It’s winter in Southern California, and with the change of seasons usually comes some rainfall. A heavy rain after months and months of dry weather is bound to cause problems: all the junk that has built up over the summer is now being funneled directly into your surf spot. This can be a boon in certain locations, as rivermouths will suddenly get perfectly sculpted sandbars thanks to all the soil and sand. However, even if it’s not the first rain of the season, a substantial rainfall can pose a serious health risk to surfers looking to catch the post-front swell that usually accompanies a rain.
All the rainfall that drains into the sewers and out to the ocean is untreated: that means that all the motor oil, pesticides, chemicals, garbage, and potentially sewage is carried straight into the ocean.
Standard government warning is to stay away from the water for 72 hours post rainfall (that’s after the rain has stopped, by the way, not from the moment it starts). This time frame is to allow the bacteria to get diluted to normal levels. But many people ask the question of whether or not this is necessary, and if you ask a group of surfers about whether or not it’s safe to surf post-rain, you’ll get a wide variety of answers. Some will say they wait the full 72 hours. Others wait one or two days. Others say you’ll be fine if you stay away from drainpipes and inlets. Still others are kamikaze and will paddle out at Imperial Beach directly into the sludge and sewage that drains out of that city as well as Tijuana.
Where You Live
It’s definitely true about where you live. I used to surf after the rain all the time when I lived on Long Island, New York. I lived on the eastern end of the island where the population was minimal and so was the land. It was an island. There wasn’t a sewage problem. The biggest risk was soil and other contaminants, but again – it wasn’t a very densely populated area. And I never got sick from the water. However, Southern California is a different beast. The population is huge, and the amount of concrete and asphalt covering the land means that all that water can’t soak into the ground. If you’ve been to Los Angeles, you know that the amount of open space is next to nothing–it’s covered with buildings and roads. So ultimately the rain has nowhere to go except out into the ocean, carrying everything with it.
Surfing in a less populated area can be less risky. However, those risks go out the window if you’re surfing in a third world country near a rivermouth due to poor sanitation and wastewater systems.
Where You Surf
There are certainly areas where there are drainpipes right by the beach, and during a rain you can see a huge stream of brown water flowing out at an enormous rate. Obviously this would be the worst choice of surfing location.
Another horrible choice of surfing location would be near a harbor or inlet due to the amount of runoff that collects and funnels out to the sea.
The further away from these particular structures you are, the safer you will be. However, don’t get lulled into a false sense of security just because the water happens to “look clean”. I could fill a glass with water from my toilet and hand it to you, and it would look perfectly fine. Bacteria is invisible.
What You Can Catch
Surfing after the rain is really about rolling the dice. You might be fine and not get sick, and most people probably won’t. However, if you do get sick, it can be very, very bad. The stuff that’s floating around in polluted water is nastier than the germs you typically come into contact with on a day to day basis, and at the worst could land you in the ER or kill you.
The worst story is a friend of a friend that got an infection of the heart lining from surfing a river mouth in Ventura after a heavy rain. It was also reported that one surfer died and two others were sickened from a highly aggressive staph infection this month after surfing Sunset Cliffs in San Diego after a rain. Another grim story is that of Timmy Turner, who got a horrific staph infection that infected his brain through his sinues. The culprit? The water of Huntington Beach Pier.
Aside from those stories there are anecdotal stories of surfers developing typical sinus infections, ear infections, pink eye, gastroenteritis, flu, MRSA, Hepatitis, and more. It’s really no joke.
If You Want To Go Anyway
I personally don’t like to surf right after a rain. However, some people simply will not be deterred. If you want to go in the water soon after it rains, then you might want to follow these steps:
- After surfing, bend over as if you’re tying your shoes and blow out your sinuses. You might have to do it a couple times to get all the water out.
- As soon as possible, take a hot shower.
- Use a Neti pot to rinse your sinuses out. (However, please use the neti pot correctly. Use only boiled or distilled water–don’t use tap water. And use the saline packets or you could irritate your sinuses).
- Use alcohol drops in your ears to dry out any water and hopefully get rid of some of the bacteria.
- Drink lots of water and have an Emergen-C. This could be placebo, but if it works I’m into it.
Do you surf after the rain? Have you ever gotten sick? Post in the comments below!