Last updated on August 12th, 2023 at 12:44 pm
As a surfer, I’ve always been drawn to the thrill of riding waves. But over the years, I’ve learned there’s more to surfing than just catching and surfing waves.
A whole host of hidden risks come with the sport, and if you’re not aware of them, they can put you in serious danger.
From strong currents and powerful waves to unexpected marine life, many hazards can turn a fun day at the beach into a nightmare.
I will reveal some surfing dangers I’ve encountered in my many years of surfing and offer tips and advice on avoiding them and staying safe in the water.
9 Surfing Dangers You Need To Be Aware Of
Here are nine surfing dangers you may or may not have encountered before and some great ways to avoid them.
Want to know what happens when it all goes wrong while you’re out surfing? Don’t miss our painful list of surfing injuries for some not-so-fun insight into the darker side of our sport.
Rocks in and around the surf
Submerged rocks can lead to unwanted damage to you and/or your surfboard. Rocks on the shore can destroy your board if your leash snaps and pose a serious risk to life and limb if you get washed inwards in big surf.
The first thing you can do to avoid a nasty collision is to observe the surf spot before you paddle out. Check for rocky outcrops and note where other surfers are jumping in and paddling out.
If you’re a beginner, one of the best ways to avoid rocks is by surfing exclusively at sand-bottomed beach breaks.
Rocks are unavoidable at reef breaks, so we strongly recommend developing a basic understanding of surfing and how waves work before you paddle out and catch more waves at your local reef break.
Head over to our short read on how to find the best beginner surf spots for a step-by-step guide on how to find the perfect wave for you.
One danger always at the back of your mind while surfing is potentially harmful marine life sitting just under the surface as you paddle around and surf waves.
The shark is number one on our list of marine animals that can pose a danger to surfers. Although shark attacks on humans are rare, their ambush tactics and ferocity make fearing them easy.
Mick Fanning had a close encounter during the world tour event at Jefferey Bay in South Africa when a large shark got tangled in his leash, leading to a life-or-death situation.
Mick escaped unharmed from the incident, but the same can’t be said for all encounters with surfers.
If the idea of surfing with sharks around is your idea of hell, you should check out the new shark deterrent bracelet from the guys over at SHARKBANZ.
It creates a magnetic field around you while you surf that you can’t feel, but sharks hate keeping them at a safe distance while you’re shredding.
*Important note – Not all sharks are aggressive, and many attacks occur due to mistaken identity in waters with poor visibility.
Next on our list are the various types of Jellyfish you can run into in the ocean. Jellyfish stings can be extremely painful and cause symptoms from itching and redness to nausea and vomiting.
Some species of jellyfish, such as the box jellyfish, can even be deadly. It’s important to avoid areas where jellyfish are present, especially during peak season, and always to wear protective clothing such as wetsuits or rash guards/vests.
The next creature you might encounter won’t kill you, but it can cause impressive pain. The sea urchin is a small sea creature that moves around the ocean floor; it has a round or spiky shell-like body.
The spiky variety of these critters can be an absolute nightmare if you get them embedded in the bottom of your foot.
Worse yet, they can cause nasty infections, so you must carefully remove any lodged spines and disinfect your wounds to stay safe.
Rip currents are among the most common and dangerous hazards you’ll encounter as a surfer. These strong water currents move rapidly from the shore, dragging even experienced surfers out to sea.
Rip currents can be difficult to spot, especially for beginners, and they can catch you off guard if you’re not careful.
One of the main reasons these forces of nature are so dangerous is that they can quickly tire you out. If you try to fight against the current, you’ll quickly lose all your stamina and may be unable to return to the shoreline.
To avoid getting caught in a rip current while surfing, look for any signs of discoloured/churning water or areas where the waves aren’t breaking as consistently as usual.
*Pro tip – It’s also a good idea to head out with a buddy and never surf alone; having someone with you can be the difference between life and death when you’re out surfing.
If you find yourself caught in a rip current, it’s important to stay calm, don’t try to fight against the current; instead, swim parallel to the shore until you’re out of the current’s grip.
