. Type of Wave Break

Be aware of the type of wave you will be surfing.

Is the wave breaking over a coral reef or a sandbar?

Does the wave break left, right, or is it an A-frame break?

Knowing what is below your feet while surfing is incredibly valuable. Wiping out on a shallow reef can cause extreme cuts from coral, and on hard surfaces such as rock, knock a surfer unconscious.

How to Stay Safe in Different Wave Breaks

Always know what type of wave you will be surfing. If you are trying out a new spot, make sure to ask a local about the ocean floor, the break direction, and the type of waves to expect.

When surfing in shallow water and over coral reefs, make sure to protect yourself with the right wetsuit to avoid cuts, and always be aware of changing tides and water depth.

5. The Time of Day

The time of day can affect the conditions of the water. As the sun goes down, temperatures drop, winds tend to pick up, and the ocean becomes rougher.

Finding yourself stuck in the backline as it gets dark could be dangerous, particularly in the bigger swell, as it is harder to see what you are facing.

Not to mention sharks like to hunt during dusk and dawn.

Safe Times to Surf

Knowing what time the sun will go down and how long you have in the water before it gets dark will help you to avoid being stuck at the back during the wrong time.

Of course, surfing under the moonlight seems like an adventure, and it is, but before paddling out under the stars, you should always consider:

  • The size of the moon
  • Cloud cover
  • Wave size
  • Swell direction
  • Number of other surfers

Never surf in the dark at a spot that you do not know very well in the light.

6. Dangers of Marine Life While Surfing

When thinking about the dangers of surfing, every new surfer (or non-surfer) will mention sharks as the biggest threat.

This thought is, however, far from the truth.

In 2019 there were 140 shark attacks investigated worldwide, of which only 64 were unprovoked.

There are approximately 35 million surfers in the world. If each person only surfed once that year, there is a 0.00018% chance of a shark attack on each person.

Furthermore, this number does not take into account non-surfers and swimmers.

So, is marine life a threat to surfers? The answer is still yes.

Beyond the potential risk of shark attacks, there are:

  • seals
  • jellyfish
  • urchins
  • bluebottles

that all pose potential harm to surfers in the water.

From bites to stings and stabbings, the ocean remains the habitat of marine life, and you should keep that in mind.

How to Keep Yourself Safe From Marine Life

Sharks love to hunt in dirty water.

Not to say that you should not surf when you can not see the bottom (nowadays quite unlikely with all the pollution), but being aware of what is underneath you or what could be beneath you will help reduce your chances of injury.

Wearing a wetsuit or rash-vest will help protect you from jellyfish and bluebottle stings, while staying clear of the ocean floor will avoid contact with urchins and other dangerous bottom dwellers such as Stonefish.

7. Local Surfers

As contradictory as it may seem with a tranquil sport such as surfing, locals can get quite upset when new surfers invade their private surf spots.

The last thing any surfer wants is for their favorite surf spot to become overcrowded with inexperienced surfers and people they do not know.

Depending on the spot and the person, locals are known to protect their waves in ways ranging from shouting at non-locals until they leave the water to taking a more physical approach.

How to Avoid Problems With Locals

To avoid conflict with local surfers, it is always best to get to know the surfers around you first. Introducing yourself to the locals can take you a long way.

From here, you will gain a good understanding of their attitude and if you are welcome or not.

Also, remember to remain respectful of others around you. You may not get a chance to take the best waves of the day, but it is far better than not surfing at all or receiving a fist to the face.

Over time you will become friends with the locals and eventually be considered a local yourself.

8. Newbie Surfers and Non-Surfers

When surfing around a lot of inexperienced surfers and swimmers, you can pose as much danger to them as they can to you.

New surfers do not have much control over their boards and will not always be able to turn when heading straight for your head.

Swimmers have no idea about the dangers of a hard surfboard hitting them, and you may find them swimming around the breaks.

Not knowing about surfing etiquette can lead to anything from a broken board to a much more threatening injury.

How to Stay Safe From Inexperience Surfers

When it comes to inexperienced surfers, there is not much you can do besides telling them about the rules of the water and giving them some helpful tips on maneuvering their boards and staying safe.

For the most part, the best tactic to stay safe from newbies is to try to keep clear of their path.

Remember, you were new to surfing once too. Practice makes perfect, and everyone deserves a chance to try.

9. Dangers of Your Surf Equipment

Fiberglass boards, leash tangles, and sharp fins – your surf equipment could be your own worst enemy at times.

Having your surfboard hit you on the head is easily one of the most common surf injuries.

Ranging from a bloody nose to a possible blackout or concussion, the thing that keeps you afloat can also be the thing that makes you sink.

Getting tangled up in your leash is a problem every surfer has experienced on countless occasions.

Usually, at best, it trips you up when trying to stand, but also poses a risk of wrapping around your neck.

Always remember how sharp the fins are at the bottom of your board. Although they may not seem like it, when moving at quick speeds, they can easily tear open your wetsuit and worse.

How to Stay Safe From Your Gear

Being aware of your board, even when wiping out, could be the difference between a happy day surfing and a broken nose.

Consider where your surfboard might be when falling. Try to keep the fins in the water to avoid being sliced by them as your board races past.

As far as leash tangles go, the best you can do is make sure there is a swivel on the leash, consider the length of the leash and then leave the rest up to fate. No matter how hard you try, the leash will get you in the end!

10. Dangers of Being Unfit While Surfing

Although surfing may seem like one of the more relaxing sports – just hanging out in the water, lying on your board, and waiting for the next wave to come – in truth, it is very physically demanding.

Being caught in a large set with no power left in your arms is a recipe for a rather terrible pounding.

Furthermore, being pinned down by a wave when you are already out of breath is a truly terrifying experience.

Not having enough power in your arms to get yourself back to shore can turn into a dangerous situation and should always be considered.

Keeping Fit Keeps Surfing Safe

Knowing your fitness level before entering the water should always be something you consider.

Never go into surf that is too rough for you, and make sure that you get constant paddle practice before hitting big waves or opting for a far-out break.

Another thing to consider is your breath-hold.

Although you will never be held underwater for too long, knowing you can keep your breath for a few minutes will bring some comfort when you find yourself getting tumbled by a wave.

Be careful not to surf when you are sick, or your body is not in prime condition.

Remember that the land is our home, and we are guests to the ocean.

Conclusion

Just like any activity in the world, surfing is as safe as you make it.

Yes, surfing can be dangerous, but knowing the conditions you are putting yourself into and knowing your limits will decrease your chances of getting hurt.

Always consider every aspect of the ocean before entering and stay constantly aware of the surrounding people.

Every surfer should know the 10 risks and precautions mentioned in this article, because knowing them can help change a potentially dangerous sport into a fun afternoon in the ocean.

Get the most out of a surf session, and keep yourself and others safe while enjoying the wonders that Mother Nature has provided.

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