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Surfing is a great water activity but it requires practice. I found it incredibly hard just to learn how to balance on the board. Learning how to ride a wave was a completely different challenge.
While surfing requires practice, beginners have a few additional details to pay attention to. Besides learning how to surf, you need to learn how to stay safe.
The following surfing safety guide covers the most common dangers to surfers and how to protect yourself in the water while learning how to surf.
The Top Dangers to Surfers in the Ocean
I have always thought of sharks as the biggest threat to surfers. However, there are many potential dangers to look out for, including the following:
- Marine life
- Waves and rip currents
- The bed of the sea
- Boats and small watercraft
Out of the items in this list, the ones that are most commonly responsible for injuries are the last few items. The seabed, boats, and surfboards are your greatest threats when you are in the water.
Look Out for Boats and Small Watercraft
Swimmers and surfers are more likely to get hit by boats or small watercraft than to get bitten by sharks or stung by jellyfish. Whenever you are in the water, especially when you are far away from shore, always pay attention to your surroundings.
Scan the area for nearby boats or jet skis. If you see recreational watercraft in the area, consider moving further down the beach or wait for them to pass before catching a wave.
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 the seabed.
Nearly 45% of all injuries are caused by impact with your own surfboard. Practicing your technique for falling from the board safely may help reduce your risk of injury.
When you fall, you should place your arms over your head to protect against injury. This shields your head from both the surfboard and the floor of the sea. If the water is shallow, you should also try to roll your body so that you do not go head-first into the water.
Other surfers are also a threat. When you are first starting out, try to find an area with fewer people. While you should never surf alone, you should avoid places that are crowded with swimmers, boaters, and other 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, I always perform this warm-up before I take the board into the water.
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.
Whenever I have a question about the local waters, the lifeguards are the first people that I ask. 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, ask about water conditions. The lifeguard 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 also potential dangers that you should look for before getting in the water. The most common signs of a rip current include patches of darker water and gaps between the 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. This may mean that sharks or jellyfish have been spotted.
A red flag lets you know that the waters are very rough and that you may want to wait before getting in the water. 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.
Always Surf When a Lifeguard Is on Duty
Surfing at a beach that is patrolled by lifeguards reduces your risk of drowning. 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, I always check in with the lifeguard before going into the water. As mentioned, you can get useful details about the current water conditions, including the threat of marine life.
Final Surfing Safety Guide Tips for Beginners
When you are first learning how to surf, you should take it slow. You should not get in the water until you are comfortable on the board.
Practice in the sand and then move into the shallow waters near the shoreline. I know that it may take weeks or months before you ride your first wave. However, it is worth the effort.
You should also surf with other people. 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.
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.
My 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 real instructor.
Megan Jones is the lead author of Seaside Planet. She is an avid surfer, scuba diver, and travel enthusiast who takes any opportunity she can to spend time in the ocean. You can learn more about Meg and the rest of the editorial team here.