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Overcoming Fear Of The Ocean

Chapter 3: Getting Over Fear Of The Ocean

A lot of people suffer from fear of the ocean. It can be hard to surf when you’re afraid of the sea! There’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is that your fear won’t disappear overnight, and might never completely disappear. The GOOD news is that your fear can mostly be conquered and turned into healthy respect, which is something that is vitally important when dealing with the ocean. With time and dedication, anyone can turn their fear of the ocean into the pure joy of surfing on four foot waves and beyond!

My Story…

Would you believe that I was terrified of the ocean as a little kid? It might sound a little strange, but because of this hurdle surfing has become one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

When I started surfing I had a bigger than normal fear of the ocean. When I was little I had gone to the beach with my summer camp and I was knocked over by a wave. I was dragged a little by the water as it drained back out to sea, and I was convinced I was a goner. Well, I survived that experience, but ever since then I had been quite scared of the ocean. I was never a risk taker, and to this day I still have a personality that doesn’t like to take risks.

I also wasn’t a water baby. I actually didn’t like the beach much when I was a little kid. Sound strange? Well, things change as you get older :). I realized that I lived five minutes from the beach and most people would give their right arm to live in such a great location.

My desire to learn to surf stemmed from a few different things. A few people I looked up to were surfers. I loved snowboarding, and surfing seemed to be pretty similar. (I actually came to like surfing better than snowboarding!) Also, because of my fear of the ocean, I thought surfers were pretty much the bravest people in the world. I remember being a little kid at the beach looking at the surfers floating out beyond the breakers and thinking, “How can they do that? That’s so scary!” All of a sudden, I wanted to join them.

The first year I surfed I was horrified of tiny one foot crumblers. Yes, it’s true. I don’t like to admit it. It was fear of the ocean to the extreme. However, now that I can routinely surf in 4-5 foot surf with confidence I love to look back on those days and see how far I’ve come.

I had to get over my fear of the ocean gradually. The first time I got tumbled by a little 2 foot wave I came up spluttering and thrashing, thinking that it was the most extreme experience in the world. I’ve since learned that it’s not ;).

If you’re not comfortable in the ocean, you might want to take a couple of weeks to acquaint yourself with the waves. Get yourself a bodyboard and go boogie boarding! This is an excellent way for people who might be a little nervous in the ocean to get used to it. This was my first step in learning how to surf.

A bodyboard is light and soft, so if you wipe out you don’t have to worry about it hitting you in the head. It’s also a perfect tool to learn how to catch waves. You don’t have to worry about standing up—you just have to hang on! Even some advanced surfers like to bodyboard once in a while. It puts you closer to the water, and every wave is overhead!

Bodyboarding is also called “sponging.” This is because the bodyboard sometimes gets damp like a sponge.

In any event, getting over a fear of the ocean is a gradual experience. Always listen to your gut instincts, too. Believe me, I know how frustrating it is to sit at the shore for hours debating whether or not to get in the water, and then deciding that it’s too scary and going home with my tail between my legs. It’s demoralizing and embarrassing. But it’s also no good to be out in surf that is so terrifying to you that you start to panic. Panic is bad, especially in the ocean.

Sometimes you have to override your self-preservation instincts just a little at first, especially in the beginning when 1-2 foot waves are frightening. Eventually, as you conquer the 1-2 footers it becomes more important to listen to your gut instinct. When the waves get beyond three feet the power increases exponentially. (So does the fun, but don’t worry, you’ll get there!)

The right mentality before you enter the water should be a little nervous, but also excited to get out there. It’s a nervous excitement where the excitement is just a little bigger than the nerves. If you get out of your car and the conditions inspire flat out fear and a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, you probably shouldn’t paddle out. You won’t make the right decisions in the water and you’ll put yourself and others in danger.

Eventually, after surfing 1-2 foot ankle biters, you’ll come to the beach on a warm sunny day and see 3 foot lines peeling gently across the beach. They look a bit bigger than anything you’ve surfed before, but you’ve been working on your duck dives and turtle rolls, and you’ve learned how to stand up pretty well. You’re a little nervous, but after observing the waves and currents for a bit it looks so darn fun that you grab your board and jump in with a big grin!

