Ocean Safety For Beginners
Ocean Safety is the most important thing in surfing. Surfing is not a couch potato sport—it’s very demanding and takes place in an ever-changing, often unpredictable environment. With the proper knowledge and experience, surfing can be very safe. In fact, surfers are often the ones that save hapless swimmers when there aren’t lifeguards around. However, educating yourself about the risks is a good thing to do so you’re not caught off guard, especially if you’re a beginner to the sport.
There are several factors that have to be taken into account when considering ocean safety. These are:
- The waves (size and shape)
- Landscape features including rocks, cliffs, jetties and piers
- Other Surfers
- Your board
- Your swimming ability
- Sea critters like jellyfish and sharks
Let’s take a look at each one of these factors of ocean safety.
Weather is one of the most obvious elements of ocean safety but it can be unpredictable. The best surfing days are often nice and sunny with a few puffy clouds. But the weather can turn harsh in moments, especially in certain tropical climates. Thunderstorms can arise seemingly out of nowhere. If you start to hear thunder it is advisable to get your tail out of the water. It’s not fun to be electrocuted.
The weather can also cause a sudden change in the patterns of currents and waves. A sudden increase in the wind can cause waves to increase in size or get choppy. If a storm suddenly appears, the ocean can get nasty in a hurry. It’s helpful to have a rough idea of the day’s predicted weather patterns so you don’t get caught in a sudden storm.
Hurricanes are one of the biggest wave producers especially in North America, and are often the cause of celebration amongst experienced veterans. Hurricane swells can be deceptively powerful and can cause strong currents to form. If you’re a beginner you probably shouldn’t be out in a hurricane swell. Use your best judgment.
The waves themselves can be a source of joy or fear, depending on your personality and fear tolerance levels =).
The biggest impact waves have on ocean safety is their size. Bigger waves can be very hazardous for those not able to deal with the conditions. As well, you won’t only be putting yourself at risk if you enter conditions you can’t handle. If you lose control and lose your board it could hit someone else.
Even small waves can pack quite a punch. One cubic foot of water weighs about 62 pounds. That means a cubic yard of water weighs about 1684 pounds. That’s almost one ton! Water isn’t solid, but it’s pretty darn heavy and can knock you around quite a bit.
Hollow waves are a bit more dangerous than crumbling waves. Hollow waves are formed when the bottom goes from deep to shallow very quickly. Reef breaks such as Pipeline have this characteristic and the result are some very powerful, very hollow waves. They’re fun to surf for the advanced, but they’re extremely difficult to catch because they break very quickly. Hollow waves also break very strongly, and wipeouts are usually more extreme.
Going over the falls happens more in hollow waves. This is when the surfer gets caught in the lip and is brought down in front of the wave. Going over the falls is one of the worst wipeouts! If you go over the falls, make sure that you’re clear of your board and try not to land headfirst into the water. Sometimes this is hard because by the time you realize what’s happening you’re already being pummeled into the ocean floor! Going over the falls is dangerous when you’re in shallow water, especially because this particular type of wipeout often turns you upside-down and bodyslams you with the ease of a supercharged Russian heavyweight wrestler—on steroids!
Crumbling waves occur when the bottom has more of a gradual slope. This allows the wave more time to unload its energy, and thus results in a slower, weaker wave. Slower, crumbling waves are ideal for beginners.
When wiping out it is advisable to fall away from your board, and try to land in the water flat on your back with your arms outstreched to avoid striking the bottom.
Rip Currents and Longshore Currents
When one thinks of ocean safety, the first thing that comes to mind is the dreaded rip current. Rip currents can be a friend or foe, depending on your situation.
It’s VERY important to understand how Rip Currents work. The surf camp that I work at actually has the kids swim in the *small* rip currents that periodically form along the sandy beach (supervised, of course). They are very small, only about 10-15 feet long at the max, and only form for 5-10 minutes. The kids gain experience about how the currents work and how to easily swim out of them.
Longshore currents run parallel to the beach and can be rather annoying as they tend to drag you down the beach.
Click here for more information on rip currents and longshore currents, including how to identify and escape them.
The landscape might not come directly to mind when one thinks about ocean safety, but it is an important consideration.
