Is Surfing Dangerous? Surfing Risks Revealed

Have you ever wondered “is surfing dangerous?” If so, you’ve come to the right place. 

In this post, I’m going to break down the most common dangers of surfing. I’ve spent my whole life surfing, and honestly, it does come with its risks. However, most of them can be avoided with the right precautions, and the others- well, it’s all part of the sport. 

Here are the most common dangers of surfing:

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1. Drowning

Drowning is arguably the most severe risk involved in surfing. You could wipe out and get held under, become tangled in your leash, or lose your board and be unable to swim back to shore. Or, you could hit your head on your board, the bottom, a rock, become unconscious, and drown. 

Drowning deaths among surfers aren’t terribly common- but they can happen, and are a huge part of what makes surfing so dangerous. 

A few ways to stay safe:

Paddle out with a friend

If you surf with a buddy, they will notice if something happens to you, like if you go for a wave and don’t come back. Surfing with a friend greatly reduces the risks of surfing. 

Don’t go out in conditions above your skill level

When in doubt, don’t paddle out! 

Double check your equipment before surfing

A broken leash means you’ll probably have to swim to shore if you lose your board. I recommend always giving your leash a once over before paddling out to make sure it doesn’t have any cracks or breaks. 

2. Sharks & Crocs

dangers of surfing, sharks, is surfing dangerous

It’s hard not to talk about the dangers of surfing without mentioning sharks. Sharks are definitely a real risk of surfing, considering we’re paddling out in their home territory. 

However, shark attacks are pretty rare, and statistically unlikely. 

Depending on where you live and surf, crocodiles are another danger of surfing. Costa Rica is a bit notorious for croc & surfer encounters- although since 2013, there have only been two surfers attacked by crocodiles, so it’s still fairly unlikely. Crocodiles tend to lurk around the river mouths, so avoid these areas to lessen your chances of a crocodile run in. 

Additionally, there is more crocodile activity during the rainy season in Costa Rica, particularly from late August when their breeding season starts, and the younger crocs get pushed out of their territories & might swim into the ocean to find new territory. 

3. Your own surfboard

When wondering “is surfing dangerous”, your own surfboard might not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, a wack from your own board is a pretty real and serious threat. People have been concussed, knocked out, and even blinded by their own surfboards! 

A few tips for keeping safe from your own board:

Buy a nose guard 

The tips of surfboards are pretty sharp, and if you get hit by one, they can be super dangerous. If you buy a nose guard, you still have to be careful, but it’s a little less of a pointy edge to get hit with. 

Cover your head when you fall

A good practice to get into when surfing is to cover your head and face with both arms when you fall off of your surfboard so you don’t get hit in the head by the fins, or the boards. 

Jump away from your board

Another way to avoid getting smacked by your surfboard is to jump away from your board when you wipeout. If you’re riding a wave, about to fall, and jump in front of your board, you’re probably going to get hit by it from behind. Always jump away, ideally out to the side.

4. Other people

crowded surf at trestles
Photo by Reed Naliboff on Unsplash

One of the biggest dangers of surfing isn’t sharks, it’s other people! Surfing is becoming ever more popular, and as the sport grows, unfortunately so do injuries and collisions amongst other surfers. I know a few surfers who have been severely injured as a result of surfing at a crowded break and being hit by someone elses surfboard

A few ways to mitigate the surfing risks from other people:

Avoid crowded breaks

One of the best ways to avoid surfing risks imposed by crowds is to simply… avoid the crowds! Try to paddle out at a less crowded part of the beach, even if that means the waves aren’t as good. Avoiding the more crowded breaks is also one of my top surfing tips for beginners!

Follow surfing etiquette

If you are surfing on a crowded break, be sure to follow the rules of surfing. Don’t drop in on other surfers, and wait your turn. Also, if you’re paddling back out to the surf lineup after catching a wave, paddle into the white water, rather than attempting to go over the shoulder of the wave, directly into the line of impact of the surfer riding the wave. 

On the other hand- if you’re the surfer riding the wave while someone is paddling out, and you’re coming for a direct impact course because they went the wrong way- Don’t just run them over! This should go without saying, but sadly, it doesn’t.

5. Rip Currents

Rip currents/ surfing tips for beginners

Rip currents are one of the biggest risks of surfing.
A rip current is a powerful, narrow channel of water that flows rapidly away from the shore. It forms when waves break near the shoreline, causing water to accumulate and flow back out to sea. Rip currents can occur along ocean coastlines, as well as in lakes and other bodies of water.

For surfers, rip currents can pose several risks:

  1. Strong Pull: Rip currents are capable of pulling surfers away from the shore and out to sea. They can be powerful and move at speeds faster than an average swimmer or surfer can swim. Once caught in a rip current, it can be challenging to swim directly against it.
  2. Separation from the Surf Zone: Surfers caught in a rip current may be carried away from the primary surfing area, making it harder to catch waves and return to shore.
  3. Exhaustion: Trying to swim against a rip current can lead to exhaustion, as the current’s force is often too strong to overcome. This exhaustion can further increase the risk of drowning or injury.

To mitigate the risks posed by rip currents, surfers should be knowledgeable about the local beach conditions and understand how to identify rip currents. It’s essential to check surf reports, speak to lifeguards, and observe the water before entering. Surfers can also utilize strategies to avoid or escape rip currents, such as paddling parallel to the shoreline to get out of the current’s pull and then making their way back to the lineup. Staying calm, conserving energy, and knowing when to seek help or signal for assistance are crucial if caught in a rip current.