That’s how it works. You’ll be surprised at how much you can accomplish.

Getting over your fear of the ocean involves taking small, well educated risks. If you take the time to learn how to swim properly, observe the ocean and currents, and learn about the other associated risks and dangers, you’re probably better off than half the surfers out there who don’t think about their safety!

One last word: caution is great when you’re surfing, but once you decide to go for a wave—-go for it! Injury often comes as a result of not committing to the wave, especially for beginners. It’s so easy to decide at the last second to bail out, but this puts you in a precarious position, with the wave about to break on you and the board not under control.

I will admit to chickening out on waves sometimes—especially those late drops—and it’s a bad habit I don’t like. I think it’s especially difficult for people who have a fear of the ocean and get scared of big waves. If you can work on this now, it will be less of an issue in the future.

Steps to get over your fear of the ocean:

1.) Learn how to swim
2.) Learn about currents, tides, and waves
3.) Take a bodyboard out and learn how the ocean works firsthand
4.) Start surfing on tiny 1-2 foot beachbreak waves near (but not in front of) lifeguards
5.) Go surfing with friends
6.) Learn how to read your fear—is it just nervous excitement or flat out fear?
7.) If you start to get scared out there, smile, and remember that surfing is fun!

Comments (31)

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  1. Aliza says:

    This is a great article.

    i also started surfing for the same exact reasons as you did. I also lived by a beach and I currently moved closer to the beach to join my surfer husband. i love snowboarding. Im fed up that I cant get over my fear of paddling out when Im out surfing. I decided to search for others who have this problem. Thanks for this article. it really helps.

  2. Francois says:

    I started surfing when I was 13-14, and 2fters scared the S#!+ out of me!
    The first year, I barely EVER surfed in the winter, as it gets BIG here at winter (esp that winter, it was the biggest winter in years.). Not to mention, my wetsuit was useless, I bet I actually got colder in it than without it. (Not to mention it had holes right at the buttocks from all the beatings I took.) I was a fool in the water too, and since the only consistantly surfable break was a pointbreak and a reef next to it, after 2 weeks of catching 1ft closeouts, I had to go to the pointbreak. I couldn’t catch small waves there, it was to close to the rocks, so I was forced into the reef out of neccesity, now that place is scary to most of the experienced surfers here (why I don’t know, a mental block perhaps, since that place, when it is 5ft+ can kill.), but I just had to do it, I couldn’t remember a day that I didn’t get at least one cut. (Permanently marking my feet with millions of scars.) But, I stuck at it, and pushed myself, even when I was panicing. Now, a year and a half later. (A year if you don’t count the winter that I only surfed like maby 10 times total, before my board snapped, and the summer where I also only took like 10 sessions, as there was NO waves, except for early morning, and because I was relying on parents to take me, I couldn’t get to the ocean before 11, and that is on weekends, 3 in school days, by which time, a onshore storm will have hit the place.) I finally lost my inhibitions, one day, when I decided, I am going out at 4ft, I got creamed, but I also got the best waves of my life, and in 3 months time, just through commitment, I got barreled 8 times, and surfed a 7fter. (I was so scared that 6ft day, I sat WAY outside, where I had the choise, paddle over the wave, or catch it, no need for duckdiving, so I coaght a 7ft set wave, as it was the only stuff coming through which I could catch.) And go into 4ft-5ft without much more than exitement and maby a little nervousness if it is heavy. Just to show, a little fear can drive you to do great things!

    I also must reccomend, if it is 4ft or under, and you have more than 6 months experience, even if you are flat out scared, if you have a good friend who is experienced in the water, ask him to look out for you, and GO FOR IT. (Don’t do it if you don’t have someone who you can trust.) Trust me, after your first wave, (just try to not wipe out on your first one, catch it a little early to make sure.) you’ll be frothing at the mouth for another one. It just takes one wave, and one wipeout, for you to see that you got through it, and that means, you’ll get through it again, just flow with it, let the wave roll you about, you might start liking the feeling of being wiped out, it is a rush!

