Basic Surf Safety

Tips for staying safe in the water

Flickr/o b s k u r a

Wave action at any worthwhile surf spot can humble the most experienced waterperson. One of the differences between veteran surfers and kooks (inexperienced or disrespectful surfers) is that waterpeople can make informed decisions and predetermine the level of risk they will face. Certain breaks and conditions are suited for particular levels of surfers, similar to the way that ski areas designate their runs for differing levels of skiers and snowboarders. There are some days when no one should venture into the water. If in doubt, just stay out!

When you’re first learning how to surf, stick to beaches with lifeguards. They can provide a wealth of information for you, as well as increase the safety level of the sport. Check with lifeguards regarding conditions, and observe all posted warning signs. Many lifeguards will tell you that it’s essential to watch the surf for at least fifteen minutes before entering the water. And unless you’re an experienced waterperson and a strong swimmer, you should never swim, bodysurf, bodyboard, sailboard, or surf in waves more than waist high. Here are some tips on how to avoid common surfing hazards:

Know your wave limits.
Even small waves can sometimes pack a powerful punch. Choose the proper wave size and shape for your ability level. For example, fast, large, and hollow waves are unsafe for novice surfers. These types of waves require strong skills and have slammed countless beginners. Small to medium-size waves that move relatively slow and crumble as they break are a much better call for the rookie surfer.

Identify currents.
Longshore currents run parallel to shore. Rip currents run perpendicular to shore and can look like rivers as they carry water back out to the open ocean. In general, bigger surf results in stronger currents. If you get pulled farther and farther down the beach by a longshore current, or toward an object, paddle to a safe point on shore and walk back up to the break. Strong rip currents are fairly easy to spot. Advanced surfers sometimes use rip currents as a quick way to paddle out. However, unless you’re a very efficient and powerful paddler, it’s best to stay away from these fast-moving sections of water. If you are caught in a rip current, swim across the rip current or parallel to shore until you’ve broken free from its pull.

Avoid objects.
Large boulders, coral heads, very shallow reefs, cliffs, jetties, and piers will all win in a collision with a surfer. It’s crucial to spot potential landscape and man-made hazards and avoid them at all costs.

Steer clear of sea creatures.
Shark bites, jellyfish stings, sea urchin wounds, and stingray injuries can all ruin a perfectly good day. To reduce your chances of having a run-in with a shark, don’t choose spots near river mouths and seal populations. To avoid jellyfish stings, scan the surface of the water for jellies from time to time. Since urchins and stingrays are found on the sea floor, use your board to support your weight instead of stepping onto the bottom.

Prevent collisions with other surfers.
Give your fellow surfers some space in order to evade a mishap. Following basic surfing etiquette such as paddling around the break back to the lineup can go a long way toward avoiding contact with others.

Use the buddy system.
Avoid surfing alone. You and your buddy can keep an eye on each other and offer assistance should a problem arise. Another benefit is that you can improve your skills by surfing with someone who’s better than you. Of course the best reason to surf with a friend is the most obvious. You can laugh with (or at) each other and, on a good day, share your stoke!

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The above is excerpted from The Art of Surfing, available now from FalconGuides.

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