If you’ve grown up surfing sandy beach breaks, the thought of venturing to a razor-sharp reef can seem intimidating. Surfers often come home from trips to Indonesia and the Pacific Islands sporting scars along their bodies like battle wounds. At some surf spots, its considered part of the culture to claim that you’ve left some skin on the reef.
The good news is that reef breaks aren’t always as dangerous as they seem. Reef breaks tend to be more predictable and follow a discernible pattern — usually with a channel that leads out and away from the break. If you’re not used to surfing a reef break, here are a few things to know before you paddle out.
1. Spend time understanding the wave and entry/exit points
Before you even think of paddling out, you need to watch the wave and check the tide charts. Many reef breaks only work at certain tides or become very dangerous during low tide. You may paddle out at mid tide, then get dragged across the reef as low tide arrives. Always check the tide chart before paddling out.
It’s also worth watching the wave to scout for the best spot to sit. Ask around or watch how other surfers are entering and exiting the water. Oftentimes there are visual cues on the beach that signal a break in the reef to paddle through.
2. Stick to the shoulder
When you first paddle out, stick to the shoulder of the wave and watch how the waves are breaking. This also protects you from getting heat from locals weary of newcomers. Grab the shoulder when you can. After a little while, you’ll get a better understanding of the scene and will be able to paddle around any bombs that come through. Work your way to the peak slowly. When you paddle for a wave, commit to it.
3. Wear reef booties
Reef booties are made of thick rubber and neoprene and will save your feet if you kick or jump onto the reef. People tend not to wear them because they believe its an ultimate kook symbol.
We have to ask, what’s kookier: (A) sitting on the beach with feet full of bandages and missing every set, or (B) sitting in the lineup with a pair of booties?
Check out our guide to choosing the best reef booties
4. Protect your fingers when you duck dive
Press your hands flat on the top of the board and push down when you duck dive. Avoid grabbing the rail or you might scrape your fingers against the reef.
5. Practice removing your leash
One of the biggest dangers of surfing a reef break is having your leash caught on the reef. While it’s not usually lodged very tightly, the feeling of being held under can cause surfers to panic. Practice closing your eyes, reaching down, and removing your leash a few times before paddling out. Remember that once you remove your leash, you’ll no longer have your board as a flotation device.
You can also practice guiding yourself along the leash until you find where it’s caught. If your leash is caught, tugging on the end with the board gives it more slack to release.
6. Never jump off the wave head first
This one is obvious, but many surfers dive off their board head-first out of habit. If you dive head first, you’re putting your entire spine and head at risk of injury, paralysis, and even death. Jump as if you’re about to leap into a very shallow pool, ideally with your legs bent and your rear out. Protect your head from your board and be mindful of where it is.
7. Use the ball-and-starfish method
When you’re tumbling underwater, protect your head with your arms and tuck your knees in. If you try to swim or fight against the turbulence, you might kick or hit the reef. Once you’re out of the inside, lay flat like a starfish on the surface of the water and use your arms to paddle back (breaststroke or scuttle) to your board or to the channel. The goal is to be as far away from the reef as possible. If you must kick, kick only very lightly. Most of our power in swimming comes from our arms, anyways. If a wave comes, try to duck under it and tuck into a ball if you can’t.
8. Stay calm
It might feel like you’ve been held under for minutes when really it’s been just a few seconds. Panic to oxygen is like a match to gasoline. A panicked state of mind is irrational and takes more energy than remaining calm. Almost every human can hold their breath for two minutes (at least!). We highly recommend picking up freediving and yoga as supplementary sports to stay calm during big wipeouts.
Keep calm, protect yourself, find your way out.
9. Paddle into the channel
When you get caught inside, paddle diagonally or directly to the channel instead of paddling through the waves. This is will get you to the deepest and safest space quickly and lead you back to the lineup.
10. Pack a surfer’s first aid kit
Reef cuts happen! Leave a small first aid kit under your towel on the beach or in your car. They’re inexpensive to put together and will help you patch up any reef cuts as soon as possible — keeping infection out.