When compared to other board sports surfing isn’t as dangerous. If we’re looking at the likelihood of getting hurt, snowboarding, wakeboarding and skateboarding are known to cause many more injuries than surfing. When surfing a wave your speed is relatively low and the water will absorb most of your crashes.
If you’d compare how dangerous surfing is to other extreme sports, surfing is among the safest. (Although in my opinion surfing isn’t an extreme sport unless we’re talking about big wave or slab surfing). If you’re a beginner and you’re excited to jump into the world of action sports, surfing might be your safest option. Downhill mountain biking, cross country skiing, base jumping, climbing, motor racing… even road bike racing… in those sports you’d have a larger likelihood of getting injured and hospitalized.
Surfing is less dangerous for beginners than for advanced surfers.
The interesting thing here: Generally speaking, surfing is less dangerous for beginners than for advanced surfers. Advanced surfers will intentionally hunt for large, powerful reef breaks. As your ability goes up, your hunger for riding bigger and more consistent waves will too. And consistency is often found at reef breaks which are more likely to injure you than beach breaks. When you’re learning to surf chances are that you will be at a mellow beach break and the waves will be small. Besides: often beginner surfers ride soft top surfboards which highly increases safety.
Sure, there are some horror stories about drowning and shark attacks. We’ll get into that later. First, let’s take a look at FoamieCrews’ experience. All of us started surfing 10 years ago. Let’s say that in the first 3 years we were beginners. Here’s the count:
Negative experiences of four surfers in the first three years of learning how to surf
- deaths: 0
- broken bones: 0
- concussions: 0
- near-drownings: 0
- long hold-downs that felt like near-drownings but probably weren’t: 3
- caught in rip current: 2
- sprained ankle: 1
- reef cut: 5
- getting hit in the head by surfboard: 10
- of which resulted in injury: 1 (nosebleed+doctors visit)
- jellyfish stings: 5
- fin cuts: 10
- fin cuts resulting in scars: 4
- bruises: countless
- ball rash: several times (yes, this is a very serious problem)
- getting strangled by leash: 0
- illness from poisoned seawater: 2. Swallowing water in Morocco is NOT a good idea. Try to hold your mouth closed when getting washed by a big set.
- sunburns: countless
1️⃣ Personally, the most serious injury I got while surfing was a sprained ankle while jumping off my board on the sandbank. This meant I couldn’t do sports for two weeks. After a month all was back to normal. That’s about it.
2️⃣ My second worse injury was a reef cut I got while surfing a reef break in Taghazout, Morocco. While accessing the ocean I slipped on a sharp rock. I got a small cut on the bottom of my foot. This isn’t such a problem, generally, but in locations where the water quality isn’t the best (read: sewage pipelines) the risk of infection is high. And that’s what happened: the cut on my foot sole got infected. Back home in the Netherlands the doctor put me on antibiotics which cured the infection.
What about sharks and drowning?
In Europe we’re very lucky to have a small to nonexistent men-eating shark population. In other parts of the globe, such as America and Australia, sharks are more present. And every year there are shark attacks on surfers that end up to be fatal. However… if you look at the entire surfing population and at the amount of surfers attacked by sharks, the ratio is close to 0,1. The same goes for drowning. The percentage of surfers dying from drowning is immensely small. Although sharks and drowning always pop up as reasons to NOT start surfing, chances are that you will never be in such a situation. God bless. Injuries however are a much more likely part of being a surfer and defying the almighty ocean. So, to sum up: What are the top dangers for beginner surfers?
Top dangers for beginner surfers
- Collisions with other surfers (that’s why soft tops rule)
- Collisions with your own board or fins (again)
- Rip currents
- Swallowing polluted water
Crowded spots increase the chances of crashing, especially if you’re not aware of the priority rules in surfing. Riding a soft top decreases the impact of collisions. The danger of drifting off in a strong rip current can be minimized by not surfing solo. Don’t surf a new spot by yourself when there’s no one out. Ask the locals about potential hidden rocks, rip currents and pollution. And about the sunburn part? Besides the obvious advice on sunblock you could consider avoiding to surf on mid-day. This will also help in the collision with other surfers department 😉.
Why do we think that surfing is dangerous?
We think that surfing is dangerous because IF things go wrong, they tend to spectacularly go wrong. Let’s look at sharks. Although shark attacks are statistically very rare…when there is one it’s often really spooky and with heavy implications. I have to admit that I was not so keen to surf in South Africa just because of the shark thing. It’s just scary.
As I’ve said: surfing gets more dangerous as we progress and look for remote surfing spots. And when we do: that’s when the dangers of slamming on the reef and 2 minute hold-downs become real.
What are the perceived top dangers of surfing?
- Big Waves
You can look up the most current shark attacks statistics here:
https://www.trackingsharks.com/2018-shark-attack-map-bites/ . The most epic shark vs surfer fight ever caught on camera happened in South Africa. The World Championship Tour was in Jeffreys Bay and two top surfers, Julian Wilson and Mick Fanning, were surfing a quarter final. And then…this happened.
Sometimes an encounter with the reef is closer than you think. When you’re getting caught by a powerful hollow wave, like pro surfer Nikki van Dijk here in Fiji, the ocean floor can really mess you up.
Collisions happen more often at crowded spots where the waves have multiple peaks. Even though most surfers know the surf etiquette it is still sometimes unclear who has priority. I avoid collisions by surfing in the early mornings and during the weekdays. When I surf in summer weekends I often grab my foamie.
I love surfing and I love challenging myself but anything above 2 meter and I’m out. Once or twice I found myself in situations when I went for a surf and the waves were head high. But suddenly a new swell would arrive and waves would start breaking out the back. This can be really scary, even if you have 10+ years of surfing experience. How to avoid this? Get good at forecasting!
As a final note: I thought this slidshow by French Physician Guillaume Barucq was interesting. Graphic (bloody) images warning!