A GUIDE TO Staying Safe in the Surf

A surf safety guide to a beginner surfer, swimmer, snorkeler, or any other water-sport enthusiast.

As we are grown up to this date today, I am sure that everyone has had a near-drowning experience in the water. As we’ve spent the majority of the time living on land, we tend to forget our human limits in the water. It does not matter if you are super fit or out of shape – the rule is that when you don’t know how to act in the water – the water will take control of the situation. The forces of nature are always over human powers. No exceptions here!

Whether you have lived right by the sea your whole life or come from inland territories – Everyone must know how to act around the water. Surf safety should be taught to others around you as well.

There are different physical and gravitational rules in the water that most of us are eager to forget. So, to learn how to stay safe in the water and the surf, I’ve created this article with a bunch of crucial guidelines that everyone should follow!

surfing safety


After all – Always trust your gut – It’s there for a reason! If you don’t really “feel like it,” whether from lack of energy or a stressful event of the day, reconsider going in.

Basic Surf Safety KNOWLEDGE

Safety and Health

Having the necessary skills for swimming is crucial before entering any form of water. Whether it’ll be a river or an ocean – It’s always privileged to be in good health. Both physically and mentally to perform well in the water.

As human beings living on earth – we are freely walking through the air and are only pulled down by the forces of gravity. Therefore, in the water, we are dragged down by gravity, and we also have way more resistance underwater. So, what I want to point out here is evident that many of us tend to forget that the forces of water are different from the ones on the land. If you find yourself in a situation, where you are a hundred feet from the shore, you can’t merely “step out” as you’d like. All you can do – is to learn the following about surf safety.


be water my friend

Surf Conditions

There are a few things to remember staying safe in the water as a surfer or a beachgoer. In most public beaches the area for the swimmers is noted with flags. Surfers are not allowed on flagged areas. On most public beaches you’ll also be seeing flags indicating strong rips and surf conditions. On days with heavy current strong winds, you’ll be seeing red flags.

RELATED: Surf Forecast 101

Rip Current

What is a Rip current? It’s a dangerous area at a beach where all the water that has been pushed towards the shore by the swells – is running back in the ocean. Rips have a strong undertow or a current in them, and the main reason why many inexperienced swimmers drown is that they want to swim against the rip. Due to the strong current, they won’t be moving anywhere near the beach and start to panic.

The key here is to swim sideways towards the beach, which gets you out of the rip and back in the surf or a breaking point, or you can do what many surfers do – to use the rip which floats them back behind the break-point to save time and energy.

how rip tides work

The easiest way to tell where the rip current is to spot an area where the waves don’t break and the surface is very uneven.

Two Morals. Where should you not let your body take over the control of your mind?

  1. If you are in the rip – A conscious tells us the swim towards the shore. We have to do the exact opposite by letting the current float us towards back to the ocean and then find another way paddling in. Or, we swim sideways out of the rip and get to the shore from the area where the waves are breaking.

2. If a surfer sees a big wave about to break right at the spot they currently are – It is best to dive deep, because the deeper you dive, the less you’ll be bounced around.

How to Help a Drowning Person

A drowning person never yells for help since they are in a deep panic.

A drowning person sees the rescuer as a life-buoy, and whoever is going to take the responsibility to rescue someone should take caution when doing so.

1. As a surfer, you can help a person by guiding them onto a surfboard and pushing them towards the shore. 2. As a swimmer, you have to dive a few feet away from the drowning person, grab them from behind and pull them towards the shore. It’s always best to have something floatable you can throw at a person to grab hold onto – anything that floats.

person in the middle of the surf

In The Water

Stay relaxed by having the right state of mind.

The majority of the time surfing is spent paddling, a very time surfing and then there’s the inevitable dark time where the surfer gets wiped out and sucked under the waves. This is an unfamiliar experience for a beginner surfer. A typical reaction after a wipeout is, of course, an urgent wish to surface – which is hardened by the bubbly water in the breaking area. Most of the time when the surfer surfaces through the bubbly whitewater, there is already another wave landing exactly where the surfer was gasping some air. Panic sets in as the surfer are running low on oxygen.

how not to surf todos santos youtube video teaser
“Wrong Time – Wrong Place”

How to Cope With a Wipeout?

  1. Well, at first – you don’t want to end up in the breaking area after all anyway, so try paddling behind the breaking point or at the end of the line-up away from the breaking point.
  2. When this is inevitable, and you have already been wiped out, the best thing to do is to stay calm and let the water drag you at first. The wrong action what many people do on such occasions like that is they try to surface through the bubbly water that has a lot of oxygen in it, and that in most circumstances is super hard if not physically impossible. Note, that tensioning muscles underwater releases oxygen out of blood which leaves the lungs short in a breath.
  3. If you are unsure of which way is the surface – grab a hold onto your board since the board will be floating on the surface.
surfer caught inside the wave youtube video
Another Goodie

Never Dive Head First to Any Body of Water

The Silver Bullet or the Golden Rule in any water-related activity. In any body of water that you are unsure of the precise landing or the depth of water – nobody should dive in any way! But if you do – jump your feet first.

In surfing, bailing the board and jumping in the water is inevitable. Whenever possible, try to land flat, protecting your head and face. Why not feet first? Because the sharp reef or a solid sandbank can injure your legs.

Another thing many surfers don’t realize is that the “launch” from the face of the wave to jump behind it is a dangerous move since the board could snap the surfer from behind and knock the surfer unconscious.

Protect Your Head and Body

As said before, bailing the board is something that every surfer has to cope with. A board that rumbles through the waves can hit anyone unconscious – a nearby swimmer, fellow surfer, or even the surfer himself. So – whenever out of control, it’s best to crunch and protect your face and head. A fetal position is probably the safest, with palms covering the back of the head and elbows in the front of your face. Also, be cautious when pulling the board back to you with a leg rope, this could also hit a dizzy surfer right in the face. Better to be safe than sorry – fiberglass is rather stiff compared to our teeth, eyes, or skin.

surf safety
A wipeout at its best.

Surfing in Crowds

As a rule, goes – A surfer who is closer to the peak of the incoming wave gets to ride it. Often a surf break is filled with many different surfers with different skill levels and backgrounds. It’s always best to be cautious than aggressive. Try not to bail your board when surfing in crowds, whenever this happens – try to hold the leash as close to the board as possible so it wouldn’t hit anybody. And whenever surfacing in a crowded spot – protect your face. You don’t want to open your eyes to a surfer riding over you.

Respect the locals when going overseas. If you miss your chance at a line-up, go to the end of the line.

Related: Surfing Etiquette

Wear Sunscreen

A cloudy day can be as damaging as a sunny day. Always wear sunscreen, another major surf safety factor! Read more about the Surf Sunscreen.

Avoid Surfing 3 Days After Heavy Rainfall at Cities

There’s a great article explaining at TheInteria. Heavy rainfall flushes all the bacteria towards the beaches. This is a significant health and surf safety concern for everyone to follow!

Shallow Reef-Break

Duck diving. A key here is to keep the palms and fingers on top of the board. In case of a sharp and shallow reef that could injure your knuckles. Shallow Reef-Break are only for advanced surfers.

Reef-shoes: It is a must to wear coral shoes or reef boots to protect your feet. A surf safety tip many people tend to forget.

Surfboard Safety

To protect yourself and others around you – It’s advisable to sand down the fins and use the surfboard nose guard to minimize the chances of cuts and injuries. Surf safety is the etiquette for everyone to follow!


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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.

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