Is Surfing Dangerous? (Biggest Dangers & How To Surf Safely)

Paddling out during a big swell can feel very intimidating. Spectators on the beach can almost feel the pain when witnessing a wipeout. Even so, the surfers seem relaxed, and the pros can make it seem very easy. Therefore many people wonder, how dangerous is surfing?

Although surfing is classified as an extreme sport, it’s not necessarily dangerous. While there are many elements you can’t control, being well prepared, taking safety precautions, and not overestimating yourself, will make the sport a lot less dangerous.

In this article, I’ll explain the risks and dangers of surfing and how to avoid them. It’s always best to know the risks before doing something. This will help you minimize those risks and enjoy whatever you’re doing as safely as possible.

Is Surfing a Dangerous Sport?

While the easiest and quickest answer would be “yes,” I do feel like this is arguable.

Of course, most insurance companies list surfing as an extreme sport, and some participants also really make it an extreme sport.

I would still argue that you are more likely to get injured on your way to the beach or while playing soccer with your friends than by surfing.

However, this doesn’t mean that surfing can’t be a dangerous sport. It, for one, entirely depends on your perception of danger and how much you like to push yourself.

But most importantly, though, it’s a sport in a dangerous area. The ocean contains many elements which are out of your control.

While experience does help to get a better understanding of the ocean and all its hazards, there is always going to be a certain level of risk.

When considering the above, I would say that surfing can be whatever you’d like it to be. If you fancy having some fun in relatively safe conditions, no worries, definitely possible.

However, if you’re searching for that thrill and adrenaline boost while putting your life on the line, sure, surfing will deliver!

So, how dangerous is surfing?

Compared to other sports, surfing is a safe sport.

The amount of injuries is around 0,26 injuries per surfer per year. Most injuries are not fatal and without permanent damage.

The amount of fatal injuries with surfing has been increasing over the last few decades due to the growing popularity of big wave surfing.

Therefore, surfing is as dangerous as you let it be. 

Is surfing dangerous for beginners?

Surfing is not more dangerous for beginners than for more experienced surfers. Beginner surfers will experience more wipeouts.

The learning process of surfing includes lots of trial and error.

Spectators at a beginner surf spot will see many people dropping into each other, boards flying through the sky, wipeouts, broken equipment, and injuries.

However, these injuries and wipeouts are relatively harmless.

While beginners experience many wipeouts, the more advanced surfers will experience more severe and dangerous wipeouts.

This is because the waves often need to be bigger and faster to challenge the more skilled surfers.

Therefore I’d say that although beginners will fail more frequently, surfing often gets more dangerous as you get better at it.

Therefore, surfing is most likely more dangerous for experienced surfers than for beginners.

What Are The Dangers of Surfing?

The short answer:

There are many dangers and hazards when it comes to surfing. Most of these have to do with the location where the sport is practiced, being the ocean. The ocean has many elements we cannot control, and making a mistake can result in drowning. Understanding your surroundings might save your life.

The extended answer:

A big reason why surfing is often considered dangerous is its practice location.

The ocean is very much uncontrollable and can even surprise the most experienced surfer, sailor, or anyone else deemed to get acquainted with the ocean.

Besides the location, the nature of most surfers searching for that next rush, that more extreme situation, that bigger, faster, and gnarlier wave, or that longer barrel, also tends to make the sport more dangerous.

To add to these examples, I have written 10 of the most common hazards and dangers of surfing.

1. Drowning

This hazard might seem very obvious, which is why I placed it at number one. Multiple situations can cause a surfer to drown.

The top three reasons for drowning while surfing are:

Being unconscious:

When a surfer gets hit in the head by something solid like a surfboard, rock, or reef, there is a chance of getting knocked out (unconscious).

Once unconscious, your body will continue breathing.

This will most likely result in the person drowning due to the water entering the lungs.

Running out of breath:

During a wipeout, a surfer will get pushed underwater, where they will tumble around until the wave calms down.

