There are two sides to the coin and as fun surfing can seem, we are facing numerous considerable dangers to the sport each session.
Comfort levels in our fast-paced society increase daily, making it far too easy to unconsciously forget the fact that we are kind of playing with the devil when surfing. Surfing is, after all, an extreme sport – a recreation performed at a place & doing things that are not considered as safe.
Its easy to forget how fragile life can really be, and we tend to forget some of the obvious daily dangers.
Have a look at some of the dangers to surfing that have taught surfers to be humble, go with the flow, and stay calm during the stressful times in our day-to-day lives.
1. Water can be unpredictable.
Rips, currents, bomber waves, undertow.
One cubic meter (m2) of water weighs 1,000kg (a ton). Average surfers weigh around 80kg (180lbs). That’s the beauty of surfing were a somewhat small human being knows how to navigate freely in this ever-moving danger zone – the surf. Although it takes a while to get to know how this whole “surf stuff” works, we often face some considerable dangerous risks along the way.
Rip currents are one of the biggest hazards to foreign beachgoers who haven’t been in the ‘real’ ocean before. The ocean with curling waves.
A rip current occurs at a certain spot on the beach where all the incoming water has formed an underwater current for all water to flow back into the ocean. That being said, a rip current is always a one-way street towards the ocean. Depending on how much water has flown towards the shore by powerful waves, the stronger the rip is.
To spot a rip current, see if there’s a spot on the beach where waves don’t break but look more choppy than clean.
A bomber wave is an occurrence where a set of above-average waves appear out of the blue. While these waves are often preferred by surfers, they can intimidate a beginner for sure. To avoid that happening, one should always monitor a surf break and look for incoming waves ahead. It is also recommended to keep a safe distance from other surfers in the line-up so you wouldn’t get sucked under continuously.
Strong currents and sideways-moving waters can be dangerous at any spot. Even if you surf a wide-open beach break with good sandbanks at the bottom, a strong undertow will steer you off-course to some sketchy places. In order to avoid getting slowly pushed and pulled around the water, see if the surf spot is empty for a reason – or simply monitor the waters. If there’s heavy sideways water flow, you are better off skipping the sesh. Everything seems smaller from the shore, so you might not want to test it out yourself.
Tsunami waves can be detected when the water levels decrease rapidly from the shore. I’m sure everyone is aware of the devastating consequences of this type of wave. A rare occasion, but it has been happening all around the world.
2. It takes a few seconds for things to go wrong.
Here’s something we can’t give out any direct recommendations besides just embracing the fact. Always leave room for error, and if you are not ‘feeling it, you might just do yourself a favor by skipping the surf for this day. After all, gut feeling is there for a reason!
3. Natural predators.
Sharks, alligators, stingrays & jellyfish.
Now finally to the point everyone is afraid the most. Encountering the world’s oldest predators can be a cool sight, but not when you are in the water – away from the shore, in murky waters.
- Sharks are known to be frequent visitors to some of the best surf breaks in the world. Although a majority of people that get bitten by a shark won’t die, it is still some things none of us would like to experience. There’s not too much to prevent a shark attack, and even the most modern shark-repellent bands do not guarantee 100% prevention. Some popular beaches have frequent shark-sighting information and even safety nets dragged down to the ocean floor from the buoys.
*Another sign that indicates nearby sharks is when seals are urgently exiting the water.
How to tell a difference between a shark and a dolphin?
In the surf, sharks swim side-to-side, back and forth – while dolphins swim up and then dive down. A dolphin fin also has a curve to the backside (like on a surfboard fin), while a sharks’ fin resembles a triangle with its flat backside of the fin.
- Crocodiles / alligators. Depending on where you live, this can be a serious threat to beachgoers in tropical destinations. Although most beaches are marked with signs that indicate crocodile habitat in the area, this doesn’t stop a person from going in the water unknowingly. Crocodiles are semi-aquatic creatures and usually prefer slow-moving and deep freshwaters, but there are many salt-water crocodile species as well.
