Surf bans: where do you draw the line between the right to ride waves and putting your life at risk? | Photo: Brian Aitkenhead/Creative Commons

There is a big difference and many steps between prohibiting and allowing an action or behavior when one faces an extreme or hazardous situation.

It is understandable and acceptable that some people, organizations, and leaders choose to play it safe, adopt more conservative attitudes, and make more cautious decisions, while others prefer the free will way and leave the assumption of responsibilities in the hands of others.

In other words, if you were the mayor of a city and had information indicating that a storm would endanger fellow citizens who approached coastal areas, what would you do?

Would you prohibit access to the coastal strip to avoid putting lives in danger, or would you just issue a severe weather warning and high surf advisories for these areas?

And if you decided to ban access to areas close to beaches, would you impose a fine on offenders?

Making decisions is about making choices.

In May 2024, the Hong Kong government issued a controversial warning following the historic and unprecedented rains that affected the Chinese territory in September 2023.

The executive announced that anyone attempting to surf or challenge extreme natural events like storms and typhoons would face imprisonment and fines.

Hong Kong authorities also plan to close beaches and parks whenever extreme weather affects the region.

The Undersecretary for Security added that the lives of emergency rescue workers would also be at risk if they conducted rescue operations during extreme weather conditions.

"Please don't put the lives of our emergency responders at risk," he said.

"If something happens, it won't just cost $250 or 14 days in jail - it could cost your life."

Surfing: there are many reasons why a surfer can get arrested | Illustration: SurferToday.com

No Surfing Here

Surfing bans are not new.

Practically all components of surfing are subject to being banned or severely restricted and limited.

The board, for example, is in itself a problem.

During the summer, several coastal Californian locations raise the famous black ball flag.

Whenever this flag flies high over the beaches of the Golden State, surfers are prohibited from entering the sea and catching waves.

The measure covers hard boards, that is, those made of polyurethane or epoxy. Bodyboards and even foam surfboards are allowed.

The goal is to avoid collisions between surfers and swimmers during the most frequented times of the year when the beaches and sea are most crowded.

In 2011/2012, Miami banned surfing, bodyboarding, paddleboarding, windsurfing, and kitesurfing from almost all public beaches, threatening offenders with up to 30 days in prison and $500 fines.

The decision was later reversed, but the truth is that such practices are more common than one might think.

Countries such as China, Spain, Taiwan, France, and several US states have restrictive legislation regarding equipment and practice of wave sports.

The question is where to draw the line between common sense and fair judgment.

Surfing Depends On Extreme Weather Events

Surfing is deeply dependent on groundswells.

Many of these are generated by meteorological phenomena such as cyclones, hurricanes, and typhoons.

These events can create perfect conditions for intermediate and advanced surfers and also giant waves for experienced professionals.

But, to what extent do the authorities responsible for managing a locality or territory have the duty or right to limit the practice of a sport in a natural environment?

As seen above, where should we draw the line between freedom and responsibility?

In China, in certain situations, if a surfer is spotted catching waves in a location or period that is not permitted, the board can be immediately confiscated and destroyed on the beach.

If a T11 tornado alert on the TORRO scale is issued in a coastal community, it shuts down and prepares for strong winds and flooding.

At this point, should emergency and first aid teams respond to distress calls from surfers in life-threatening situations?

Or is it fair to prioritize the rest of the population?

It's perfectly normal for opinions to be divided on this topic, as we all have a diverse and varied range of opinions and judgments.

Does it make sense that, when faced with a red flag hoisted on the beach, surfers think they have the right to paddle out, surf, and then, on their way back, find a police team issuing fines?

What is a dangerous sea? A two-meter-wave ocean? And how far can the law go in limiting these types of freedoms?

Do surfers have the right to risk their own lives, even if, in the event of danger or risk to their lives, rescue and emergency medical teams are not available or willing to face extreme maritime conditions?

How do we compare these situations with medical assistance to a murderer shot by the police? Or with a drunk driver injured after causing an accident with tragic consequences for third parties?

Does it make sense to ban an activity just for the sake of prevention?

How far should a person's right to put their life at risk go?

And, by the way, what does it mean to have your life at risk? Who sets the scale of danger?

How does allowing dives in calm but polluted waters compare to surfing in clean yet rough waters?

Surfing: bans of surfers and wave-riding are quite common worldwide | Photo: SurferToday.com

Common Sense: A Rare Ability

There is certainly a balance between the nanny state and the right, albeit often unconscious, ignorant, and even stupid, to choose what we want to do with our lives.

And yes, there are certainly experienced surfers who make reasonable assessments of danger and confirmed cases of beginners who lost their lives in rough seas with dangerous currents.

I understand why both positions - overprotective and libertarian - have supporters, but I believe there is a third way.

In the case of extreme weather events, it is important that authorities issue clear danger warnings that dissuade people, including surfers, from being in coastal areas.

From there, everyone is free to surf at their own risk. In an emergency, rescue teams will not put their lives at risk.

It could be a balanced way for individual and society to safeguard all their rights, responsibilities, and duties.

Banning surfing just because it's easier to manage risks will never be a clever measure.


Words by Luís MP | Founder of SurferToday.com

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