How long it takes for the surfer to reach the surface depends on the size of the wave.

A big wave will contain more power and will go on for longer. This means that the surfer will be submerged for a longer period of time.

It’s also possible to get a second-wave-hold-down.

This means that a second wave will hit you before getting the chance to emerge and breathe. Therefore you’ll be underwater for an extended amount of time.

Running out of energy:

Although this one is more common for swimmers than surfers, it’s still possible. Under normal circumstances, a surfer can lay on their surfboard and wait to be rescued (when needed).

The buoyancy of the surfboard will keep the surfer afloat and prevent them from drowning.

However, when the leash (leg rope that connects the surfer to the surfboard) breaks and the surfboard is no longer there, the surfer will have to swim back to shore.

This distance can be very far in some cases, or the surfer can unknowingly get caught in a (rip) current towards the ocean.

These things can lead to the surfer running out of energy to swim and stay afloat, resulting in them drowning.

2. Other people in the water

Although surfing alone is dangerous and not recommended, surfing with many other people also creates hazards.

The more experienced the surfers are, the (generally speaking) safer you are.

There are surf etiquettes which are rules meant to keep it safe and fun for everyone in the lineup.

Beginner surfers are often unaware of the surf etiquettes or focused on paddling into the wave to notice other surfers around them.

However, there are also experienced surfers who simply choose to ignore the surf etiquettes for their own sake.

This kind of selfish behavior turns them into a danger for anyone else in the lineup.

A few reasons why other people can be a hazard are:

  • When a surfer doesn’t respect the right of way or doesn’t notice the other surfer and drops in on their wave, boards and body’s might collide, possibly causing severe damage or injuries. Therefore dropping in is a big no go.
  • When a surfer fails to duck-dive (dive through the wave with the surfboard), the wave will blast them backward. Anyone behind the surfer is in danger of being hit by their surfboard.

    This is also the case when (beginner) surfers ditch their surfboard once a wave comes. Therefore you should also hold onto your board and try to duck-dive or perform a turtle-roll.
  • When there are many people in the lineup, catching a wave means you’ll have to steer around the other surfers.

    Some people are not skilled enough to do so, or other variables (such as a wipeout or irregularities on the wave) cause them to lose control over their board. This poses a danger to others in the lineup.
  • When someone doesn’t know how to navigate the lineup and where to paddle out, they put the people surfing the wave in danger. The person surfing the wave might have to bail to avoid hitting the person paddling out on the wrong spot.

These are just a few examples, but it’s basically comparable with driving a car. The busier the road, the more likely a car crash will happen.

3. The seabed

While most wipeouts will only involve falling and tumbling in the water, some wipeouts have enough force to push you down far enough that you hit the sand, reef, or rock.

The danger of the seabed also changes per surf spot. Some spots work better with low tide and very shallow water. At these spots, you have a higher risk of hitting the seabed.

Although cuts and bruises might hurt and be very annoying, the biggest danger is when a surfer hits the sand, reef, or rock with their head and go unconscious.

There is also the danger of broken bones, making it impossible for the surfer to swim back to the surface or the beach.

4. Currents

Most surfers happily use riptides to paddle out behind the waves quickly.

However, beaches often have warning signs explaining riptides. This is because many cases of swimmers drowning are caused by riptides.

These currents will pull you towards the ocean. When someone doesn’t know how to get out of them, they often try to swim against the current, causing them to get tired and possibly drown.

This can happen with surfing, too, when a surfer has lost their surfboard.

Other currents can force surfers to constantly paddle to stay at the preferred location to catch a wave. This can cause surfers to get tired, which leads to a bigger chance of injuries.

Warning sign for surfing

5. Overconfidence

A very important message to any surfer out there: when in doubt, don’t paddle out. 

It happens way too often that people paddle out in waves that are way above their capabilities.

Of course, we all want to surf the big, fast, and epic waves, but trying these before you have the skills to do so, puts you and others in danger.