  3. Mike says:

    Man, I’m 48 and have been surfing since the age of 14. I still punish myself menatally when I dont go out on bigger days ……..6 plus. Not to worried about paddling out just pushing over the edge on the take off….. and I consider myself a a fir and experienced surfer. The mind is very powerfull at holding you back.

  4. Mike no.2 says:

    This article hits the nail on the head for me, I thought I was just being a chicken sh@#. I surfed long ago but had a real scary accident that put the fear of the sea in me. After 18 years of really missing it I have given it a go again. My balance is shot to hell and the fear/excitement is still there but its all good Im taking it on just as you described above. Thanks for this!!

  5. surfnow says:

    As I start surfing the bigger waves I am becoming acquainted with a new phenomenon, going over the falls. Where your board is pointed down into the abyss almost at a 90% angle with the water. A very scary thing and what I do at that point is lean back and try to pull out because I don’t think there is any way to salvage that ride? My biggest fear in the ocean is not the waves or the water or drowning or sharks but hitting the bottom. That is my biggest fear. Which is why I never surf at high tide because it is a shore break and if I can stand in the water where the waves are breaking it makes me very nervous. I like to catch waves in deep water. If the water is deep I’m really not that scared.

  6. FLnewbie says:

    Great article. describes me exactly. I have a fear of the ocean, yet i know i have to get out there. something inside of me wants to surf. I’m reassured to know there are others and that you’ve overcome it. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Phillip says:

    I read this article and immediately got alot of determination to get over my fear of the ocean. I have made a promice to myself that i will do it. Thankyou for writing the article im sure it will help me in the near future.

  8. Anne says:

    I have started surfing about a million times since i was bout 14. I stood on my first try, on a rebrake.But everytime a friend has paddled out with me, supposedly as my aid, he would catch a couple of waves and wait for me on the beach-leaving me out on my ace with sets rolling in. it was no two footer either. Naturally, i panicked and end up getting washed up on the beach. Everytime i find myself out, I find I wonder how to get back-if i am unable to actually catch a wave? Point being-I now have a serious fear of paddling out. My boyfriends of four years surfs.He baught me a brand new 7.4 foot board and new wetsuit…and Im starting to feel guilty. Thanx for sharing your story…I hope it helps.

  9. True says:

    thankyou for this article it helped :)

  10. Richard says:

    Get this. I am 53 and have been surfing since age 12. Well, I hadn’t surfed for the last six months due to a shoulder injury and then illness. Finally, I got back in the water on Tuesday 4/13/10. Descent south swell with a bit of northwest too. A bit breezy but still surfable, I caught an outside left that I barely managed to stand up on but once that was over I rode as usual. Then I caught a right and my foot slipped off and I fell with my board somehow coming around and I got finned in the thigh and calf (quad fin board, 6’8″). Luckily, only bruises and no cuts. Since then I have gone out twice more and caught zero waves because I am very sore (no working out in those 6 months of no surf) as well as takeoff shy since the finning incident. I truly believe that it is mostly mind over ability that holds one back as I have surfed waves in the 12 to 15 foot range in the past without major incidents. Now, I find myself hesitant to take off on three footers because I fear that I won’t be able to stand up in time. But, like the author says, one must overcome these fears by just going for it. Though I am as sore as hell, I will continue to go out until I re-establish myself as the surfer that I was and can be again. So to all of you that are new to surfing, know that even experienced surfers can and do have moments of doubt and challenges such as mine. See you in the water!

  11. Carter says:

    I live in SoCal near Mission Beach, am 46 and sponge 3-4 days a week (a great workout). Wasn’t too keen on surfing, because of the comfort level of my board and fins but am buying a 9’0 today. This past winter was awesome. HUGE overheads. Talk about duck diving under a 12 footer which is almost impossible, that is fearful. But I admire the surfers and am only here for 3 more years so what the h**l.

  12. True says:

    Hey Im a beginner surfer and Im trying to get over my fear of the ocean, Im more scared of drowning then anything else because i cant hold my breath for more than 3 seconds at the most, has anyone else had this problem? any ideas on how to hold my breath longer incase i get held under ?

