Is Surfing an Extreme Sport? (& What Makes It Extreme)

Robert Elgar

Fun, relaxing, casual, competitive, exhilarating, and extreme. 

These are all words that have been used to describe surfing.

Surfing is considered to be an extreme sport, but is it really?

How can a relaxing and casual activity be considered extreme?

It is not so much the activity of surfing that is extreme, but more of the how, when, and where it is done that can turn this casual past time into an exhilarating and adrenaline-pumping extreme sport.

Below we will discuss why surfing is considered to be an extreme sport, what conditions make it extreme, and where to find the most extreme rides.

Is Surfing a Sport?

Before jumping into its “extreme” side, we first need to determine if surfing can be considered a sport in the first place.

So what is a sport?

We can look at two definitions to understand what activities could be considered a sport.

Cambridge dictionary:

“All types of physical activity that people do to keep healthy or for enjoyment”

Oxford dictionary:

“An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment”.

Taking these definitions into account we can ask the following questions about surfing.

Does surfing require a learned skill?

Yes, surfing takes practice and can sometimes be quite hard to learn.

Is surfing physically demanding?

Yes, surfing can be a lot of work and is considered a great all-around workout.

Is surfing done for enjoyment?

Yes, this one is easy!

Can surfing be done professionally and as a competition?

Yes, although most people will surf only for their own enjoyment, even casual surfing becomes very competitive.

So in conclusion, yes, surfing is without a doubt considered to be a sport.

Now let us look at the other part of the word: “extreme”.

What is an Extreme Sport?

Extreme sports, which are sometimes known as action sports or alternative sports, are sports that usually involve high speeds, height, or a high level of physical exertion.

Whether it is racing down a hill on a BMX at high speeds or slowly climbing the vertical face of a mountain, one thing is always true with extreme sports: There is a high level of risk involved

In other words, if you mess up, you are in trouble.

Keep in mind that you can only mess up if you are in control in the first place.

What does this mean?

Activities that do not require a (high amount of) skill are not extreme sports, but rather extreme activities.

Some examples of extreme activities are:

  • shark cage diving (when not on SCUBA)
  • bungee jumping
  • zero-gravity flights

All of these can be considered dangerous activities if something goes wrong.

However, it would not be the result of a badly executed skill from the individual, which is why they are not considered sports (extreme or otherwise).

Why is Surfing Considered an Extreme Sport?

Without a doubt surfing can be dangerous, but so can swimming and hiking. 

So why is surfing considered to be an extreme sport, while swimming is not?

Surfing has a high injury and risk factor

In a study that can be found in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, the relative frequency and pattern of surfing injuries were assessed.

The study was done on a survey base and included 1348 individuals, of which 1237 reported acute injuries and 477 chronic injuries.

42% of these injuries involved lacerations, 13% were concussions, 8% fractures, and the remaining split between sprains, strains, and other minor injuries.

These injuries were received in various ways including contact with the surfer’s own board (55%), contact with another’s board (12%), and contact with the ocean floor (17%).

Beyond these hard and sharp surfaces that pose a high risk, there is the water factor.

Hitting water at high speeds or from great heights can cause serious injuries.

Hitting water from a height of only 50 ft (about 15 meters) can result in the same situation as hitting concrete

It is of course very unlikely you will be surfing a 50 ft wave, but even a height a third of that size can cause some serious damage.

When is Surfing Considered an Extreme Sport?

Because of the high risk presented by your surfboard, other boards, rocks, coral, and of course the drowning factor, surfing is always considered to be an extreme sport.

However, particular practices within the sport may be the result of moving it into the “extreme” category in the first place.

1. Competitive Trick Surfing

Aerial tricks, called the “elite surfing injury” by a study published in Research Gate, have been shown to pose a high chance of injury, particularly in the lower body.

Due to the preciseness and speed required to land a successful aerial maneuver, as well as the twisting action used, it often results in ankle and knee injury.

Another study discusses the risk of competitive surfing as a whole, due to the dynamic nature of the sport.

The study shows how during a competitive season of The World Championships Tour, aerial and tube rides scored 1 – 2 points higher on average per ride.

This creates a higher desire to perform one of these two skilled and high-risk maneuvers.

2. Big Wave Surfing

The introduction of big wave surfing takes the sport to a whole new level of extreme.

In order for it to be considered big wave surfing, a surfer must attempt to surf a wave that is at least 20 ft (6.2 meters) high.

