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Is Surfing Dangerous?

2012-12-15 12 min read Surfing marco

Every year, there are reports of surfer deaths. There is the always popular (in the press) shark attack, the horrific vision of a sneaky predator shooting from far under the surface to swallow you in little pieces – or big chunks, as luck would have it. There is the giant freak wave that submerges you for minutes until you drown. But, really, how often does either happen?

On the other hand, surfing looks fun and safe. It’s very similar to snow- and skateboarding, but instead of falling on a hard surface, you just hit water. Sure, a big wave may bury you; but it will eventually wash over, unlike an avalanche that is there to stay and slowly suffocate you. And yes, you could hit the board if you botch a turn; but really, how does that compare to a spill on the skateboard, where you have the same risk, but hitting the board is the least of your worries?

After two years of surfing, I think I have the definitive answer: surfing is much less dangerous than it sounds, but it’s much more dangerous than it looks.

What do I mean by that? Essentially, the BIG risks are small, but the small risks are big. In other words: the anti-jackpot of shark attack and giant rogue wave are incredibly hard to hit. The number of shark attacks on surfers in the whole world doesn’t reach a dozen a year, compared to millions of surfers and sessions. Giant rogue waves are very infrequent and the deaths associated with them are mostly due to people explicitly going out for a giant wave session at a giant wave location, like Mavericks in Northern California (which incidentally is also a good spot for great whites).

On the other hand, the minor injuries are incredibly frequent. I would guess I come home with some sort of hit or wound once every 4 sessions, with a frequency entirely unrelated to my surfing skills. The real dangers, also, don’t really have much to do with skill, or size of waves. Here a list of the types of injuries I have received.

Body Fatigue

Yep, that’s the most common. I injured my shoulder in a snowboarding accident, separating the collarbone from the shoulder. It was hellish pain, and it couldn’t have happened surfing. But I had to deal with it in the water. In particular, the separated shoulder taught me just how much waves shake your board.

When a wave arrives and you duck dive, you have to hold the nose (the front) steady, so you can pull it up as soon as the wave hits your legs. At the same time, the wave churns the board and your body in a whirl, shaking and tearing at you. Your hands, arms, and shoulders have to keep the board steady, or you’ll let go of it and you’ll lose the buoyancy that will pop you up. But that has a toll on the shoulders.

The shoulders are the worst when it comes to body fatigue, because they are hit with a severity and impact that the rest of the body doesn’t have to (ahem!) shoulder. But the paddling can be very hard on your triceps, especially on a day with a strong drift, or inconsistent waves.

Marine Life

Yeah, you are thinking sharks. Not gonna happen. Most of the time, sharks are busy looking for prey that looks more familiar, just like you when you see a McDonald’s in Ghana. So even if there is one, it’s unlikely they’ll think you look like food. Even in the unlikely event they do think you look yummy, a surprising number of shark attack victims make it out alive.

My sorry ass, on the other hand, had to deal with common ails like stingrays, venomous jellyfish, poisonous plants, disgusting algal blooms, and even semi-dead bees crawling on the beach.


The most painful experience came from the two stingray stings I received while surfing. The first one was in my very first days, a double sting on the side of my left big toe. I was utterly surprised by it, because I had shuffled as my instructor taught me, and I thought I was safe from at least that line of attack.

I was also surprised to find out the pain was very much like when your foot falls asleep, only prolonged in time. Just as is the case with a fallen asleep foot, the less you move it, the less it hurts. Unlike with the foot fallen asleep, though, moving it and not moving it doesn’t make any difference in terms of recovery time.

The second time, I just ended up sitting at the beach for 30 minutes, immobile (in plain view of the life guards, who didn’t lift a finger to help me, ahem). After that time, I stood up to see if I could walk. I could, and walked.

You will not be able to surf after a stingray sting, but the pain will eventually go away. Also, I wouldn’t believe any of the miracle cures (like peeing on the sting). The only thing you really need to do is make sure that you are not allergic to the venom (you’ll find out soon, so be quick to find help) and that there is no part of the stinger left in the wound. Take it out if there is.


Aren’t they adorable? No, they aren’t. When one of them shows up in the lineup, a yell emerges and people run away. Even in Southern California, where the dangerous types of jellyfish are rare and the bodies mostly protected by wetsuits, a jellyfish sting can mean the end of a surf sesh and days of pain.

Unlike stingrays, that have only their stinger (one each) to plant in you, jellyfish have long filaments with which they catch fish. Since jellyfish are not very good sprinters, they rely on a net-like approach: thousands of venom cells dangling in the water, indiscriminately attacking anything they brush upon. Jellyfish don’t care (cue honey badger video)!

It appears that jellyfish stings are the ones you are supposed to treat with urine, since the ammonia in it allegedly reacts with the toxin. It’s all possible. I prefer avoiding them altogether. Not my fetish.

Microorganisms and Plants

Sometimes you catch a good wave and get transported into a kelp cemetery or an algal slick. It’s awful. You fall into the water, proud of your accomplishment and the fun you had, and when you come out there is junk enveloping you. Yuck! You’ll taste the algae all day long, and the kelp will keep you stuck, winding itself around the leash, dragging you down all the way to the lineup.

(Tip: when you land in a kelp cemetery, pull the leash up and place it under your belly on the board. As long as you can keep it there, the worst of the entanglement can be avoided.)