  13. Lee says:

    Tried surfer for the first time in Hawaii to convince myself 40 is not old and yes I liked it. I like it a lot.I need baby waves and maybe a personal life guard. My fear is high maintenance. So questions are where are the best baby waves? Best or economical safe ways to learn this sport for purely masochistic recreational pleasure? I live in the Bay area so I’m thinking there has to be some non Maverick beaches and some decent surf schools right?

  14. Kairi says:

    Heyy, I’m 16 and can’t wait to start surfing but I live about 2 hrs from the sea….and I can’t swim :(
    This may seem like a stupid question but how well do you have to be able to swim? Like, do have to be a proffessional or just a basic swimmer?

  15. admin says:

    Hey Kairi – no, you don’t have to be a professional swimmer, but you should feel comfortable in the water. Just make sure you can swim back in if you should lose your board :)

    Learning to swim in open water – especially the ocean – is a process. Take it a step at a time, and don’t go in when the waves are big at first. Take some swimming lessons at your local YMCA to start off. That’s what I did when I first started surfing.

  16. will says:

    Hi Lee, My name is Will and I am in the same boat you’re in. I also live in the Bay Area and I’m looking for someone to learn with or split a lesson or something. Shoot me an email if you’re interested. Thanks.

    willywonkadds@hotmail.com

  17. GJ says:

    Great article. I have been trying my hand at surfing for two months. I had an 8 ft softboard and I was finally getting comofortable with paddling out, going for waves (no bigger than 2 foot, 3 tops) and even catching them and riding straight. I decided to get a next step real board because my softboard was starting to feel slow (I got a 7’6 epoxy fun shape). Well, it has been awesome but also very scary. I did that last-minute pullout yesterday at El Porto, and finned myself and got held under over and over. All of a sudden I feel like I am back to square one. I have been out three times with my new board and unfortunately each day has been 3 feet or bigger. So I have been so scared. I also hit my head with my board yesterday. I know all of yesterday’s problems were because of my fear and because I was moving really slowly out there. I am going to apply your article and also look for a gentler spot, because summer’s over and the waves seem to be getting heavier! (Hopefully it’s not just me being scared!)

  18. sue says:

    Hi there, thanks for all the great articles I’m so glad I came across this site. I Started to learn to surf a year ago age 50 with my boyfriend as a ‘teacher’. It’s been an enlightening experience. Surfing is so not as easy as many make it look! I too had a great fear of the ocean, basically everything under the water, being held under, eaten by something more aggressive and hungry than me, bashed on the head and concussed or slammed into the ocean floor – it all seemed scary in the beginning.But a year on and I can paddle out back through 4foot waves fairly confidently, sit on my board in a balanced and stylish (at last) way, choose a decent wave to go for, accelerate my paddling when necessary and stay out back on my own without dying of
    fear. I have now paddled out after dolphins and seals, swam through green face waves with shoals of silvery shimmering fish and found myself one of only two people surfing a beautiful beach on a gloriously sunny day hoping to catch a glimpse of a hump-back whale! A far cry from the petrified but awestruck post-menopausal mother of two who entered the water 12 months previous hardly able to breathe with fear, excitement and anticipation!! I have now managed to catch and ride a few 3-5 foot waves and then I got ditch off a beautiful perfect 5 footer when I tried to catch it a bit late, slammed down and tumbled a bit and one bruised leg later my confidence was knocked, next time out I was hit on the head by my new Magic Carpet 9 footer (which apparently looked very comical!?) Now I am having trouble comitting to the take off for fear of a nasty pearling incident and have been trying to work out how to get back to where I was confidence-wise. I agree that our minds hold our bodies back, cos I know I am capable, I do a regular surf-work out and keep myself fit. I’ve been watching some short instructional vids on http://www.realwiings.com, and they’re great. They have inspired me to take it down a knotch – go back to smaller waves to build my confidence and work on timing, to not surf alone and look for the fun in surfing which aleviates anxiety. So in two days time (if the surfs still here) that’s what I’m gonna do and I’m feeling really inspired. I’ll get back on here if it works out and tell you all about it!!

  19. i remember having to get the writer of this article to go out on bigger waves. i knew she could handle it.

    it helps to have someone to make you go out on bigger days.

    now she kicks my ass.

    thank you very much.