*Fresh-water crocs are known to be the most territorial, therefore the most aggressive species.
- A jellyfish killed the legendary Crocodile-Dundee. Found in tropical climates, poisonous jellyfish often go unnoticed, especially their long, near-transparent tentacles. Around a 150million people around the world are stung by jellyfish each year, but the most poisonous species are found on warm waters.
*If you see something unusual in the water, it is better to be safe than sorry. Even if it resembles a plastic bag.
- Stingrays spend most of their time on the ocean floor and don’t like humans in general. To prevent stepping on a stingray: watch where you are going, and you can also slide your feet on the ocean floor so they’d feel the vibration and swim off. In case of getting stung by a stingray, most lifeguards have a vinegar spray nearby to heal the wounds.
4. Other surfers
Tangled leashes, loose boards, collision with other surfers
Having the time of your life in the waves can turn into a scary situation unpredictably quick. We can’t foresee other surfers’ actions, but what we can do is to take cautious beforehand, and keep a safe distance from others. All the time.
Getting hit by another surfer when wiping out on a wave can happen in just a few seconds. There’s not too much to one can do in the rumbling whitewash. To prevent any dangers, you can sand down your fins so they wouldn’t literally slice anyone open in an unfortunate event. You can also use a rubber cap on the tip of your sharp shortboard nose.
A tangled leash is another hazard during a wipe-out on crowded spots. This unlucky event might seem like a rare occasion, but when it happens in the break zone, it can turn to bad rather quickly. To prevent that, always keep a safe distance from others, and check your surroundings.
Getting hit by your own, or someone else’s surfboard is another main danger to the sport. This can basically happen to anyone & anywhere. Luckily, there are a few tips to prevent this from happening:
*Take caution when jumping off a surfboard.
*Cover your head and face with two hands when wiping out.
*Avoid paddling for sketchy waves.
5. Coral reef
Pretty much all the best surf spots around the world are point breaks which means there’s a rock-solid and razor-sharp landscape under this seemingly perfect surf spot. In short – you don’t want to get dragged down there. Always check the conditions and ask around for hazards at a certain surf spot. And again, to make things worst, death, in this case, can be a result of excessive pain threshold, drowning, or simply bleeding out. Yikes!
*Check which tide, wave & swell sizes are safe to surf.
*Always protect your head with both hands underwater.
6. Lightning strike
Getting a little darker here. Did you know that death to lightning is 47 times more likely to happen compared to getting eaten by a shark? 1 in 79,746 vs 1 in 3,748,067. Yes, a bolt of lightning can strike up to 12miles away (20km), hence the reason why some use the saying “like lightning from a clear sky” to describe an extremely unpredictable event. To make things worse – the combination of water & electricity is fatal, and the fact that electrical discharge travels through water makes it even scarier.
*Wait at least 30 minutes after the last visible lightning strike to go back in the water
7. The sun
Surf & sun go together like bread and butter. Depending on your skin tone and surf location, excessive UV rays can damage your skin and eye over time. Water reflects a large majority of ultraviolet radiation, making it twice as intense when on land. Fortunately, there’s a great degree of prevention one can do to protect our largest organ – the skin.
- Wear proper sunscreen all over the exposed parts of the body.
- Wear zinc on your face.
- Wear SPF50+ lip balm.
- Use a UV-protective shirt in warm waters.
- Use after-sun lotion.
- Avoid surfing in the daytime to prevent surfers’ eye.
Even though I started surfing just 7 years ago, being relatively fit and full of encouragement, I’ve had two scary ‘close-calls’ which inspired me to write this post. Even experienced surfers with 4 decades of experience aren’t protected from unlucky events. The message of this article was to let you know some of the dangers and give out pointers to minimize the risk of getting hurt.
Most common surf injuries & accidents
I created Nulltuul to share my experience, research and analysis with other surf enthusiasts out there. If I'm not surfing on my travels - I like to photograph waves, surfers, and the surf lifestyle in general.