The people surfing these kinds of waves have trained for many years and know how to behave in these conditions. They might make it seem easy, but that doesn’t make it less dangerous.

Being overconfident makes almost all the other points in this list even more dangerous.

6. Surf equipment

In this case, it’s both your surf equipment and the surf equipment of the surfers around you.

Surfboards are generally solid and hard, the fins are sharp, and leg ropes (leashes) can be long and tangling.

Getting hit in the head by a surfboard or fin can cause lots of damage and possibly be fatal.

A leash can also be dangerous when it gets tangled around your legs, arms, or neck preventing you from swimming. Also, the leash can choke you.

It can also get stuck under a rock or piece of reef, stopping you from swimming back to the surface.

To minimize the danger of surf equipment, always protect your head when you have a wipeout, and keep your distance from other surfers.

7. Marine life

Although this might be the biggest fear for lots of experienced and beginner surfers, it is not as dangerous as movies like Jaws make it seem.

That said, it does still pose a possible threat. The ocean is full of animals, which can be deadly to humans.

Probably the first ones to come to mind are sharks. But jellyfish, sea urchins, saltwater crocodiles, and stingrays can also be dangerous.

It depends on where and in which ocean you surf and what kind of animals to watch out for.

In my opinion, crocodiles and jellyfish (bluebottles) are the most dangerous, and after that come sharks. The rest is not dangerous, but it just stings when they bite you.

(Click here to find out what to do if you see a shark while surfing)

8. Hypothermia

While most people associate hypothermia with snow, ice, and extremely low temperatures, it is possible in water under 69 Fahrenheit or 21 degrees Celsius.

Of course, the colder the water, the faster it can happen.

Therefore, it is important for a surfer to be aware of their body and to get out of the water before it’s too late.

In addition, not being prepared well enough by wearing the right wetsuit (boots, cap, gloves, and right amount of thickness) can drastically increase the chance of hypothermia.

9. The sun

Although the sun is already dangerous on the land, its impact basically doubles in the ocean. This is because the sun reflects on the ocean.

Therefore, it is very important to be aware of the sun and use good sunscreen or even zinc to cover your face and other exposed skin.

It’s best to stay out of the water between 12 PM and 2 PM since the sun is at its peak at this time.

Although getting burned might only hurt a bit at first, it does increase the chance of skin cancer later on in life.

10. Waves

I put this one as the last one, but it eventually is the basis of almost all the hazards since nobody would go surfing without waves.

There are plenty of harmless small and easy waves out in the ocean. However, there are also many big and extremely big waves out there. The danger of the wave depends on the skill of the surfer.

The bigger the wave, the more water and power it has. This makes a wipeout more dangerous.

Waves are a force of nature, which we can never completely predict. You might think that you’re safe surfing a decent swell, but out of nowhere, a big wave or set might approach.

These big and random waves are called freak waves. Due to their height difference compared to the other waves, the lineup will be on the wrong location once these waves come.

Therefore when surfers see a freak wave or set approach, they all paddle out onto the ocean as fast as possible to avoid getting caught by them.

That’s quite a lot, right?

As you can see, there are quite a few hazards and dangers when it comes to surfing.

Therefore a surfer must take their time assessing which hazards there are and how to avoid them before paddling out. Many surfers do this while doing their warm-up. 

Being unaware of the dangers and hazards will increase your risk of injuries and most likely turn you into a danger for other surfers.

How to Surf Safely

The short answer:

To lower the risks while surfing, it’s important to make sure that you are physically and mentally prepared. Always start with a warming-up and look for visible hazards and dangers. Never surf all by yourself/alone, and ask locals or lifeguards about the hazards when surfing somewhere new.

The extended answer:

To minimize the risk of injuries or even death while surfing, it’s essential to be aware of the hazards.

The list above shows the most frequently occurring threats and is a good checklist before going into the water.

When you know the hazards, you know what to expect and how to prepare. It’s always good to check the weather beforehand to avoid getting caught in some nasty weather.