  20. Hayley says:

    Haha – I still remember that one day at Ditch where it was like…what…3-4 with maybe the occasional 5. And I was all like…”Can I paddle out with you?” cause I was all nervous. You were awesome. Thank you, that was actually a huge step for me and my funboard :)

  21. clint versfeld says:

    hi my name is clint and live margat kzn we have some mean wavesthis side and it is verry chopy at some days winter the waves are owesm it makes me wao go in but ? im a little scared to get to the back line i normaly surfin the middle between the back line and the beah wha can i do to over came my fear im scared if i get to the back line i wont get back to the beach im scared i might drift further in see pls i need help need t gt to the big waves at the back line ive been surfing for about 6 years and only paddeld out once and got a bit scared i paddeld back to shore HELP PLS

  22. Stephanie says:

    Thanks for the article, it is very encouraging, as are many of the comments. I live in Nicaragua- a surfer’s dream, right? I’ve wanted to surf all my life and am blessed to be with a wonderful man who, apart from having surfed for thirty+ years, is a patient and understanding coach. My journey toward becoming a surfer is slow- it seems I take two steps forward and one step back. I am working so hard to try to overcome my fear of the waves. Once I am outside, I feel calm and have a great time. My problem is paddling out. I begin to panic if I have to go under a few waves in a row. If a big set is coming in, I usually freak out and paddle back in.

    My boyfriend’s advice has been very good: First of all, he put me on a boogie board which has helped me actually learn to catch waves and turn into them. Also, wearing fins helps me swim more quickly. In order to avoid panicking when I go under waves, he taught me to start counting as soon as I go under and I’ll find that I’m never under for more than 5 seconds. It really helps! His best advice to me came on my first day out: He said, “If you do get tossed by a wave ALWAYS COME UP SMILING!” I’m still at the point where surfing more scary than it is fun, but I am determined!

    Good luck to everyone! :)

  23. Holly says:

    Great article!

    I am still so scared of the ocean. I took swimming lessons at my local Y and that was just useless. I learn very gradually and slowly and so I’m wondering if surfing is even for me. I now can just do the freestyle. I don’t know how to do any other stroke and I can float. I’m considering learning treading in the water because it might be beneficial to learn.

    I really love the sport of surfing and I really want to learn. It’s just that open water swimming frightens me. I have swam in the ocean but only in neck deep water and I made sure that I didn’t go out where I couldn’t touch the sea floor. Aren’t waves caught out in the deep ocean? Also, sharks freak me out and well as the riptides, currents, and abyssal ocean itself! I’m pretty much doomed right?

  24. canuckchick says:

    I have never surfed but always dreamed of it since I was a kid. I satisfied my urge by street skating and later snowboarding a few times. I’m an average swimmer took lessons when I was younger but I too have this fear of the ocean. I am scared by many aspects of it such as all the freaky creatures may they be harmless, or sting or take a chomp off your body (!!). I have been in the ocean/sea a handful of times ( Boston, Holland, Melbourne, Gold Coast) but always near the shore as far as the 2nd small break once near surfers paradise AU. Each time I can’t seem to relax and stop scanning the water for jellyfish or other unthinkable things. I’ve come across a few bears on mtn bike trails and got a rush of fear but at least they are furry and and got four legs and I am on solid ground…so that covers that!
    I’m also fearful of the power of it. The rip dragging you in, the waves pounding you down and potentially into a reef or rock.
    So now I went and booked a trip to Oahu, and I am determined to overcome my fear somewhat and get lessons.
    I certainly can’t go in on my own, in fact I’d feel better if the instructor was right next to me.

    Fear sucks!

