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. This is not to say that surfing is extremely dangerous and shouldn’t be attempted unless you have a death wish. With the proper knowledge and experience, surfing can be very safe.
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. If you start to freak out and need assistance, those people
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.
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! A helmet is a good choice for ocean safety in these conditions.
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 wild ocean without knowing how to swim.
A surfer cannot rely 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 surfers—including myself—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. Oh, and pools don’t have currents or waves to mess you up.
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.
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.
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.