Rocks, boulders, and rock-bottom breaks
Some breaks have submerged boulders waiting to dismember hapless surfers. The only way to know about this, unfortunately, is to either see the boulders at low tide or ask local experienced surfers.
If you’re surfing at a rocky break, don’t carelessly jump off the board. Keep an eye out and maintain your position in the lineup. I sometimes surf at a rock bottom break where there are several boulders in one area. I have to always make sure I don’t get carried by the current over to that area or I run the risk of crashing into a rock.
There is one surf break near me where the takeoff is directly at a boulder. Unless you turn right or left immediately after takeoff you’re going to have a very unpleasant crash.
Sometimes great waves break right in front of a rocky cliff. This is for experienced surfers only and it can be an ocean safety nightmare. Cliffs make it very difficult or impossible to get out of the water, and getting caught inside can be very scary. Make sure you know about the prevailing currents. If you’re contemplating surfing at one of these areas, make sure you watch the surf for a while to observe the environment.
“Shooting the pier” refers to the act of surfing a wave as it breaks under the pier and dodging the pilings. This is pretty darn dangerous and is reserved for only the most experienced (or crazy?) of surfers. If you’re a beginner and you’re surfing under a pier, you pretty much have a deathwish. Many towns have laws about surfing near the piers, so make sure you know about them before you get a ticket. For example, surfing within 200 feet of the pier is illegal in Virginia Beach.
Jetties are long fingers of rocks that extend out into the ocean to alter erosion patterns. Depending on their placement, Jetties can either help or harm surrounding beaches. Jetties can be dangerous if you wipe out and get thrown against them by the waves. Keep a respectful distance. You might see some surfers taking off right next to the jetty, but this is not advisable. Even if you don’t get hurt, your board will.
Reef and coral are pretty and can produce great waves, but they can be a real hazard in certain areas.
Reef bottoms tend to be very shallow, and hitting the reef during a wipeout can cause nasty cuts and scrapes. Hitting the reef is also dangerous because you’re usually traveling pretty fast, and the reef is a hard and unmovable object. It hurts!
Sometimes surfers will wear wetsuits to avoid reef abrasions even though the water is very warm. Wetsuit companies also manufacture light booties to be worn in rocky or reef breaks.
Fire coral is another hazard that causes horrible burning and pain when you have a run in with it. Fire coral isn’t actually true coral, it’s a type of sea creature more like anemones or jellyfish. They are brown or yellowish in color and sometimes have white tips. They’re often found at the edge of reefs since they can withstand the more turbulent water.
Check out our First Aid section for information on treating reef cuts.
Often one of the biggest hazards of ocean safety is the presence of other surfers. Crowded breaks can be especially hazardous simply because of all the boards flying around. When surfers don’t respect the established etiquette, the situation can get very dicey. This is why there are established rules to the sport of surfing. These rules are enforced by the honor system and often by burly locals who’ll give you a good beating you if you don’t comply.
Kooks are surfers who do not respect other surfers or the rules of surfing etiquette. Kooks are not beginners or groms—there is a key difference! But I digress =)
Make sure you know the rules of surfing etiquette and obey them. This is probably the #1 rule in surfing ocean safety.
This is probably the most important element of ocean safety but one that is often overlooked. There’s no easier way to put yourself in danger than jumping in the ocean without knowing how to swim.
A surfer cannot always rely 100% on his or her board for safety. A surfboard isn’t a personal flotation device—it’s a piece of sporting equipment that can be accidentally separated from you even if you have a leash. Many inexperienced surfers are guilty of relying too much on their surfboard for their personal safety in the ocean.
Swimming in the ocean is different than swimming in a pool. There’s no edge you can immediately grab hold of to take a breather, and there’s not a solid and unmoving deep end and shallow end. Pools also don’t have currents or waves that might move you in the opposite way you want to go.
That said, it’s a very good idea to take some swimming lessons, even if they’re taught in a pool. Knowing how to tread water is extremely important. It can be done with minimal energy and for long periods of time if necessary—as long as you have the proper technique. If you have access to a pool or a lifeguarded beach, practice treading water.
When the ocean is calm, take some time to do some free swimming in front of a lifeguard. This is extremely valuable. If you lose your board while surfing due to leash breakage, you must be comfortable in the ocean or you’ll panic and put yourself in danger.