With waves reaching up to 78 feet (the biggest recorded wave to be surfed), riders can experience speeds of up to 80 kmh / 50 mph.

No matter who you are or how soft water may seem, hitting it at this speed will result in the surfer jumping across the water like a skimming pebble on a lake.

When watching the above video, the pure power, velocity, and brutality of big wave surfing are inescapable.

Taking special note of the video at 4:35 minutes, the sheer untamed nature and high speed that a large wave possesses highlights why it is so dangerous.

A simple error in this situation could result in disaster.

Besides the high speeds and potentially long falls, big wave surfing holds the biggest risk when it comes to getting caught in a set.

Big Wave Surfing Deaths that Shocked the Community

Being held under the water by two or more consecutive waves poses the highest threat when big wave surfing.

Although this time may not exceed more than half a minute, the pure amount of energy that is used when being drilled into the ocean floor, or tumbled around by tons of water is exhausting.

Some of the most noticeable big wave surfing deaths include:

  • Mark Foo (1994)
  • Donnie Solomon (1995)
  • Todd Chesser (1997)
  • Malik Joyeux (2005)
  • Peter Davi (2007)
  • Sion Milosky (2011)

All of the above were legends in the sport and shook the surfing community with shock and disbelief.

The deaths of these surfers came at such a surprise because they were considered the best at what they do and almost untouchable.

This truly shows the extreme danger and unpredictability of big wave surfing.

Where to Find Some of the Worlds Biggest Surf Breaks

Although the risks are extreme (hence the name), some surfers cannot stay away from the thrill that facing a monstrous wave provides.

Seeking out huge waves can be done worldwide, with some of the most famous spots including the following:

Praia do Norte, Portugal – Holding several world records, including the largest wave ever ridden, this spot is known as the “surfboard breaking machine”.

Peahi (Jaws), Hawaii – A reef break supporting waves between 30 and 80 feet, Jaws is considered to have some of – if not the – fastest and heaviest waves in the Pacific Ocean.

Teahupoo, French Polynesia – Another shallow reef break found nearly a half kilometer off the shore of Tahiti. 

With perfectly shaped barrels and a face 2 to 3 times bigger than the back of the wave, Teahupoo is considered to be one of the deadliest waves in the world:

Mavericks, California – Home to the famous Jay Moriarity, and the destination for the unforgettable film “Chasing Mavericks”, Mavericks is a bone-crushing, unpredictable wave that breaks in cold shark-infested waters.

Todos Santos (Killers), Mexico – Producing the biggest waves on the west coast of North America, Killers has been a World Surfing Reserve since 2014.

Dungeons, South Africa – Dungeons, which sees its biggest break during winter months, and usually only once a year, is the home of the Red Bull Big Wave Africa competition.

With randomly breaking waves and speeds of up to 30 mph (48 kmh), wiping out at dungeons has been known to push surfers 30 feet / 9 m underwater.

Top Surf Competitions to Follow

Whether you are just into casual surfing or prefer the more extreme side of the sport, there are some surf competitions that you should not miss.

As mentioned before, surfing becomes most dangerous when adding competition or big waves.

Adding both into the same situation is truly the pinnacle of the sport. The competitions below include either trick surfing, large waves, and sometimes both.

Mavericks

Mentioned above as one of the harshest waves in the world, the Mavericks competition includes 24 of the world’s best big wave surfers and takes place between November and March.

WSL World Tour

Taking place in various locations around the world, this competition includes 62 surfers (male and female) that go head to head in 10 legs of point-based tricks, maneuvers, flow, and speed.

The WSL World Tour takes place throughout the year, and the updated schedule can be found online.

Billabong Pipeline Masters

Taking place at the world-famous pipeline in Hawaii, Pipeline is the last leg of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.

Combining both skilled tricks, huge tube rides, and massive waves, this is one of the most impressive competitions to watch.

So much so that several surf movies are filmed here, including Blue Crush and Soul Surfer (based on the one-armed, shark attack survivor Bethany Hamilton).

Conclusion

Surfing is without a doubt an extreme sport, but there are certainly different levels that that extreme can go to.

From casual surfing , where risks involve minor lacerations and concussions. 

To big wave and competition surfing where the skills required and the risks increase exponentially.

Whichever approach you take to the sport, a high level of skill is needed, and a good understanding of the ocean is required in order to stay safe and take full advantage of this extreme sport.

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