I learned to be particularly cautious after a storm. My first big session was at Christmas time (cue the anniversary nostalgia) 2010. I surfed after a big, wet storm at Scripps Pier, back then my favorite hangout. The day after I had “pimples” all over the inside of my mouth.

Of course, “they” tell you not to get into the water for 72 hours after a storm. When it’s particularly bad, they will even post the life guards at popular beaches and prevent you from getting into the water. As I learned, don’t go into the water the day after a rain storm, and check with authorities about the days after that.


The first and foremost mistake I never make is to go in the water when the waves are bigger than you can handle. Really, that’s incredibly dangerous and stupid.

First, you will have a hard time paddling out, anyways. Then, you’ll be terrified of the monsters that are hurtling towards you. Finally, when you are finally ready to give up, you’ll have to find a way to get back to shore without a giant wave chomping your ass off the board.

Don’t do it. Never. Don’t listen to your buddies trying to get you to join them, either. If a wave is too big, you don’t want it, period. And you will know before you get into the water, trust me. Or at the very least, trust Surfline.

Being Submerged

What do you do if a big wave hits you and holds you under? That’s the real risk here: that you panic, breathe a lungful of water, and simply drown.

Remember, once the water is in the lung, you are in mortal danger. Your primal instincts will kick in, trying a last ditch effort to get you out of there. Of course they don’t trust your reasoning centers – if you had been smart enough, you wouldn’t have gotten them there in the first place!

Unfortunately for us, apparently the risk of drowning under a wave was something early humans didn’t encounter often in the highlands of Central Africa, where we apparently come from. So we tend to do the wrong thing: open our mouths and breathe.

Instead, when you under a wave, you need to do only two things:

  1. Keep your mouth shut (I know, harder for some than others)
  2. Find the end of the leash and slowly pull it to find the board

You see, no matter how deep you are under the foam, the board is going to be pointing up. So the leash is the best way to orient you. If you are deep under water, the leash will be tight as the string of a bow. If the leash is loose, you will be close to the surface.

(The leash could be tight and you still could be close to the surface, but that’s not a real problem.)

The board, on the other hand, is your ultimate survival tool (when it doesn’t kill you, more on that later). If you can reach it, you know if will drag you up eventually. All you have to do is wait. And while it feels like you are going to die within mere seconds, you really won’t as long as your lungs are filled.

Full lungs do two things: they have a reservoir of oxigen, however easily depleted. More importantly, though, they add buoyancy. As long as your lungs are full, chances are you will float faster. Remember that before you exhale.

Little Waves

I started wondering, after two years, why I got scrapes and scars much more often in small fry than when the waves were bigger. Some of the worst hits came from three-foot waves, while I could go on a six foot day for hours and nothign would happen.

Turns out the reason is very simple: small waves break closer to shore and react a lot more to the uneven ocean floor. You see, ocean waves break in water that is about 1.2 times as deep as they are high. A three foot wave breaks in four foot water. So when you ride a three foot wave, you only have four feet of water under you.

The shallowness of the water is important, because the sand surface is commonly uneven. There are wells, swirls, eddies, sand bars – the shallow wave will react to all of them. When it does so unexpectedly, it can easily knock you off the board. Which is when you hit the sand, or the board, or a combination of the two.

Common injuries (sustained by me) include:

  • Broken fins (with corresponding injured body part)
  • Slicing wounds (from said fins)
  • Hitting the board (including the one time I hit the bottom with the head, embedding my close-cropped hair in the material)
  • Hitting the sand at a weird angle (with corresponding back pains)

Other Surfers

As I (and many people) say, I love everything about surfing, except for surfers.

It is in the nature of surfing to seek out spots where waves break regularly and consistently, which means that we will end up gathering in the same spot in the water. Since there are only so many waves and way more surfers, this can translate into intense competition and resulting injury.

There are many ways for two surfers to collide:

  • Snaking, when a surfer joins in a wave that someone else is already riding; this type of collision tends to be particularly bad when one of the surfers is a novice, because novices tend to take the wave down the face, while experts try to stay as perpendicular to wave motion as possible.
  • Paddling out, when a surfer is riding a wave and another surfer is paddling back to the lineup (or into the lineup); this type of collision is avoidable if both parties are aware of each other. Which they should be, if they are doing it right.
  • Merging, when two surfers are riding the same wave in opposite directions (one takes it left, the other right) but towards each other. This type of collision has the highest impact velocity, but the least risk of going unnoticed.

While surfing instructors place the blame squarely on novices, in my experience expert surfers are just as likely to cause a collision as kooks. In particular, many experienced surfers tend not to care much about where everybody is in the lineup, and they are caught entirely flat-footed when they see someone in their way. Most of the time, they have the skill to steer around someone, but the looks in their faces when you are in their way when they try to catch a wave tells you everything about their awareness. (But that’s a topic for a separate post.)

What makes collisions with other surfers worse than collisions with your own board and body is speed. When someone else’s fins cut into your flesh, they will have a much higher differential speed than your own. When you hit someone else’s body, one of the two is possibly much lighter than the other, which means the former is likely to get injured by the latter.

What also makes collisions with other surfers worse is that every surfer on this planet seems to think they belong in the World Tour, and that if anything happens it must be the other guy’s fault. That leads to heated arguments that have been known to generate fisticuffs, slashed tires, and even torched cars.

But hey, it’s fun!