10 ways to stay safe while surfing

Surfing is an inherently dangerous activity, which is why it gives us such a thrill. Not only can we be eaten by sharks and impaled by our surfboards, but we are playing amongst forces that can quite literally crush and drown us. Add a bunch of other surfers to the mix and you’ve got almost unlimited possibilities for disaster.

But mostly in surfing everything is fine. It is one of the few action sports covered by most travel insurance policies and that says a lot. Once we make it through the early phases of learning to surf we get hit by our surfboards less often. We understand where to paddle and how to minimise risk.

There are still a few things we can do to surf safe and have more fun. It starts before you even get to the beach.

1. Get a good night’s sleep

Research shows that a good quality sleep is the foundation of your wellbeing. Going surfing when groggy or exhausted means you won’t be as alert and ‘on form’ as you should be when entering a potentially hostile environment.

2. Stretch or warm up

A quick stretch before entering the water can help prepare your muscles for the intense exercise you are about to begin. Some downward dog yoga stretches and squats will pay off in agility when you catch your first wave.

3. Lock your car and hide your key somewhere safe

There’s nothing worse than going surfing and not knowing whether your vehicle will be there when you get back. Instead of hiding the key on the back tyre or somewhere obvious, invest in a surf lock or carry a non-electric key in your legrope or pocket. Peace of mind is part of surf security – and you’ll rest assured knowing you’ve got a ride home.

4. Wear sun protection

Don’t get fried for the sake of a good time. getting the right amount of sun exposure is tricky and surfers tend to absorb more UV rays than most. If you burn easily or are concerned about developing skin cancers use a quality sunscreen containing zinc and titanium. Alternatively, wear a wetsuit and surf hat.

5. Check your gear

It may be boring but checking your gear occasionally can quite literally save your life. Check if your leash (legrope) is properly attached and take note if it the rail saver has started to fray. It’s always a good idea to rinse your gear when you can. This is a good opportunity to make sure it’s all in optimal condition. Check your fins regularly as removable fins do loosen up over time.

6. Stop and observe conditions

Before you paddle out, take a moment to observe the surf conditions. Are there any obvious rips? Can you see wildlife feeding? Look out for birds diving and shoals of fish surfacing. Both could mean sharks are in the vicinity. If it is the first time you’ve surfed a break try asking a local about any hazards. Usually they’ll be friendly if you are. If there is no-one else surfing make sure the conditions are within your skill and strength capabilities. If not, go forth bravely.

7. Take note of where you are surfing

After paddling out choose a landmark that you can line yourself up with. Sometimes it is a house, a tree, a pathway leading to the beach. Having a landmark means you can easily notice when you’re drifting. Also, if you do drift, you’ll know how to get to back to where you started.

8. Be aware

It is easy to get so absorbed in the surfing experience that we become oblivious of all that is going on beyond the next wave. It is useful to take note of the conditions, wildlife, your landmark and to see if any other surfers require assistance. Importantly, always check back to see how far away the shore is. In our obsession with watching the horizon for waves, we can easily get sucked far out by a rip. It can be a shock to discover land – and safety – is a lot further away than we thought.

9. Know yourself

Your development as a surfer depends on taking risks, being resilient in the face of failure and grabbing new challenges when they come. Often we have only a split second to decide whether or not to paddle for a wave. When you’re out of your league you’ll know. Be cautious about pushing yourself too far, especially when you may risk injuring other surfers. Sit further to the side, watch others, catch a few wide ones and gradually make your way to where the action is unfolding. Too many surfers end up with broken boards and bones because they overestimate their ability. Breaking your own bones is fine, but don’t hurt others.

10. Always hold onto your board

No matter what happens it is almost always best to hold onto your board rather than releasing it and diving under a wave. Letting go of your board is risky for two primary reasons.

  1. Your legrope could break and you’ll have no board
  2. Your board is no longer under your control and could hit someone else, or yourself

Of course there are times when you have no choice but to let go and face the ocean’s impending obliteration. That’s ok. But at a busy break where there are surfers paddling out behind you it’s not. Surfers (myself included) have permanent scars from other people ditching their boards to get under an oncoming set wave.