Surf Safety: Is surfing dangerous?

Of course surfing is dangerous, but if you’re sensible, well-informed and properly equipped, it’s not as dangerous as you might think. Studies have generally found that the injury rate for surfers is roughly the same as it is for skiers, slightly lower than it is for snowboarders, and much lower than it is for players of contact sports such as rugby. But then again, nobody ever drowned playing rugby.

Generally speaking, those most at risk are advanced surfers, who are likely to challenge themselves in the most dangerous conditions, and beginner surfers, who are less aware of surfing’s dangers and less prepared to deal with them.

Waimea Bay, one of the world's most dangerous waves, and the home of the  world's most prestigious big wave contest.  John John Florence and Mason Ho share a wave at the 2015 Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau. Photo: WSL/Keoki

Surf Safety: John John Florence and Mason Ho, Waimea drop at the 2015 Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau

Surf Safety: Surfing dangers

According to a survey conducted by surf safety expert Andrew Nathanson, 55% of all surfing injuries are inflicted by the surfboard belonging to the surfer injured; 11% are inflicted by surfboards belonging to other surfers, 18% occur upon impact with the ocean floor, 7% are caused by waves themselves and 3% are caused by marine animals (mostly urchins and jellyfish).

Other dangers to bear in mind that can result in injury or drowning (the latter often being a consequence of the former) include:

  • Rip currents and other currents.
  • Other surf craft (surf kayaks, SUPs, etc.).
  • Sea defences and other manmade structures (groynes, breakwaters, piers, etc.), around which currents tend to be much stronger.
  • Rocks, either protruding above the surface or lurking just beneath it unseen.
  • The cold, which contributes to exhaustion and can be fatal.
  • The tide, which can radically alter the character of the beach without your noticing, often introducing new hazards and at certain beaches blocking off your intended route of exit from the sea.

Bigger, more powerful surf amplifies the risk of an accident exponentially; currents will be much stronger, waves will hold you underwater for much longer, and the likelihood of drowning will be much greater. Similarly, surfing at a reef break, where waves break over a rock bottom, has been found to be twice as dangerous as surfing at a beach break.

Wherever you go surfing, your head is the main danger area: not only can head injuries be hugely damaging in themselves, if you’re knocked unconscious in the surf you can drown as a result. Spinal injuries are also a risk, particularly when surfing in powerful waves breaking in shallow water.

Friendly-looking waves at Huntington Beach in California... but beware the pier. Photo: iStock.

Surfers beside the Huntington Beach Pier

Between 2009 and 2014, there were eleven surfing or bodyboarding-related deaths in the UK. Most of these occurred in Cornwall — where surfing is most popular — and involved inexperienced surfers caught in rip currents; one drowning, at Lowestoft, Suffolk, was the result of a surfboard becoming entangled in a groyne.

Surf Safety: Where to surf

Many of the above dangers can be avoided, or at least minimised, simply by surfing in a sensible place where the waves and conditions are appropriate for your surfing ability and competency in the water. Beginner surfers should learn to surf at beach breaks rather than at reef breaks or point breaks, and limit themselves initially to small to medium sized waves, preferably of the friendly, gently crumbling variety. Angry, powerful, “barrelling" waves are best left alone. If you can’t swim or have only just started learning to surf, don't stray out of your depth.

To surf the shore break, you've got to be either very good or just plain old crazy. Jamie O'Brien and his friends, below, are both. Photo: iStock.

Beautiful Wave

Waves breaking almost directly onto the shore, in very shallow water or no water at all, form what is known as a shore break, and these are also to be avoided. The waves in a shore break are usually very powerful and will plunge you painfully into the sand (or, even worse, the rocks); shore breaks also tend to be subject to strong swash or backwash, which can easily sweep you off your feet and into deep water. Bear in mind that waves which break further out to sea often reform into a shore break, which you may have to negotiate upon your return to the beach.

Other surfers constitute a major hazard, and for this reason you should try to find a stretch of beach without too many of them around. But surfing alone at a deserted beach isn’t a great idea either; find a lifeguarded beach, or go with a friend, or at the very least make sure someone else knows you’ve gone surfing and where. If you’ve never surfed before, surf lessons with a qualified surf instructor are highly advisable — not only will you be significantly safer, you’ll also progress much faster. Swimmers and surfers are not a good combination: if surfing at a lifeguarded beach, keep out of the swimming zone.

The RNLI lifeguards do a great job at many popular surfing beaches around the UK - but always surf between the black and white flags, never between the red and yellows.

Surf Safety: RNLI lifeguard flags

When you’re just starting to learn to surf, paddling out to beyond where the waves are breaking will be dangerous and frustrating both for yourself and the other surfers there; by catching the white water waves closer to shore, you’ll catch more waves, learn more quickly, and won’t get in the way. When you first start to venture “out back", do so only on smaller days.

Never be afraid to discuss potential hazards with the lifeguards or other surfers, or to ask them for advice on where to surf.

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