Surfing dangers: risks are part of the game | Photo: Red Bull

Life is full of unexpected variables, and riding waves is obviously part of the game. Take a look at the most common risks and dangers in surfing.

The following list of topics highlights the most common risks and threats to surfers' safety and wave riders in general.

They are not meant to discourage people from going surfing. They only remind us of the dangers we're exposed to when we paddle out.

The main point is to have them in mind, assess the risk, and minimize their impact to improve the surfing experience.

Some of them will not even apply to your beach and home break.

So, don't freak out - surfing is a safe and healthy sport, as long as we keep the following hazards in mind and adopt wise practices.

High surf advisory: big waves can quickly kill an inexperienced wave rider | Photo: Shutterstock


Every surfer should know how to swim.

It doesn't make sense to try a water sport that is primarily performed in the open ocean if you can't get back to the beach on your own in an unexpected emergency.

Yes, you can drown after being held underwater by a big wave. Yes, you may drown if you get hit by a surfboard and lose consciousness.

However, being able to feel comfortable and swim in deep water will dramatically decrease the chances of drowning during a regular surf session.

Big Waves

Big waves are one of the most common hazards in surfing, and it is easy to figure out why.

An XXL wave carries tons of energy and makes duck diving a nearly impossible mission.

When it breaks, a huge wave can break bones, keep someone underwater for a long time, and even slam a surfer against the ocean floor.


Sharks live in the ocean. Humans live on terra firma.

Every time a surfer paddles out in shark-infested waters, he or she is invading their natural territory.

Although the real chances of getting bitten or attacked by a shark are extremely low, a surfer is always at risk, especially in well-known ocean environments where the marine predator is active and present.

Rip Currents, Undertows, and Rip Tides

Ocean rips are a silent killer. Every year, dozens of people die after getting caught in rip currents, undertows, and rip tides.

Although these powerful ocean currents never pull swimmers and surfers underwater, they end up draining people's energy until they eventually drown due to exhaustion.

The trick is to let them take you further into the ocean.

When you stop being channeled out the back, swim to the side and toward the breaking waves, and you'll be safe.

If you ever get caught in these currents, stay calm, don't panic, ask for help if needed, and manage your energy.

Rip currents, undertows, and rip tides: save energy and don't fight against ocean currents | Illustration: Shutterstock

Surfboards, Leashes, and Fins

A surfboard equipped with a leash is the fundamental wave-riding equipment of every surfer.

However, they can also cause harm.

A wipeout, a spectacular kick-out against the wind, a poorly performed duck dive, a closeout, or an unattended board, can quickly transform the surf the surfer's gear into a powerful weapon.

Remember that a surfboard has a pointy nose and sharp fins that can easily cut your skin, injure your ears, hurt your eyes, and cause several fractures.

The leash is also potentially dangerous. It can get tangled around your neck or break and hit you in the eyes.


Localism is a problem, especially if you're surfing in ultra-crowded surf breaks and famous peaks.

Waves are a scarce resource, so there will always be too many people for a few good waves.

As a result, locals will try to impose an informal code of rights that hinders haoles from getting their fair share of waves.

Aggressive behavior - both verbal and physical - is commonplace during the best swells of the season. Stay alert.

Surf localism: a phenomenon associated with crowded lineups | Photo: Shutterstock

Beginners and Disrespectful Surfers

Beginner surfers and disrespectful people can sometimes turn a dreamy session into a dreadful nightmare.

First-timers rarely know the rules of the surf and can quickly get in your way while you casually cruise on a perfect right-hand wave.

The consequences can go from a cracked surfboard to a more or less serious injury.

The same applies to fellow surfers who know the navigation rules but opt not to follow the so-called surf etiquette.


Cold water surfing is an adventure that only a few dare to embrace. Surfing in near-frozen seas is a challenge that requires protection.

In other words, you must put on a thick wetsuit if you plan to stay in cold waters for a while.

Hypothermia is a condition that can quickly put a surfer in a very complicated situation.

When our body temperature drops below 95 °F (35 °C), we enter a potentially deadly scenario. Stay warm.

Cold water surfing: only a thick wetsuit protects against hypothermia | Photo: Shutterstock

Marine Creature Stings and Bites

We're not alone, especially in the water world.

By walking barefoot near the shore or in shallow waters, surfers expose themselves to painful and potentially lethal stings and bites.

Weever fish, stingrays, jellyfish, sea urchins, and stonefish are some of the most common venomous marine animals.

They have excellent camouflage and tend to hide just below the sand.

If not treated quickly, their sting can cause intense pain, nausea, loss of consciousness, and in some cases, death.

Water Pollution

Water pollution has become one of the most serious threats to life on Earth and one of the most tragic ocean issues.

Fertilizers and pesticides, runoff, chemicals, sewage, oil leaks, plastics, and urban waste are increasingly contaminating freshwater and saltwater resources.

Surfers are even advised not to paddle out after it rains.

Pay attention to your local water quality alerts and avoid ingesting polluted waters at all costs.

Water pollution: contaminated waters are a threat to human health | Photo: Shutterstock

Coral Reefs and Rocky Ocean Floors

The sky and the ocean might look blue; the water could be transparent and warm, and the waves may be small and inviting for a longboard session.

But if you're surfing over bank reefs or rocky seabeds, you should be cautious and avoid staying out alone.

Hitting a coral with your head or skin on a hard surface could have disastrous consequences.

In some cases, wearing a helmet is always a wise thing to do.


Surfers spend hundreds of hours per year under the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Unlike what has been continuously suggested, tanning is not a good thing - it means damaged skin.

Actually, it is an unhealthy and unsafe condition that could lead to premature skin aging, sunburn, and skin cancer.

It is mandatory for surfers to use high-protection, coral reef-safe sunscreens every time they put on a wetsuit.

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