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If we’re getting straight to the point, surfing is not necessarily safe. However, compared to other things we do every day, surfing-related incidents are relatively low. There are over one million deaths per year from road accidents compared to less than 1,000 deaths in surfing. Even mundane activities like eating (choking) and walking (falling) cause more deaths per year than surfing. Of course, there are more people doing these things on a daily basis, so that’s something to think about as well.
If there are risk associated with eating and sleeping, how much more risk do we see with surfing? It’s the wild ocean we’re in, and anything can happen. But despite the accidents and mortalities, surfing continues to be a popular sport that grows each year. The trick is to be aware of the risks and dangers of surfing and how to manage them.
Read along, know the risks, and be aware. This article is best read while munching on small pieces of your favorite snack. Try not to get choked, but stoked.
Table of Contents
Surfing can only be done with the main ingredient that makes this sport dangerous, waves. Carrying a ton of energy, waves can hold you underwater and smash you down, not just on surface water, but against sand or reef on the ocean floor. Severe surfing wipeouts can include bone fractures, concussions, and spinal injuries.
How to Manage Big Waves
Most wave injuries happen when surfers paddle out in conditions that are above their skill level. Don’t ride waves that are too large for your abilities. Instead, choose waves that are slow and manageable, and break over deeper water. Get to know the wave and read the water. If it’s your first time in an area, watch where surfers get in, out, and take off at the peak. You can also swim out with a mask and fins. This way, you’ll see how the waves move and how they behave especially once it passes overhead. When you’ve mastered a wave at a small size, then you can progress to bigger waves.
Drift currents, rip tides and undertows are considered silent killers. They are the opposite of the roaring sound of a wave. And it’s not just surfers that succumb to strong tides and currents, but also swimmers and beachgoers. Strong currents can pull you out to deeper waters. If you don’t know how to manage these currents, you could drown.
How to Manage Rip Tides and Drift Currents
You have to be aware that rip tides and drift currents will not take you underwater. Instead, it will take you along its course and the danger here is when you become exhausted.
Never go against rip tides. It will drain your energy. Instead, go with the flow and allow it to take you to deeper and calm waters. Do not panic. Try to swim sideward (perpendicular) to where the flow of the rip tide is going. This will lead you to calmer waters. Before exhaustion, do not hesitate to raise your hand and ask for help.
You can lower your risk of getting stuck in a current by surfing at beaches where a lifeguard is present. Ask the lifeguard on duty for recommendations on which areas to paddle out and which areas to avoid.
Dodging flailing surfboards (and other surfers) is a an ever present risk of surfing. The very surfboard and fins you are using can hit you. The leash can entangle you on the bottom of the sea bed. As The Salt Sirens editor learned the hard way, a surfboard to the face is a less than ideal situation. Worst case scenario, a strike can knock you unconscious. Getting bumps and bruises from flailing boards is par for the course when it comes to surfing.
How to Manage Strikes and Entanglement
With a proper duck dive, you can lower the possibility of leash entanglement or the board hitting you. When you duck dive, you propel the board through the water where it’s less likely to catch in the wave itself and pull you back.
A leash can possibly get entangled in your legs, arms or your neck. If entangled, do not panic and slowly work your way out of entanglement. You can practice this on land. With your eyes closed, reach for the leash and loosen the ankle strap to free yourself.
If a surfboard is heading towards you, cover your head with your arms. If you don’t know where a board is and you’re underwater, approach the surface with your hands above your head to push a surfboard away.
When you see a surfer ditch their board in front of you when paddling out, check behind you, ditch your board as well, and dive as deep as you can. The deeper you are, the safer you tend to be.
Sharks and Marine Stingers
Shark attacks are incredibly rare, but they do happen. Humans are not a part of shark diet. Shark attacks occur as a mistaken identity. Down below, we look like seals wherein riding a board with the paddling of our hands and kicking of our feet can be misinterpreted by sharks as seals in distress — especially at dawn and dusk.
Tentacles of marine stingers (particularly blue bottles or box jellyfish), have venom that can cause intense pain, shock and cardiac arrest.
How to Manage Stingers and Marine Creatures
We cannot do anything about sharks. It is their habitat and we are only visitors. However, you can reduce the possibility of a shark attack if you’re swimming and surfing in a group. Sharks usually lock in their target to solitary seals, which in our case, you’re out alone in the ocean. Stay away from areas where fishermen fish and cut bait, or rivermouths where waters can be murky.
For marine stingers, avoid getting stung by wearing a wetsuit or rashguard and leggings. Reef booties help with reef cuts and stingrays. When you’re walking in shallow, sandy waters, shuffle your feet to scare stingrays away. However, wearing a surf booties would do the trick here. It is also best to learn CPR and first aid administration. This may not be for you, but a fellow surfer may need it someday.
Sunburn and UV Radiation
Surfing requires long hours of direct sunlight exposure and UV radiation. Sunburn is the immediate effect. You can either have skin redness, swelling, and in severe cases, blisters that are fluid filled and break when touched.
During repeated sunlight exposure, UV radiation can accumulate in your body that lead to a variety of medical conditions. Aside from your skin aging prematurely, you can suffer from wrinkles, leathery skin, and, skin cancer.
How to Manage Sunburn and UV Radiation
While sunburn and UV radiation poses grave medical threats, it can be prevented. First, apply sunscreen, especially to the areas that are directly exposed to sunlight. Second, wear protective clothing, like a rash guard and leggings. It doesn’t just cover your skin, but it will also protect you from marine stingers. Surf hats are also a wise choice.
Core body heat may drop along with the prolonged immersion in water. Especially in cold surf environments, body heat can rapidly decrease and may lead to coldness, shivering and hypothermia.
How to Manage Hypothermia
In terms of thickness, you should wear the appropriate wetsuit whenever you surf. Wetsuits range from 1mm-7mm thick and the thicker they are, the more warmth they provide. However, as a wetsuit gets thicker, it also gets more restrictive. The key factor here is that your core body temperature is kept above 35°C (95°F).
This is the end fate of most surfing accidents. If you are slammed by big waves, carried by currents, entangled by leash, hit by your your own surfboard and lose consciousness, the possibility of drowning is high.
How to manage drowning
It is imperative that a surfer knows how to swim. But it doesn’t mean that you have to clock an Olympic record using different swim strokes. The key in surf swimming is do not panic. Be comfortable. The only way to be comfortable swimming in the surf zone and go back to the shore safely is repeated exposure and practice. Whenever you paddle out, assume that you may lose your board, and know how to get back to safety without assistance.
Determine in advance where the exit points are. These exits points are safe and away from hazards like shallow reefs or jagged rocks. Knowing how to call for help while in the water will also help you keep from drowning. Some areas have standby jetskis to pick you up just incase you run out of stamina.
At the end of the day, we are all going to die. And while there are inherent risks that come with surfing, there are incredible benefits too. Overall health, mental wellbeing, connection with nature, and a release of the happy hormone dopamine are all perks that come with paddling out. So, it could be argued that surfing prolongs your life in a happy way.