    I can’t wait to see the beauty of Hawaii though; it’s minus 20 here :)

  25. bob says:

    i loves this article.

    last year i stated bodyboard with my friends at the beach ,and i didnt known that waves can get really big , but when i padded out at the beach the waves where huge(5 to 6ft) and i heart was pounding really fast and my gut was saying go back but i just keapt going out the waves ,when i was floating in the water to catch a wave my friend said ‘hey catch this huge one with me ‘i didnt want to but i did it anyway and when i went down on the wave my board was out of control and slipped out of my hands i got dumped really bad and i didnt go back in the water for about 4 months but i stated to go out and just chatch the little ones (1 to 2ft)then stated to get more confortable with the waves /beach and stated catching bigger waves (3 to 4 ft ) and stated to have lots fun wih my friends at the beach and lot worrying about how big the waves are going to be :)

  26. Jennn says:

    This article has helpe me loads .. Thanks so much!! I only recently started surfing and in Wales in winter its freezing and the waves suck! And learning in those conditions scared me a bit .. But everything you said has made me feel a little bit better and hopefully when its warmer il take your advice and hopefully the fear will dissapear! Thanks again, it really has helped (:

  27. Whitney says:

    This article is EXACTLY what I needed to read today. I’ve been feeling so badly after my Saturday surf session. I’ve been surfing every weekend as much as possible since I got back from a trip to Costa Rica with my surfer husband last November…we live in San Diego, so as soon as I got home, I bought a wetsuit and booties and am now determined to GET OUT THERE! I feel like I’ve gotten so much better…I can stand up no problem, manuever my board, have a blast out there…but something is keeping me from paddling to the outside and I thought it was just me. It’s so frustrating and disappointing when you WANT to do something so bad and your fear factor sets in and prohibits you from doing what you want…ugh! Now after reading this article, it seems that I just need to be more patient and push myself a little bit each time…great advice. Amazing comments, too! Thanks everyone! Now I can’t wait to go back out!!!

  28. I have been in the same place off and on. It began as excitement fear after surfing well in most waves on a long board in anywhere from 2-4 foot. Then, on a fun board I got into a day of 6-7 ft and a long hold down and more turbulent roles. Shook me and I remember the 3-4s were now hesitant. I thought it was strength so I trained more and got pushed in all of the time even if turtling the 7’6″. Thinking it was the board I went even smaller to a 6’3″. Not sure it helped any since it was very think and the same problem persisted. Now on a much shorter board I can get through anything but steep drops are a huge deal. Moved to a new break. Much faster than I am used to. Must steeper. Even on the 5’3″ the nose always looks too deep. I fear I won’t make it and shy out in dangerous ways dragging legs, etc. Now I am working it out. My focus is making the drop even if I’m crouched down. I moved so fast from long to short that my pop is wrong. Gotta grab the board further back and not at shoulders like the longboard. My thoughts should be getting to feet not, “look how steep and shallow it is down there”. Stop going for the point and try some shoulders where it is less steep too might help. We’ll see. I’ve been doing this for too long to lose forward momentum now.

  29. C says:

    I know this going to sound “douchey” but I feel drawn to the sea. The ocean calls me.

    I like the water and have been in some of the most horrible waves. I’m not a great swimmer, but can tread water for hours.

    I was once in Cancun, standing in the ocean watching a storm come in and loving it. I live near a great lake that sucks people in – that lake will…do not good things to people.

    Anyway…How do I surf (go laugh now before you choke on the bong)? Do I start with windsurfing, do I just listen to a lot of Jack Johnson, start calling people ‘bra’?

  30. sad surfer says:

    I can surf shortboard in gentle 4-5ft waves, but when the ocean gets stormy (winter season in CR), I can’t seem to get myself outside anymore because of fear… I am too scared to paddle out. It’s quite depressing, cause I am beyond surfing whitewater… big mental block, and my boyfriend yells at me when I ask for help, cause he knows I can do it, but the yelling makes it worse, and he takes off on me. I feel like quitting sometimes, but its sad cause I know I can surf. I guess I am afraid to lose the board and be stuck in a rip or get rolled deep underwater. arghh. frustrating

  31. ernesto polanco says:

    dude im 24 and i just started surfing like 4 weeks ago and dude im just scared as hell to pass that impact zone! i think what scares me is being out the where i cant stand up and get whiped out….. plus i cant get used to duck diving its hard ass hell. Plus im learning on a short board i know it was a mistake but i didnt want to learn and than have to buy another board… they’re too expensive. Anyways i dont know i’ve just always been scared of the ocean but i made up my mind that i have to and will learn how to surf its just scary. i remember i got whiped out my like a 2 footer and i felt like i wasnt going to make it now imagine when im past the impact zone where the waves are 3+ Any tips anyone ?

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