Safe Surfing Equipment | Basic Surfboard Safety
Keep your feet, face and family jewels safe with these simple tips for a safer surfboard and a safer line-up
In addition to the donning of specific surf safety equipment such as helmets, earplugs and reef boots, you can protect yourself from surfing injuries by ensuring your basic surfing equipment is up to scratch. Surfboards and their various appendages constitute a serious safety hazard in themselves, but there are several simple ways of minimising the danger they pose.
Safe Surfing Equipment: Surfboards
The majority of surfing injuries — 66%, according to one study — occur upon impact with a surfboard. Usually the offending surfboard belongs to the injured party, so it’s in your own interests as well as in everyone else’s to ensure your surfboard’s as safe as possible. When you first start learning to surf you should use a soft-top surfboard or “foamie", which is still capable of doing a lot of damage, but not quite so much as a standard surfboard with a hard outer layer. Such surfboards often come equipped with flexible rubber fins, which are likewise preferable.
Safe Surfing Equipment: surfboard Fins
Of those surfing injuries inflicted by surfboards, fins are responsible for almost half. Besides the rubber fins that come as standard with most beginner-friendly foam surfboards, Pro Teck Fins made by Surf Co. Hawaii are probably the safest fins on the market, featuring flexible urethane edges that are less likely to leave a deep laceration. They perform slightly differently to normal hard-edged fins — Pro Teck claim they’re conducive to “tighter and more fluid turns, similar to the fins of dolphins and sharks" — but unless you’re an advanced surfer you probably won’t notice the difference.
FCS fins, the industry’s leading fin manufacturer, recently launched its new FCS II system, whereby fins can be snapped in and out of their sockets without the need for screws or a fin key. Not only is the system more convenient, in theory it's also safer, as fins will detach from the surfboard upon heavy impact, thus minimising the chance of serious injury. You may lose a fin, but that’s surely preferable to losing a litre of blood.
If using normal hard-edged fins, lightly sanding down their sharp edges with fine sandpaper will reduce the severity of any injuries they cause, and have little to no effect on performance. Surf safety expert Andrew Nathanson recommends dulling the edges to a minimum width of 2 mm. Fin-related horror stories are alarmingly common, and uncommonly alarming: Joel Parkinson’s 2010 world title campaign was scuppered when he mistimed an aerial and sliced half his heel off; both Gerry Lopez and Tom Carroll sustained serious fin-related injuries in their hind parts.
Safe Surfing Equipment: Surfboard Nose guards
The surfboard’s nose is the other obvious danger area, as it’s often sharply pointed. The nose of a beginner’s surfboard should be rounded, but when you do move on to a shortboard with a pointed nose, small plastic nose guards are available to soften the impact in the case of collision; alternatively, round off the point with some fine sandpaper (a sharp point has no functional benefit at all). The nose is also one of the parts of a surfboard most likely to get dinged, and with its jagged edges a dinged or poorly repaired nose is liable to inflict considerably more damage (a sizeable scar on my own cheek attests to this danger).
Safe Surfing Equipment: Surfboard Leashes
Wearing a leash is not only hugely convenient, it’s also essential from a safety point of view: when you wipeout your surfboard’s far less likely to hit other surfers, and if you find yourself struggling you’ll always have your surfboard there as a flotation device.
But while the leash represents a large net improvement to surf safety, it also constitutes a safety hazard in itself. There are three main things that can go wrong with a leash. It can catapult a surfboard back through the air towards its surfer following a wipeout, especially in strong offshore winds; when pulled taut by a wave, it can wrap around a surfer like a boa constrictor, or a tourniquet, causing contusion or even amputation (fingers are usually most at risk); and it can snag — or the surfboard it’s attached to can snag — on the reef or around a groyne or suchlike, effectively pinning the surfer it's attached to underwater. (It’s often speculated that this last eventuality was the cause of big wave surfer Mark Foo’s death at Mavericks in 1994).
Awareness is the main form of prevention here. Your leash should have some sort of quick-release tag or mechanism to aid its easy removal in critical situations; Silver Cord has just launched a special safety leash that features a unique quick-release pin (or 'Bail Safe Device'), in addition to a back-up inner cord for extra strength.
Remember that leashes are not indestructible, and can snap under the force of a strong wave — potentially leaving you up shit creek without a surfboard. Different thicknesses of leash are available, made to withstand different sizes of surf, and always check your leash is in good condition and securely attached to your surfboard before entering the surf, particularly if the surf’s big.