Although serious injuries are somewhat rare in the sport of surfing, there is no shortage of risk when it comes to riding waves. In addition to the inherent dangers posed by a dynamic and powerful ocean, surfers are prone to a seemingly endless array of debilitating injuries, from basic muscle pains to lacerations, head and neck injuries, and of course every surfers’ greatest fear: large, carnivorous sea creatures. And on top of all that, surfers must also deal with the hazards associated with travel to the developing world, where warm, perfect surf is often served alongside the threat of malaria, rampant crime, corrupt governments, and even civil war.
Feel like trading in your surfboard for a set of golf clubs? Relax – with a little bit of knowledge and a few simple strategies, you can make your surfing experience as safe as a walk in the park. Well, maybe not that safe.
Have a Drink on Me
Take a guess as to what you think the most common surf-related injury might be. Sharks? Broken neck? Wrong on both accounts. By far the most frequent ailment suffered by surfers is dehydration, and for good reason. A large percentage of surf sessions happen under the bright glare of the sun, where a lack of proper hydration can turn a healthy athlete into a floundering vegetable in a matter of minutes. This is not complicated. To combat dehydration, hydrate. It sounds easy, but it’s amazing how many surfers forget to drink enough water before and after spending time in the ocean. And no, having a cup of coffee on your way to the break does not adequately prepare your body for a four-hour surf session.
Another obvious and equally important measure you can take to prevent injury is wearing the appropriate gear for a given surf session. If you’re surfing in cold-water locations like Alaska, California, Chile, or France, then you’ll need a wetsuit. If you’re not sure what local surf conditions require, check in with a surf shop and see what they recommend. Nobody knows local surf conditions better than a surf shop.
If you’re surfing in a warm water climate, you’ll probably want to wear a rashguard or a t-shirt to prevent chafing and surf rash. Also remember to always wear sun-block, regardless of temperature or sky clarity. Ultraviolet rays penetrate clouds and cold air, and are especially harmful to surfers because they reflect up from the water’s surface directly into the surfer’s face.
Know Your Limits
As with other outdoor sports, it’s always important to understand what your limits are and adhere to the old adage, “if you’re not sure, don’t go.” This is not to say that you should never push yourself. There will always be that desire to surf bigger, more powerful waves. But safety is a priority. Surfers drown every year because they fail to respect the magnitude of large surf and the deadly consequences that can result from any misstep.
Sometimes, the sheer size of a wave is not what makes it deadly. Tahiti’s famous left-hand reef break Teahupo’o, for example, is considered one of the world’s most dangerous waves, yet it rarely gets bigger than twelve feet. The heaviness of Teahupo’o lies in its thickness and energy, created by an extreme deep-to-shallow bathymetric shelf and the unimpeded swells of the South Pacific Ocean. Be wary of the overall force of a wave, and understand that more powerful waves demand more skill and caution.
Another hazard that beginning surfers often overlook is the rip current, created by water moving back out to sea from the surf zone. Rip currents are difficult, but not impossible, to spot from the beach and can vary from slightly annoying to possibly life threatening. Before you paddle out, assess the conditions thoroughly, checking for rip currents and waves that go beyond your threshold for size and power.
Hot Tip: Stretch it Out
Stretching is another quick and easy way to help prepare your body to surf. While your shoulders and arms receive the most strain (surfers spend most of their time paddling), give your body (legs, back, neck, and arms) a thorough stretch before paddling out. Like most other physical activities, surfing requires agility and quick movements, so loosening up your major muscle groups will give you greater flexibility and ensure you don’t pull or strain a muscle. To stretch properly, hold your stretches for several seconds and do multiple repetitions. Allow yourself up to fifteen minutes to stretch.
Should an Injury Occur
As much as we’d like to think we can prevent injuries from happening altogether, the truth is, we can’t. At some point in your surfing life, you will get hurt. It probably won’t be a serious injury; nonetheless it’s a good idea to keep these points in mind to ensure you don’t further jeopardize your health:
- Always be sure you can make it back to the beach safely. If you feel like you may not be able to reach the shore, don’t be afraid to ask a nearby surfer for help.
- Stay calm, and don’t panic. In many instances, it’s extremely difficult to know exactly how bad you’re hurt until you get back to the beach, so don’t make matters worse by losing your cool.
- Don’t go back out. If you’re bleeding profusely, or you can’t move your arm, or you’re suffering from a serious sunburn, then don’t go surfing. Surfing injured will not only worsen your injury, it will also increase your odds of suffering yet another injury, or worse.
- If there is a lifeguard on duty, swallow your pride and let them assist you. It’s their job.
- Call 9-1-1 or your local lifesaving service if you suffer a serious injury.
Being a good surfer entails much more than just your ability to ride waves; a true waterman understands the enormous responsibility that comes with spending time in the ocean. The dynamic nature of coastal waters and oceans poses an endless array of potential hazards for surfers, as well as the ultimate outdoor playground. Always be willing to help fellow surfers and swimmers in distress, and never jeopardize your own safety. Be smart, know your limits, and remember to play it safe.