Not to mention, a surfer who can confidently handle themselves in the ocean without a board will be much more comfortable and the surfing experience will be that much more enjoyable.
When going out in challenging surf, ask yourself if you could confidently swim in if you lost your board.
A very unpredictable yet important element of ocean safety is the presence of the “real” locals–ocean animals. These include jellyfish, stingrays, urchins, and yes, the men in the grey suits–sharks.
There are several ways to avoid catastrophic run-ins with these ocean dwellers, and I’ve put all the relevant information on a separate page to make it easier to read.
Click here for our page all about sharks and how to safely share the ocean with them.
As you can see, there’s a lot to keep in mind when venturing into the ocean. Ocean safety should be your number one concern. If you’re getting a bad feeling because the waves might be too big, or the beach is deserted, don’t beat yourself up over not going in. There will always be more waves. Don’t take ocean safety for granted either. The ocean is not something to be taken lightly, so don’t think that because you were a varsity swimmer 30 years ago that you can handle anything. Be smart and you’ll live to surf many waves for years to come.
Thanks for this. It prompted a good conversation with the kids tonight. We moved to the coast and they (9&13yo) have grown to love this sport. Theyve only been surfing for a few months and today my 13 yo went out in 8ft waves. He was with his surf team and coaches but the were was HUGE. I was scared to death but didnt think about the leash thing. We spoke about it tonight. Also theyre both strong swimmers but I think swim lessons are a good idea.
Hi Erin! That’s good that he was with his team, I bet he had fun! I was out in 4-8ft surf that day and noticed a surf team nearby, and if it was anything like his they were watching out for each other. Teach the kids about rip currents if they haven’t learned already. But I strongly recommend swimming lessons – it’s an excellent life skill to have no matter what, and could prove lifesaving.
I have been surfing for three mouths now and this website has helped me through all 3 months.
I noticed that every surfer paddles out right next to the pier, it looks easier but i’m afraid of crashing against it. Is this safe? Thank you for the website,
Yes – usually there’s a rip current next to the pier (and some jetties) and it’s like a conveyor belt to the outside. You can take advantage of this if you’ve got enough experience under your belt to avoid the pier. I’ve seen beginners in Huntington Beach who obviously didn’t know what they were doing thrown right into the pilings by a set, and it doesn’t look too fun.
also check out http://www.globalodyssi.com, they make surfers first aid kits.
Thanks so much. Now my brother wont hav 2 teach me so much.But really thanks. I’ve never found a website that actually helps me in a book form. Who knows maybe cause of this I’ll become a pro. 🙂
i want to surf but my mom won’t let me
I really love this website. I used to go boogie boarding with my dad when I was little but stopped going to the beach after my parents split. I feel a whole new inspiration to try surfing now and I feel that I could begin to surf safely and calmly after reading this handbook.
love it love the surf this website made me abetter surfer myself thanks!
Sup love Surfing
[…] you’d like to know more, this handbook can provide more information and safety […]
Thanks ALOT for taking your time to create this website! It means alot, and I have learned alot, just from reading your first two chapters. I am VERY excited to start surfing next year!
The cops don’t really enforce the whole surfing within 200 feet of the pier. They really don’t care.
Well 3 days ago, my first time surfing. The LAST thing I thought about while in the water was the hungry curious little sea creatures that dwelled below me. Not until the girl next to me screamed and said something nibbled on her foot. Then I got really scared because she made it SUCH a big deal out of a fishy kiss (there was no marks or pain or anything), I gave up and went back to shore with her. I was angry enough at the stranger I didn’t go back to that beach, and still haven’t.
good question cat. i would also like to know. thanks for the tips they will definetly come in handy 🙂 It’s great that someone cares about the safety of others to type up all this stuff for them to read thanks
Thank you for all of these great tips. About how long after thunderstorms is it safe to get back into the water? (Even though it may still be rainy)
Great tips, I will send this link to my friends whom I’ve invited to try surfing. Thank you very much. I learned a lot.
Great tips! I am glad there is such a website that I can reference as I begin my Journey of learning to surf!
I found this website by mistake and now u have interested me into trying to surf -thank you for the awesome advice about surfing i will try to take it up as a pride and joy!!:)
Great blog here. I’ve got a billabong surf camp in malibu where ocean safety is a big part of our program for kids. I’ll turn them on to this. Keep up the good work!