As a surfer, I’ve always been drawn to the thrill of riding waves. But over the years, I’ve learned that there’s more to surfing than just catching and surfing waves.
In fact, there are a whole host of hidden risks that 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, there’s a multitude of hazards that can turn a fun day at the beach into a nightmare.
I’m going to reveal some dangers of surfing I’ve come across in my many years of surfing and offer tips and advice on how you can avoid them and stay safe in the water.
9 Surfing Dangers You Need To Be Aware Of
Here are 9 surfing dangers you may or may not have come across before and some great ways to stay away from them.
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 carefully observe the surf spot before you paddle out. Check for rocky outcrops and try to see 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 start to paddle out and catch more waves at your local reef break.
One danger always at the back of your mind while you’re surfing is the presence of potentially harmful marine life sitting just under the surface as you surf and catch waves.
Number one on our list of marine animals that can pose a danger to surfers is the shark. Although shark attacks on humans are relatively rare, their ambush tactics and ferocity make fearing them easy.
*Important note – Not all sharks are aggressive, and many attacks occur as a result of 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 can cause a range of 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 to always wear protective clothing such as wetsuits or rash guards/vests.
The next creature you might run into won’t kill you but it can cause some impressive levels of 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 some nasty infections so you’ll need to carefully remove any lodged spines and disinfect your wounds.
Rip currents are one of the most common and dangerous hazards that you’ll encounter as a surfer. These strong currents of water move rapidly away from the shore, and they can drag 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 not be able to make it back to the shoreline.
To avoid getting caught in a rip current while you’re 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 do 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 be aware of. 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 another potential hazard 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 parts of your body on the ocean floor, which can lead to cuts, bruises, or even broken bones.
Look for any signs of shallow water or reefs and try to avoid surfing in areas that you’re not familiar with, as this can increase the risk of getting injured.
Pro surfer Owen Wright hut 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 levels of skill 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 of 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 when you’re surfing at a packed surf spot try to be aware of your surroundings and to communicate with other surfers in the water.
Look for any potential hazards, such as surfers who are not paying attention or outside sets that are going to clean up all the surfers in the line-up.
It’s also a good idea to choose a spot that’s appropriate for your skill level. If you’re a beginner, it’s best to avoid busy spots with lots of experienced surfers. Instead, look for quieter spots where you can practice your surfing in a more relaxed environment.
Sunburn can be painful and uncomfortable and it increases 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 sat under a cold shower in a world of regret.
To avoid sunburn while you’re out shredding it’s important to always wear sunscreen and reapply it regularly. Choose a sunscreen with a high SPF rating, and make sure to 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 must surf during peak hours, make sure to take frequent breaks and stay in the shade between sessions.
Howling offshore winds
Offshore winds blow from the land out to sea grooming the face of the waves and creating clean conditions. But when offshore winds are powerful enough they can literally blow you out to sea.
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.
The best way to look out for this is by using a surf reporting service like Magicseaweed or Surfline that can show you any incoming storms or severe weather.
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.
It’s important for surfers to strike a balance between respecting local customs and being welcoming to others who want to enjoy the surf.
Lightning is a very real danger when you’re surfing because it can strike the water and potentially harm or kill anyone in the vicinity.
To avoid lightning the best thing you can do is stay aware of weather conditions before and during your surf session.
Check the local weather forecast or the surf forecasters we mentioned earlier and pay attention to any storm warnings.
*Important – If you see lightning or hear thunder, get out of the water immediately 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.