Surfing Safety Guide: Everything Beginners Need to Know

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Are you looking for everything beginners need to know about surfing? You’ve come to the right place because we’ve gathered a surfing safety guide to help get you started riding waves. Surfing is a great water activity but it requires patience and practice. Some find it difficult just to learn how to balance on the board, and progression and comfort on the board takes time. Learning how to ride a wave is a completely different challenge, and when accomplished comes with endless rewards.

While surfing requires practice, beginners have a few additional details to pay close attention to to stay safe on the water. Besides learning how to surf, it’s crucial that you learn water safety and be prepared every trip to the sea..

Here we’ve gathered a surfing safety guide which covers the most common dangers for surfers, and how to protect yourself in the water while learning how to surf.

The Top Dangers to Surfers in the Ocean

Many people think the biggest risk in the ocean is marine life, such as sharks, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, only 66 unprovoked shark attacks happened in 2018. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be cautious with local wildlife, but there are many threats you’ll need to be prepared for every time you dip your toes in the beautiful blue sea. 

Potential dangers for surfers in the ocean: 

  • Marine life: Marine life such as jellyfish, snakes, sharks, urchins and stingrays can be life-threatening to surfers. Understand local marine life, check for warnings,  and speak to a lifeguard before entering the water. 
  • Waves and rip currents: Waves and rip currents may look pretty from the beach, but pose a real danger to surfers and other ocean dwellers. Check for warning flags, speak to a lifeguard, and be prepared how to handle them in case of emergency. 
  • Drowning : Water safety should be taken seriously to prevent drowning. Always go surfing with a friend, understand water safety, practice ahead of time, and be familiar with the area. 
  • The bed of the sea : The seabed can cause injury when you fall off your board, especially in an area with coral. Understand the best way to dismount your board, and know what you’re surfing above at all times. 
  • Boats and small watercraft : Visibility in the water is essential to staying safe while surfing. Always surf with another person, and wear bright, neon colors to ensure you’re highly visible to local boaters and other water craft enthusiasts. Avoid highly trafficked areas, and make sure you’re surfing in a surf-approved location by speaking with lifeguards. 
  • Surfboards : Surfboards can be a dangerous piece of equipment if not handled the right way. Not only can you get injured by your own board when you fall off, but other surfers and paddle boarders who get to close can cause harm, too. To avoid this, keep a safe distance from others at all times, and get familiar with your board and dismounting before you ever hit the waves. 

Of these dangers, the ones that are most commonly responsible for injuries are typically the last few items. The seabed, boats, and surfboards are the greatest threats when you’re in the water and we’ll get into how to be prepared to deal with them while surfing.


Watch Out for Boats and Small Watercraft

Swimmers, surfers and other water sport enthusiasts are more likely to get hit by boats or small watercraft than to get bitten by sharks, or even stung by jellyfish. Every time you’re in the water, especially when you are far away from shore, always pay close attention to your surroundings and be mindful of others around you.

Before entering the water, and throughout the day thereafter, scan your area for nearby boats, jet skis, or other water crafts. If you see recreational watercraft in the area, consider moving further down the beach or wait for them to pass before catching a wave. It can be challenging to manage large boards in the water near others, so keep plenty of distance between you and the others. 

To help with visibility in the water, always surf with a buddy. This makes it easier to boaters to spot you from a distance. Consider wearing bright, neon colors for your wetsuit, rash guard, or cap, as this will help with your visibility while out on the water.

jet ski

Beware of Surfboards and Other Surfers

While boats are a threat, most surfing injuries are the result of lacerations, sprains, and fractures caused by impact with a surfboard or with the seabed. Nearly 45% of all injuries are caused by impact with your own surfboard, in fact, making your own board nearly as dangerous as those nearby. Practicing your technique for falling from the board safely before you ever catch your first wave may help reduce your risk of injury.

When you fall, and you will, you should place your arms over your head to protect it against injury. This shields your head from both the surfboard and the floor of the sea if you get tousled around underwater. If the water is shallow, you should also try to roll your body so that you do not go head-first into the water which can cause injury to your head or neck.

While your own board has potential to be a danger to you, other surfers are also a threat. When you first start surfing, try to find an area with fewer people which offers you ample room for learning. While you should never surf alone, you should avoid places that are crowded with swimmers, boaters, and other surfers. You should also follow appropriate surfing etiquette for your safety and that of your fellow surfers.

You should also practice your techniques before getting in the water. While it may look funny to practice standing up and balancing on a board in the sand, performing  this warm-up before taking the board into the water is the surest way to set yourself up for success on the water.

surfers paddling out

Check the Conditions Before Getting in the Water

Besides boats, surfers should still look out for jellyfish and any other marine life that likes to bite or sting. You should find out what creatures lurk in your local waters before heading into the water. If you cannot find any information online, talk to the lifeguards at the beach so you know what you’re heading into.

Whenever you have a question about the local waters, the lifeguards are the first people to go to. Along with helping to explain what types of marine life are commonly found in the waters, they can let you know if any threats have been detected that day.

When asking about marine life, also ask about water conditions. These experts can also inform you of any issues that you should be aware of, such as strong currents or the potential for rain.

Strong waves and rip currents are threats that should be taken very seriously,  and you should understand the conditions before getting in the water every time. The most common signs of a rip current include patches of darker water and gaps between the waves.

rough surfing waves

Look for the Beach Warning Flags

Besides talking to the lifeguard and visually inspecting the waters, you may determine that there is a threat in the water by looking for beach warning flags. Most beaches use colored flags to indicate a potential hazard.

A blue or purple flag indicates that marine life is active in the area, and should be respected and watched out for. This may mean that sharks or jellyfish have been spotted.

A red flag lets you know that the waters are very rough and suggest entering the water at another time. Not only do you put yourself at risk when entering dangerous waters, but also those who may have to try and rescue you if something goes awry. 

A yellow flag means that there is less of a threat but you should still exercise caution. If you see two red flags, water activities are prohibited due to the weather. Do no enter the water at this time.

beach warning flags

Always Surf When a Lifeguard Is on Duty

Surfing at a beach that is patrolled by lifeguards reduces your risk of drowning, and sets you up for success for years to come. Even the best swimmers may need help when a strong rip current or accident occurs.

According to the USLA, more than 75% of drowning occur on beaches without a lifeguard present. Along with finding a beach with an active lifeguard, always check in with the lifeguard before going into the water. As mentioned, you can get useful information about the current water conditions, including the threat of marine life.

Final Surfing Safety Tips for Beginners

When you are first learning how to surf, remember to  take it slow. You should not get into the water until you’re comfortable on the board, prepared for water safety, and familiar with the area. There is significant risk to diving into the ocean before you’re ready, but endless reward from doing it after you’ve prepared yourself! 

Practice your movements in the sand and then move into the shallow waters near the shoreline. It may take weeks, or even months, before you ride your first wave, but riding waves from the ocean to the shore is worth the effort!

Always surf with other people to ensure ultimate safety on the water. Never go out into the water by yourself. Surfing with at least one other person decreases your risk of drowning after an injury or accident, and increases your visibility in the water for local boaters.

Remember that the biggest threats are surfboards and the bottom of the sea. Leg injuries are most common, followed by head injuries. Always practice proper surfing techniques and ensure that you are ready before trying to ride a wave. Potentially injuring yourself, or worse, is not worth jumping in unprepared. 

Our last piece of advice is to hire a surfing instructor or take a surfing class. No amount of online research can replace the in-person advice and training that you can get from a first-hand expert.

Are you ready to hit the waves on a surfboard? Tell us about it in the comment section below! We love to hear from our readers, and hope to hear from you.