Surfing can be a rather hazardous sport. There are many elements to deal with, the most obvious being the wave, the board and other surfers. First and foremost, understanding surf etiquette is key to surfing safely. Learning how to read and anticipate oncoming waves, particularly outside set waves, as well as reading other surfers is a huge part of surfing. Learning how to manage the board, paddling, sitting and spinning to catch a wave, and turning in order to surf around other surfers are crucial to surfing at a crowded break, as most serious surfing injuries are caused by colliding with other surfers and their boards (and fins). Holding onto your board at all times is one of the golden rules of good surfing etiquette.
Rips, rocks and reefs
Beyond these things, however, there are several other hazards to be aware of as they pertain to water conditions. These include rip tides (or rip currents), rocks and reefs, and swell size. Rip tides occur generally at beach breaks and are strong-pulling currents of water that flow from the beach out to the open sea beyond the line-up, like a very strong underwater river. Rip tides cause a turbulent, rippled, murky effect on the surface of the ocean where the channel is running out to sea. Rip tides are known to be extreme safety hazards for swimmers, but can be very user-friendly to surfers, particularly in larger surf when the paddle-out can be challenging. Surfers will scope out the beach looking for channels and rip tides and use these strong, outward-drawing currents to help pull them out past the breaking waves (the impact zone). It is a good idea to be aware of where the rip tides are and surf to either side of the current. Sitting on your board in a rip tide will also suck you out to sea beyond the breaking waves. If you look up and down the beach and find yourself sitting far out beyond the other surfers, chances are you are in a rip tide. Paddle to either side out of the textured, rippled surface water, and then paddle towards shore until you are in line with the other surfers. Don’t try to paddle towards shore while in the rip tide. It is exhausting and a losing battle.
Check yourself before you break yourself
Once you have checked the beach for rip tides and currents, also take a few minutes to monitor the surf size and the timing or interval of set waves. Depending on the swell, waves tend to arrive in sets and often a series of waves will break bigger and farther out than the average waves. It’s always a good idea to be aware of the set waves and keep an eye out on the horizon for oncoming set waves so that you don’t get caught inside and take a bunch of waves on the head. Also, keep on eye on the pack. If the pack starts scraping for the outside, start paddling for the outside too – they’ve seen the set waves forming even if you didn’t. A sure sign of a kook is a new surfer lying on the board facing towards the shore with their back to the oncoming waves. Don’t be a kook. Sit facing the horizon at all times until you decide to spin and paddle to catch a wave.
Finally, also be aware of underwater hazards such as rocks and reefs. Know how some of these underwater features may become extremely dangerous on a lower tide, and know how to pancake fall or starfish fall in shallow waters to avoid breaking a leg (or a neck).
Whatever you do – don’t be a kook!
For more advice on how to stay away from harm, check out our Wellness guide.