Surfing Safety

It is easy to get the wrong idea about surfing when you read hair-raising tales of near-death experiences and fatal surfing accidents. It is important to remember that every day of the year, thousands of surfers enjoy the sport without putting themselves in jeopardy. If you take reasonable care and are aware of the potential risks, surfing need not be a perilous experience. Bear in mind the following things as you venture into the surf:

  • The ocean is stronger than even the strongest swimmer, so respect it. Check local forecasts and familiarise yourself with the flag system on the beach before you go into the water. If there is a lifeguard on duty, try to swim close to his or her station. Regardless of whether you are a strong swimmer, if you are caught off-guard and are knocked out by your board, somebody will be able to help you. For the same reason, it is a good idea not to surf alone. Take a friend along if you can.
  • Familiarise yourself with the usual tide pattern of your local beach and be aware of the dangers represented by rip-tides. Rip-tides are channels of water moving out to sea. Look out across the water for areas of dark or foamy water, perhaps littered with floating debris, as these are all indications of rip tides. If you find yourself caught in a rip tide, stay calm and swim parallel to the shore until you break free of it. Never attempt to swim directly back to the shore if the current is pulling you out, as you will tire quickly and will probably be unable to break free.
  • Do not swim out too far beyond the shore, or put yourself in any situation which makes you feel overwhelmed. It is easy to panic if you are out of your depth and are caught off-guard by a wave or current. It can be tempting to paddle out further than you otherwise would to catch a good wave, particularly if those around you are doing so. It is important, however, not to succumb to peer pressure and to do only what you are comfortable with.
  • Never go into the water if you have been drinking alcohol.
  • Do not go into the water for at least an hour after consuming a meal.
  • Stretch before you surf in order to avoid muscle cramps. This is particularly important if you are surfing in colder waters such as those surrounding the UK. Even strong swimmers can get into trouble if they become incapacitated by the pain of a severe muscle cramp.
  • Surfers in some parts of the world definitely need to be aware of the danger presented by sharks, which can sometimes swim close to the shore. It is important to keep the risk in perspective; only a few people each year are killed by sharks. However, to reduce the risk even further, it is only prudent to take sensible precautions if you are surfing in waters inhabited by one of the few shark species known to have attacked humans. Firstly, never enter the water if you have an open wound or are bleeding, as sharks can smell blood from over a mile away. Secondly, you should always remain clear of anything which might attract a shark, including large groups of fish, which would be the shark’s usual prey.
  • The danger represented by jellyfish and stingrays is likely to be a more pressing concern for surfers in some countries. While stingrays are generally harmless and will usually swim away rather than attack when they feel threatened, it is not uncommon for humans to be stung by stingrays after accidentally treading on them when entering the water. Such stings are generally moderately painful but not dangerous. If you are surfing in an area with a significant stingray population, shuffle your feet through the sand as you enter the water, which should disturb any lurking stingrays. Most jellyfish are also relatively harmless, and deliver sometimes painful, but not life-threatening stings. There are some areas of the world, however, where dangerous jellyfish can swim close to the shore. For example, the venom of the notorious ‘box jellyfish’ of Australia and the Philippines can be fatal to humans. Surfers swimming in areas known to have a population of jellyfish should take a bottle of vinegar with them when they go to the beach. Prompt application of vinegar to a sting can neutralise the venom and save a life or help to prevent serious injury.