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It's really important to have a basic understanding of all the safety elements associated with surfing before getting in the water. It's an all too common occurrence to have inexperienced surfers pulled from the water by lifeguards. The ocean can be a dangerous place even for the most experienced of people and it's a sad fact but every year we hear of surfers losing their lives to the sea.
Thankfully this remains rare and learning to surf and enjoying time in the ocean can be a life changing experience which can be time spent safely if common sense and a few basic rules are followed.
Fit to surf It may sound obvious, but you need to be reasonably fit and be able to swim! Regular exercise and stretching before and after surfing will help. If you are going for a fitness training regime for your surfing try and design an all-round workout with cardiovascular work, daily stretching, weights, balance/core training and of course the best training of all is to get out there and paddle. For your swimming ability you will need to be able to swim comfortably for at least 500m. Remember the bigger the surf the harder it's going to get and the stronger your swimming will need to be.
Water safety There are a number of factors to take into consideration before entering the ocean:
Cramps: Avoid cramps by not eating at least one hour before surfing and of course don't go surfing when drunk!
Rips: These are strong water currents. Rips are formed by retreating waves - all of that water and energy from a wave needs to return to the sea once is broken, so the water will retreat finding the route with the least resistance, which it will find in the form of deeper or steep channels. Here the water will be funnelled and rush or rip back seawards either directly or parallel to the beach. A rip can be recognised because as it flows back it will disturb the approaching waves and make them uneven and/or flatten the water's surface.
Unless you are an experienced surfer, rips need to be avoided as they can take you out to sea, so before entering the water check with locals or a lifeguard and ask where is safe to surf. If you do get caught in a rip DON'T try and surf back in against it because you won't be able to. Either paddle parallel to the beach until the rip lets go or at an angle until paddling back in is easier.
Tides: If you are surfing in an area with a tidal range, try and get hold of a tide timetable. Not only are most breaks affected by the state of the tide but some areas can become highly dangerous and can cut off the unwary from land. If in doubt ask.
Equipment: Make sure you have the right equipment, especially the correct wetsuit when water temps are cold....hypothermia isn't fun! At the other end of the scale when surfing in the tropics or during summer make sure you wear a sunblock as it's easy to burn in the water...sunburn isn't much fun either! Check out our section on essential surf equipment for more details on the right kit to own or see our online surf store.
Beach flags: Warning flags are displayed at many beaches to assist you. You will need to avoid the beach sectioned off with red/yellow flags which is designated for swimmers and if the red flag is flying don't enter the water at all as the conditions are considered dangerous.
Surf buddy: Always go surfing with a friend or where there are others in the water and consider third party insurance (in case you manage to damage someone!) which is now compulsory at some beaches. In the UK check out the British Surfing Association for more insurance information.
When in the water
- Always be aware of other surfers around you, never let go of your surfboard if caught inside unless you are 100% sure that there is no one behind you- a thruster or a heavy longboard firing toward the beach can cause a lot of damage.
- If you are a complete novice it's a good idea to join a surf school to understand the basics.
- Never dive off your board, it may not be a deep as you think.
- If you do get into trouble, don't panic, stay with your board and raise an arm to attract help.
- Don't let this advice spoil any of your fun though! Surfing is fantastic and with a little common sense and safety awareness you'll be able to have a great time in the surf.
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