The vast majority of risks you face when you go surfing can be substantially reduced, if not eliminated entirely, by a combination of awareness, basic fitness, and proper surfing equipment. There are various dangerous mistakes commonly made by beginner surfers; avoid making them yourself, and help make the line-up a safer place for everyone, by following these essential surf safety tips.
Safe Surfing Tip #1: Protect Your Head When You Fall
When you fall off your surfboard or “wipeout", your first movement should be to cover your head with your arms, thus protecting it both from your surfboard, the seafloor, and other surfers. If possible, try to avoid falling headfirst, taking particular care in shallow water.
Safe Surfing Tip #2: Keep Hold Of Your Surfboard
For the benefit of other surfers in the water, keep hold of your surfboard at all times; never discard it when faced with an oncoming wave, as it could easily hit someone behind you. Likewise, avoid paddling out directly behind other surfers.
Safe Surfing Tip #3: Hold Your Surfboard To Your Side
When negotiating oncoming waves as you hold your ground against the white water, don’t place your surfboard in between yourself and the wave but keep it to your side, or you risk it hitting you in the face -- a classic beginner mistake.
Safe Surfing Tip #4: Learn About Rip Currents
If you get caught in a rip current going out to sea, don’t panic, and don’t paddle directly against it but at a perpendicular angle away from it. Learn more about how rip currents work and how to deal with them here.
Safe Surfing Tip #5: Follow Surf Etiquette
Collisions with other surfers are an occupational hazard; they are best avoided by employing common sense, not surfing at intensely crowded beaches, and following proper surf etiquette. Going surfing without at least a basic understanding of surf etiquette is irresponsible, and will put other surfers as well yourself in danger.
Safe Surfing Tip #6: Get Surf Fit
Not just fit, but surf fit. Being able to bench press obscene amounts or run a marathon at world record pace will be of limited use in the surf. Your paddling muscles are by far your most important ones; the faster and further you can paddle, the further you'll be from danger.
And don't think that just because you've got a buoyancy device in the form of a surfboard that being able to swim is no longer important; neither your leash nor your surfboard is indestructible, and if one or other of them snaps you'll be on your own. Weak swimmers should consider investing some time at the local swimming pool; strong swimmers shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security -- always remember that the ocean is a far more dangerous and unpredictable environment than a swimming pool. Surf Lifesaving Clubs are great places to build up your strength and confidence in the surf.
Safe Surfing Tip #7: Avoid Obstacles
Not as in "don't surf into them," but as in "don't go surfing near them in the first place". Piers, exposed rocks, groynes, cliffs, boats -- when good waves are breaking in close vicinity to such obstacles, you should probably think about finding somewhere else to surf. Around permanent structures, be they natural or manmade, currents are often much stronger, which further complicates matters; pay particular attention to longshore currents, which can rapidly transport you away from where you first paddle out and towards danger.
Safe Surfing Tip #8: Plan Your Entry & Exit
Always work out your exit strategy before entering the sea. At most beaches this will be simple enough, but at some surf breaks returning to shore can be very difficult, complicated by rocks, cliffs, groynes, currents, and/or the movement of the tide. If in doubt, ask lifeguards or other surfers about potential hazards.
At certain point breaks and reef breaks, surfers will enter the water by jumping off the rocks and directly into the line-up. Such "rock jumps" are often very complicated operations; timing is of the essence, as is knowing exactly which rock to jump off. Don't fuck it up, or you'll end up on YouTube, or dead, or both. For instance:
If in doubt, seek another entry route. If you're a beginner surfer, you should probably be surfing somewhere else anyway.
Safe Surfing Tip #9: Know Your Limits
Yes, pushing your limits can be fun, and is arguably essential to the whole surfing experience, but surfing in waves way beyond your ability level is simply idiotic -- dangerous not only for yourself but also for other surfers, who will have to avoid you when you inevitably get in their way. Broadly speaking, beginners should stay in the white water to begin with, and avoid reef breaks and point breaks; beach breaks are generally easier-going and safer.
Safe Surfing Tip #10: Don't Surf For Too Long
Don’t keep surfing to the point of exhaustion, or until it gets too dark to see properly, or both, but get out while you still have the strength and vision to do so safely.
Safe Surfing Tip #11: Come Prepared
If surfing in cold water, ensure you are wearing a wetsuit thick enough for the water temperature, and if necessary wetsuit boots, wetsuit gloves and a wetsuit hood too; earplugs are also highly recommended in cold water, to prevent the onset of the dreaded surfer's ear. When surfing at crowded beaches or at reef breaks, consider wearing other surf safety gear too, such as a surf helmet or reef boots.
Safe Surfing Tip #12: Ride A Safe Surfboard
There are several ways in which your surfboard can be unsafe, or unnecessarily hazardous; these include being too big, too sharply pointed, or -- if you've only just started learning to surf -- too hard. Make your surfboard and its various appendages, such as its fins, safer both for yourself and others by following these simple steps.
Safe Surfing Tip #13: Wear Suncream, Stay Hydrated
Obvious, yes, but we'll say it anyway: if it's a scorcher of a day, wear shitloads of suncream and drink shitloads of water to avoid hideous sunburn, dehydration, heat exhaustion, etc.