So, what are the safety measures for surfing?

Before going into the water, I recommend you do the following.

  • Check the (visible) hazards, where the other surfers are, and how they behave.
  • Do a warming-up.
  • Inspect your gear.
  • Apply sunscreen.
  • If you have trouble locating the hazards, don’t hesitate to ask other surfers or the lifeguards about them.
  • Double-check with yourself if the conditions are within your abilities.

Is it safe to surf on your own?

Some beaches won’t have lifeguards to protect swimmers and surfers. In these cases, I won’t recommend paddling out alone. While surfing is always more fun with a friend, it’s also safer.

Even if the friend doesn’t paddle out but stays on the beach, it’s important that someone keeps an eye on you and can help you when you are in a dangerous situation.

More experienced surfers sometimes overestimate themselves and paddle out by themselves.

However, due to the many unpredictable hazards and uncontrollable elements which a surfer has to deal with, it’s impossible always to guarantee your own safety.

Therefore no matter your experience, being with someone else can save your life.

​​Has Anyone Died Surfing?

The short answer:

Throughout the year’s surfers have been pushing their boundaries. While the percentage of surfers who die because of surfing is very low, fatal accidents still occur. The amount of deaths is estimated at around 10 per year.

The extended answer:

While the chance of a fatal accident, percentage-wise, is very low with surfing, it does happen.

Even though the safety equipment has improved over the years, and the surfers better understand the conditions due to technical improvements, the number of fatal accidents has increased.

That said, this shouldn’t scare most of us since the increasing number of fatal accidents is mainly because of the following two reasons.

  1. Around 1950, big wave surfing became a thing. In the following decades, big wave surfing increased in popularity. This caused an increase in fatal injuries.

  2. Each year more people start surfing. It recently got accepted as a sport at the Olympics, and it continues to gain popularity. Due to this increase of surfers, more fatal injuries happen each year, but the chance is still very low percentage-wise.

(Click here to learn more about Pipeline, one of the most dangerous and deadly surf spots in the world)

How Dangerous is Surfing Compared to Other Sports?

The short answer:

Surfing is a safe sport compared to many other sports. While there are, of course, safer sports out there, with an injury rate of around 0,26 per surfer, per year, surfing ranks safer than fishing, soccer, rugby, trampoline jumping, and many more sports.

The extended answer:

After doing some research, I found that surfing has an injury rate of around 0,26 injuries per surfer per year or 2.2 injuries per 1000 surfing days.

This is drastically lower than a lot of other sports.

The National Safety Council came out with statistics about the number of injuries per sport per year. So I took the liberty to write a few down to give you an idea about how safe surfing is compared to other sports.

Sadly they paired surfing with water skiing and tubing as a cluster, but that only proves even more that surfing is relatively safe.

According to the NSC (National Safety Council), there were 21.754 injuries with water skiing, tubing, and surfing combined in 2020. 

However, there were 23.597 volleyball incidents, 44.012 horseback riding incidents, 81.452 soccer incidents, 122.181 football incidents, and 214.847 basketball incidents. 

Of course, these numbers are not absolute. Still, it shows that the number of injuries with surfing is relatively low compared to other sports.

Conclusion

They guess that the fatality rate with surfing is less than 10 per year. However, each year, an average of 49 people die because they get hit by lightning in the U.S. Even more people die on the road.

Therefore it’s more dangerous to go to the beach to surf than to actually surf.

That said, the ocean can be a dangerous place, and surfing can be a dangerous sport. Make sure that you know what you’re doing and that you are aware of your surroundings.

Other than that, you can make it as dangerous as you desire.

Marcus Campbell

Surfing is the biggest passion in my life. Transferring my knowledge about surfing to others is what I love doing most! I do this through my own surf school and through my articles on this website. This is how I hope to get everyone excited about this amazing sport!
Published: 
February 3, 2022
Published: February 3, 2022