Overall, rip currents are a serious danger that all surfers should know. By staying vigilant and taking the necessary precautions, you avoid rips until you’re skilled enough to navigate them properly.
Shallow reefs and sandbank
Shallow reefs and sandbanks are other potential hazards for surfers. While they may not be as immediately dangerous as rip currents, they can still cause serious injuries if you’re not careful.
The biggest danger of reefs and sandbanks is collisions. If you’re not careful, you can easily hit your head or other body parts on the ocean floor, leading to cuts, bruises, or broken bones.
Look for any signs of shallow water or reefs and avoid surfing in unfamiliar areas of the lineup, which can increase the risk of getting injured.
Pro surfer Owen Wright hit the reef out at Pipeline while practising for the upcoming comp. He was concussed, had to be rescued from the surf and spent over a year recovering to return to full health.
This is a healthy reminder that surfers of all abilities are at the whim of mother nature, and you should always respect the power of waves and the ocean.
Busy surf spots
Surfing at a busy spot with lots of different surf craft and skill levels can be challenging and potentially dangerous.
With so many people in the water, there’s a greater chance of collisions or other accidents, especially if you or other surfers around you aren’t paying attention to their surroundings.
One of the main dangers of surfing at a busy spot is the different skill levels in the water. A beginner who’s still working on the basics may not be able to control their board as well as an experienced surfer.
Add this to different types of surf craft, such as longboards, shortboards, and bodyboards in the water, and it’s an accident waiting to happen.
To avoid accidents while surfing at a packed surf spot, try to be aware of your surroundings and the other surfers in the water.
Look for potential hazards, like surfers not paying attention or outside sets rolling in to clean up all the surfers in the line-up.
It’s a good idea to choose a spot that’s appropriate for your skill level. If you’re a beginner, avoiding surfing busy spots with lots of experienced surfers, you’ll struggle to get a wave, and it can be quite disheartening after a while.
Instead, look for quieter spots to practice surfing in a more relaxed environment.
We’ve got a whole guide on how to find the right surf spot for your skill level, packed with actionable tips to get you surfing quiet waves in no time.
Sunburn can be painful and uncomfortable, increasing the risk of more serious skin damage in the long run.
When you’re in the water, it’s easy to forget how long you’ve been out there, and before you know it, you’re sitting under a cold shower in a world of regret.
To avoid sunburn while shredding, always wear sunscreen and reapply it regularly. Choose a sunscreen with a high SPF rating, and apply it to all exposed skin, including your face, neck, and ears.
*Pro tip – In very hot parts of the world, you can use zinc or sunblock, which prevents UV rays from reaching your skin.
The sun is strongest between 10 am and 4 pm, so it’s best to avoid surfing during these hours if possible. If you have to surf during peak hours, take frequent breaks and stay in the shade between sessions.
Head over to our comprehensive guide on the best sunscreen for surfing for guaranteed protection for your skin and the ocean.
Howling offshore winds
Offshore winds blow from the land out to sea, grooming the waves’ faces and creating clean conditions. But offshore winds can blow you out to sea when powerful enough.
Chances are you won’t be surfing when the winds are this strong to start out, but there are the odd occasions when you’re out surfing, and the weather switches incredibly quickly.
Localism is often seen as a way for surfers to protect their home breaks from overcrowding and disrespectful behaviour from outsiders.
However, localism can also lead to negative and exclusionary behaviour, such as aggressive attitudes towards outsiders and new surfers.
Surfers need to strike a balance between respecting local customs and being welcoming to others who want to enjoy the surf.
Head over to our definitive guide on localism in surfing to learn more about the darker side of the sport we all love.
Lightning is a real danger when surfing because it can strike the water and potentially harm or kill anyone nearby.
To avoid lightning, the best thing you can do is stay aware of weather conditions before and during your next stormy surf session.
Check the local weather forecast or the surf forecasters we mentioned earlier, and pay attention to storm warnings.
*Important – If you see lightning or hear thunder, immediately get out of the water and seek shelter on land.
If you can’t make it to shore before a storm hits, avoid being the tallest object in the water or on the beach, and stay low in the water.
It is always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to lightning and surfing, so if in doubt, don’t paddle out.