6. Big Waves

Teahupoo Surf, Biggest waves in the world

Up to a certain point, bigger waves can be fun. In fact, many surfers dedicate their lives to chasing the biggest waves in the world. However, after a certain point, big waves pose a big risk to surfers. The bigger the waves, the harder the impact, the longer the hold downs will be, and the bigger risk there is to surfers. Be sure not to paddle out in surf that’s bigger than what you’re capable of. 

7. Other marine life

Stingray shuffle, surf safety

In addition to sharks and crocs, there is other marine life to watch out for that can make surfing dangerous. Sea snakes, sea urchins, and sting rays all pose a risk to surfers. If you’re surfing a reef break where there are urchins, avoid touching or standing on the bottom. If you’re walking out to surf a soft sandy bottom in warmer water where there are sting rays, try to avoid stomping, and shuffle your feet so you don’t stomp on a stingray and get stung. 

8. The sun

The sun is one of the most severe dangers to surfers. A 2015 study from Bond University in Australia revealed that surfers are three times more likely to develop skin cancer thanks to their increased exposure to the sun. 

To protect yourself from the sun, wear a surfing hat, reef safe sunscreen, rash guard, and take extra precautions if you’re surfing in the middle of the day under peak sun. Also, don’t forget to put sunscreen on your hands! 

9. Water Pollution

Contaminated water poses significant health risks for surfers. Firstly, polluted water can contain harmful bacteria and viruses, leading to gastrointestinal and other infections when surfers accidentally swallow or come into contact with the water. Secondly, skin infections can occur due to exposure to pathogens in polluted water, causing redness, itching, and inflammation. Thirdly, respiratory problems can arise from inhaling pollutants released by water pollution, causing coughing, wheezing, and breathing difficulties. Fourthly, toxic chemicals in polluted water can lead to organ damage, hormonal disruption, and long-term health issues. Lastly, surfers are prone to ear and eye infections from bacteria and parasites in the water. It is crucial for surfers to be aware of water quality, take precautions, and support clean water initiatives to protect their health and preserve the quality of their surfing experience.

Growing up in California, we knew not to go surfing after a rain. Additionally, after living and surfing in Costa Rica for the past 6 months, I’ve been sick a few times due to runoff and contaminated water. Water pollution is no joke.

10. Hypothermia

Hypothermia is a real risk for surfers when exposed to cold water for prolonged periods without proper surf attire. Hypothermia happens when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, resulting in a dangerous drop in core body temperature. Hypothermia can start when your internal body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 C). 

Most people think hypothermia can only happen in extremely cold waters, but it can happen in waters as warm as 70 or 80 degrees! However, cold water temperatures below 70°F (21°C) increase the likelihood of hypothermia, although the specific thresholds may vary.

To mitigate the risk of hypothermia, surfers should take certain precautions. Wearing an appropriate wetsuit is crucial for staying warm in colder waters. Additionally, using surfing accessories like hoods, gloves, and booties safeguards vulnerable extremities from heat loss. I recommend layering with a thermal rash guard.

Surfers should be aware of the signs of cold stress and hypothermia, including excessive coldness, shivering, fatigue, and confusion. If these symptoms occur, it is essential to take breaks from the water and warm up. Changing into dry clothes, consuming warm fluids, and getting somewhere warm can help restore body temperature.

11. Pulling a muscle 

Another danger of surfing is pulling a muscle. Paddling is a super repetitive motion, and if you don’t properly stretch, warm up, and strengthen, it’s pretty easy to get hurt. Especially if you’re surfing in colder climates and your muscles aren’t as loose. 

12. Surfer’s ear

Surfer’s ear, also known as exostosis, is a condition that affects surfers and individuals exposed to cold water and wind. It involves the abnormal growth of bony structures within the ear canal. Prolonged exposure to these environmental factors causes the ear canal to react by forming new bone growth, which can lead to narrowing and blockage of the canal. This narrowing traps water, debris, and earwax, increasing the risk of ear infections and other complications.

Surfer’s ear poses several risks to surfers. The narrowed ear canal promotes the accumulation of moisture and provides a favorable environment for bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms to grow, leading to ear infections. The condition can also obstruct the ear canal, impairing the normal transmission of sound waves and resulting in hearing difficulties. If left untreated, it can cause significant discomfort and may require medical intervention.

Luckily, there are a few different ways to mitigate the risk of surfers’ ears! Wearing ear protection, such as earplugs specifically designed for surfing, helps prevent water and cold air from entering the ear canal. The Creatures of Leisure surfing ear plugs are probably the best surfing ear plugs on the market- plus you can still hear when you’re wearing them! 

Wearing a neoprene surfing hood also provides additional protection by shielding the ears from cold water and wind.

13. Becoming addicted to surfing and abandoning all of your responsibilities

This is probably the most likely danger of surfing that will happen to you. Surfing is incredibly addicting, and a truly magical sport. Once you really get a feel for it, it’s hard to go back. 

Dangers of Surfing Final Thoughts

Wrapping it all up, the answer to “Is surfing dangerous?”

Well, it can be, but most dangers can be kept at bay with the right precautions, a dash of common sense, and a healthy respect for the power of the ocean. But remember, the biggest risk is letting the stoke of surfing take over your life to the point where everything else comes second. So, let’s continue to enjoy the thrill and connection with the ocean that surfing brings, but let’s also make safety a top priority. 

Happy surfing! And always remember – safety first!

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