Surf Safety Equipment | Surf Helmets, Earplugs & Reef Boots

Protect your brain cells from obliteration, your ears from abnormal bone growths, your feet from ravenous live coral

The noggin, the lughole (x 2), the tarsus and metatarsus (x 2) — all highly useful body parts for the budding surfer, and all vulnerable to injury and illness. Stave off head trauma, surfer’s ear and pesky cuts with these three nifty items of surf safety equipment: helmet, earplugs and reef boots.

Surfing Safety Equipment: Surf helmets

Head injuries are the worst sort of injury, and this is especially so in the sea, where unconsciousness can lead easily to drowning even without the added complication of large surf. Moreover, the surfer’s head is a very exposed area; one recent study carried out in southwest France found that 51% of injuries sustained while surfing affected the head (this figure also includes facial lacerations, nasal fractures, etc.).

High-profile cautionary tales aren’t hard to find. After hitting his head on the reef at Pipeline in December of 2015, former world no. 3 Owen Wright suffered a bleed on the brain, and has since had to learn to surf again almost from scratch; ten years previously at the same spot, Tahitian big wave surfer Malik Joyeux was knocked unconscious — probably by his own surfboard — and drowned.

Gath claims to make the “world’s lightest surf helmet”. This one comes with detachable ear protectors.

Some surfers, several professionals among them, opt to wear a specially designed surfing helmet, particularly when surfing over reef or in heavy crowds. Tom Carroll, who was twice crowned world champion in the ‘80s, is surfing’s foremost exponent of the helmet, and insists on wearing one whenever he surfs heavy waves such as Pipeline.

Tom Carroll’s rarely seen surfing heavy reef breaks without a helmet on – and ain’t nobody taking the piss out of Tommy Carroll.

The brand of choice among surfers is Gath, in fact the Australian company may be the only brand that specialises in helmets designed specifically for surfing. It was a Gath helmet that Jeremy Flores wore to victory at the 2015 Pro Tahiti (Flores had suffered a severe facial injury in the preceding weeks, and wore the helmet to prevent further damage); North Shore charger Liam McNamara famously favoured one with a built-in visor. Lightweight, snug and breathable, Gath helmets retail for around £90, and are also popular among surf kayakers, kitesurfers, windsurfers, etc.

Jeremy Flores, en route to victory at the Billabong Pro Tahiti. Photo: WSL

At present the helmet-wearing surfing population is small, and it seems unlikely that helmets will ever become standard surfing attire either among professionals or laymen — but then similar predictions were probably made about cycling some 20 years ago, when helmets in the peloton, now obligatory, were a rarity.

Surfing Safety Equipment: What is surfer’s ear?

Repeated exposure to cold water for long periods can cause what’s known as surfer’s ear — the narrowing of the ear canal due to abnormal bone growth. Besides potentially impairing your hearing, it leads to the trapping of water and debris inside the ear canal, which in turn can lead to recurrent ear infections. It’s pretty grim stuff. UK surfers are obviously at risk due to the cold water temperatures, in fact even surfing in the British summer will contribute to the development of the condition, which can occur within just five years of regular, unprotected, cold water surfing.

There is a cure — the operation involves either drilling or chiselling into the affected ear, and though it’s a fairly straightforward process it can sometimes lead to complications, and whatever happens you won’t be surfing for the next 6-8 weeks — but prevention is surely preferable.

Surfing Safety Equipment: Surf Earplugs

Specially designed, reusable ear plugs for surfers and open water swimmers are available at fairly reasonable prices, and greatly reduce the chances of developing surfer’s ear. Some can be moulded to fit the shape of your ear canal; others are used in combination with putty to ensure a tight seal; others still claim to provide a watertight seal without blocking out sound. Many surfers swear by standard blue-tac.

Surf Ears 2.0 by Creatures of Leisure. A decent pair of ear plugs – or even a few bits of blu-tack – will substantially reduce the likelihood of developing Surfer’s Ear.

Plugs that can be moulded are often essential for surfers already suffering from surfer’s ear, whose ear canals are therefore much narrower than most people’s.

Surfing Safety Equipment: Reef boots For Surfing

The Xcel Infiniti 1mm split-toe reef boot.

When surfing over reef, particularly over coral reef, your feet will be a lot safer from cuts in a pair of reef boots — lightweight, low-cut wetsuit boots designed for surfing, ideally sporting a split-toe design for greater comfort and feel. Some surfers dismiss reef boots as uncool or simply prefer surfing barefooted, but at spots where a long walk over coral reef is required to access the line-up, or where the inside section is perilously shallow, they’re highly advisable — and indeed are worn by most surfers. Coral reef’s extremely sharp, and as it consists of organic matter the threat of infection is high; cuts could jeopardise your surf trip, and are difficult to avoid without reef boots.

In addition to boots, some surfers opt to wear wetsuit tops or even wetsuits when surfing over particularly treacherous coral reefs, warm water temperatures in the high 20s notwithstanding.

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