How to Stay Safe while Learning to Surf
In this article, you will explore 11 of the most important security aspects to consider before you try surfing for the first time.
We believe anybody who knows how to swim to a decent standard can also learn how to surf. The most important thing is to find someone you can trust to introduce you to the sport. For example, this could be a coach in a reputable surf school or an experience friend. Here are some questions you should ask yourself about who is introducing you to the sport:
- Is this person an experienced, knowledgable surfer?
- Has this person taught surfing before?
- Does this person have a 1st aid and CPR training?
- Does this person know the specific surf spots and region you are going to surf at?
The more this person meets these criterias, the more he or she is qualified to introduce you to surfing.
1- Is this surf spot for me?
This is probably the single most important security aspect to consider. Surf spots can have many hazards: rip currents, sharp rocks, angry locals, etc. If you followed our advice and choose to learn with an experienced surf school, instructor, or friend, this person should be knowledgeable enough to bring you to the appropriate surf spot.
There are many different types of surf spots. Some are suitable for beginners, while others should only be surfed by advanced surfers (for example: spots with heavy waves and sharp coral reefs at the bottom).
What makes a surf spot safe to learn on is not only the surf spot itself, but also the specific daily surf conditions. This means that you may be going to surf a “beginner surf spot”, but this particular surf spot may not deliver proper beginner waves on a day where waves are 8 feet high, for example. Once again, the experienced friend or surf coach will be able to choose the most optimal surf spot for the specific daily conditions, or simply plan to teach you how to surf on a more appropriate day.
2- Enter the water holding the surfboard by its nose, beside you.
This may seem like an obvious one, but so many beginners enter the ocean with the surfboard right in front of them. Even worse, they keep it in front of them, in a parallel position to the waves. When a wave crashes in front of them, it can throw the board right back and hit them on the head. Keeping the board perpendicular to the waves and holding it by the nose besides you will give you more control on the board, while preventing it to hit you when the waves come.
3- Principal danger: The Surfboard.
Many of our Barefoot Surf Travel coaches have been teaching the sport for more than 10 years. Not one of our surf instructors has seen any of the following: drowning, broken bones, or shark attacks (we felt we had to include that one!). Being a water sport, surfing has the advantage of being a “lower impact” sport compared to sports like skateboarding or snowboarding (with the exception of big wave surfing or course).
What we have seen are bruises and cuts caused by surfboards. After so many years of surf coaching, we have seen quite a few minor injuries occur to our students. We can probably affirm that more than 90% of injuries are caused by their own surfboard. A surfer is constantly attached to his surfboard by his leash.
The leash is a 6 to 9 feet urethane cord that tethers the surfers ankle to his surfboard. It is a great device, as it always keeps your surfboard close, which can sometimes act as a life buoy. But the leash is also a treacherous accessory for the same reason. Because of the leash, your surfboard is always within a radius of 6 to 9 feet to you. This raises your chances of getting hit by your surfboard.
4- Wipeouts: jump far from your surfboard.
The best way to avoid any contact with your surfboard when falling off is to jump as far as possible from your board. If possible, jump feet first. Do not dive head first, especially in small surf where there might be very shallow waters.
5- Always protect your head.
It takes time for surfers to learn how to properly wipeout. With limited knowledge about surfing and about waves in general, beginners often feel helpless when wiping out and getting tossed around in the white water (some call it the “washing machine”!).
Experienced surfers sometimes feel the same way. Even after you gain experience about how to wipeout, you still find yourself into situations where you have no control. It’s part of surfing. The ocean dictates what happens when you lose control. If there is one thing you can still do in most cases, is to protect the essential: your head. Protecting your head with your hands and forearm could prevent potential injuries caused by hitting your surfboard or hitting the bottom.
Slide your hands out of the water before popping your head out. We know you want to take a breath as soon as possible, especially after a good wipeout. But it’s a good idea to have your hand pop out of the water first, to make sure you don’t bang your head on your surfboard when popping out.
6- Try to avoid the impact zone.
This is not always an easy one for novice surfers, as they don’t have much wave reading experience. The impact zone is the place where the lip of the wave hits the flat water. This is the moment when the wave is at its most powerful stage. On big waves, getting caught in the impact zone can mean getting dragged fiercely down to the bottom, sometimes causing injuries. Since you followed advice #1, this won’t be the case for you.
If you are able to predict more or less where and when a wave will break, you will be able to avoid the impact zone in most cases. You will do this by paddling either towards the white water, or towards the shoulder of a wave.
7- Keep a distance from other surfers, especially from other beginners.
When waiting for waves, find your own spot. You should be at least a few metres away from other surfers. Don’t stay behind other surfers.
Keep your head up and look towards the ocean to know what’s happening. This way you are aware of what other surfers are doing and what kind of waves are coming to you. Don’t turn your back to the ocean, even if there are cute girls on the beach. Most contacts between surfers happen either because they hadn’t kept their distance, or because one of them wasn’t paying attention.
8- Shuffle your feet to keep stingrays away.
This doesn’t apply to every surf spot. Some beach breaks are known for having stingrays lying in the bottom. At certain spots, they come close to shore and burry themselves in the sand to stalk their prey.
The best way to avoid getting stung is to slide (or shuffle) your feet on the bottom. Stingrays then feel the vibrations and swim away. Their stings are usually not life threatening. Most of the time people get stung in the foot or on the ankle, after they stepped on them. The bad news is that their venom is extremely painful, so shuffle your feet. The good news is that the pain only lasts an hour to 90 minutes.
9- Don’t panic.
One of the most efficient ways to lose your air under water is to panic. Lots of beginner surfers think they get stuck under water for 15 seconds. Although it may seem like a long time, if you are surfing proper beginner waves you shouldn’t get stuck under water for more than 3 or 4 seconds.
10- Don’t Paddle against a Rip Current
A rip current is a powerful water current that runs out of the beach, perpendicular to the shore. The longest rip currents can extend in length for a few hundred metres, but their width is rarely more than 10 metres wide. This means it’s possible to paddle out of a rip current in a pretty short amount of time.
Never paddle against the rip current. The first instinct of many surfers is to paddle back to the shore. Rip currents move quickly, even experienced surfers couldn’t fight strong rip currents. Most drownings happen because people panic and lose all their energy trying to fight against the current head-on. The good news is that you have your surfboard, a floating device. So don’t panic and follow the instructions below:
Option 1: Paddle sideways, parallel to the beach. Because rip currents are narrow and because the strongest, fastest part of it is it’s centre, the best way to get out of a rip current quickly is to paddle sideways, parallel to the shore. To make paddling easier, you can paddle in diagonal, with a slight angle out to the horizon. Once you get out of a current, you will be able to paddle for waves and for the white water to help you get back to shore with limited effort.
Option 2: Let the current carry you out. Sometimes it might be too hard to paddle parallel to shore in a strong current. In this case, you can take it easy and let yourself float past the rip current before you paddle out of it. You can also paddle in diagonal, with a small angle out of the rip, using the speed given from the current.
Conserve your energy. If you don’t think you can make it back to shore, learn the emergency signal (#11) to call for help. Look around, there might actually be waves or white water that can bring you back to shore effortlessly.
11- Learn the emergency signal.
In case of any emergency, you should be able to get your surf coach’s or friend’s attention quickly and easily. You should discuss with your surf coach or experienced surf friend about this signal, so it is clearly understood between both of you.
One of the most efficient signals is to call your coach while waving one arm completely straight, to and fro above the head.