How Safe Is Surfing?

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Is surfing dangerous? It’s a question that many first-timers have, and one you’re probably considering if your child is surfing for the first time.

The bad news is that surfing can be very dangerous and even life-threatening. The good news is that there are ways of keeping those risks under control.

Is Surfing Dangerous?

Yes, surfing is a dangerous sport, but it’s still a sport and your odds of dying are very low. There are no exact figures on the total number of annual surfing deaths, but it’s estimated to be about 10 people per year.

Considering there are millions of surfers out there, that’s a pretty low number.

The more inexperienced and ill-prepared that you are, the more dangerous it is.

What Are The Dangers Of Surfing?

There are several ways that surfing can kill, maim, and generally cause you harm. Most of the issues concern control, or the lack thereof.

You can control where you go on a skateboard, just as you can avoid slopes and stay away from cars. You’re also in full control when playing ball sports. With surfing, however, you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature and all of her sharp-toothed friends.

Some of the most common ways that people die while surfing include:

Shark Attacks

There are dozens of unprovoked shark attacks every year around the world. However, fewer than 5 of these are deadly and not all of them involve surfers. Swimmers and other watersport enthusiasts are also prone to shark attacks.

Surfers and swimmers need to watch out for jellyfish, sea snakes, sea urchins, stingrays, and other marine life, as well as sharks.

You’ll find a higher concentration of sharks and deadly jellyfish in countries like the United States, Australia, and Brazil, but these also happen to be the most popular surfing destinations!


Drowning is the most common cause of death among surfers.

Surfers become trapped in reefs, held underwater by big waves, and knocked unconscious. Unfortunately, several pro surfers have lost their lives this way.

Weak swimmers and inexperienced surfers are much more likely to meet their end as a result of drowning. But it’s a risk that all surfers and swimmers face when entering the water.

Surfboards and Other Surfers

Surfboards can save you if you’re hit by a big wave or need something to hold onto. But they can also cause serious injury.

Surfboards are large and feature a point at one end. They move quickly and can be launched off waves. If you don’t keep your board under control, it could cause injury to you or to other surfers.

Famously, the legendary Jack O’Neil lost his eye when his leash snapped the surfboard back into his face following a wipeout.

Strong Waves

During a famous wipeout at Nazaré, Andrew Cotton suffered a broken back. It was an epic wipeout and it clearly left its mark.

Big waves can do serious damage to even the most experienced surfers. Big wave surfers are more prone to this risk, but if you’re riding waves that are beyond your skill set, or you’re just ill-prepared, you could suffer similar issues.

Rip Currents

Rip currents are a major hazard for surfers and swimmers alike. They can pull you away from the beach and leave you powerless to the force of Mother Nature.

If you try to fight them, they could tire you out and lead to death by drowning.

The Ocean Floor

Hitting the ocean floor can be just like hitting the bottom of the swimming pool after an ill-conceived dive. If you’re landing on a rock reef from a big wave, it could knock you unconscious or leave you with a host of cuts and bruises.

It’s not pleasant, and it could be life-threatening.

The Sun

Skin cancer is one of the biggest surfing dangers, but it’s one that many surfers overlook.

Not only are you outside in direct sunshine throughout the morning and/or afternoon, but you’re constantly washing all of that sunblock away and leaving yourself exposed.

Depending on who you ask, surfers are either 3x or 6x more likely to get skin cancer.

Is Surfing Worth The Risk?

Of course!

Most sports involve some element of risk. The same is true for many of the things that we do every day, whether it’s driving to work or going for a swim at the local pool.

When you lift weights at the gym, there’s a chance you could be crushed or suffer a heart attack. When you go for a walk, there’s a chance you could be hit by a drunken or reckless driver.

Surfing can be dangerous, but that doesn’t mean you should refrain. If you want to surf, then surf!

Is Surfing The Most Dangerous Sport?

Although surfing is not the most dangerous sport, it’s certainly among the top 20 and even the top 10.

Boxing is more dangerous and results in a greater rate of injury and death. Racing is also quite risky while mountaineering has some of the highest fatalities of any sport.

Other sports considered to be high risk include hunting, skydiving, football, free diving, white water rafting, and rugby.

What Are The Chances Of Dying While Surfing?

It’s hard to place an exact estimate on your chances of dying from surfing. Deaths are not always recorded as being the result of surfing. If the person drowns, it will be recorded as a drowning. If they are bitten by a shark, it will go down as a shark attack.

However, if we look at the total number of drownings (by far the most common cause of death from surfing) at popular surf sports, the rate is about 2.36 per 100,000 people.

Not only is this a very low number, but it doesn’t just include surfers and also accounts for other watersports, including swimming.

How Many Famous Surfers Have Died on the Waves?

A number of professional surfers have died while surfing, including:

  • Mark Foo: Drowned at Mavericks in 1994
  • Joaquin Miro Quesada: Hit a reef headfirst at Pipeline and died several hours later.
  • Todd Chesser: Died while surfing at Alligator Rock in Oahu.
  • Sion Milosky: Drowned at Mavericks in 2011.
  • Briece Taerea: A Tahitian surfer who died after colliding with a reef while in shallow water.
  • Peter Davi: Died in 2007 after paddling into a big wave at Ghost Tree, California.
  • Malik Joyeux: Died in 2005 after being hit by a heavy wave at Pipeline.

How Can Beginner Surfers Protect Themselves?

To protect yourself as a beginner surfer, follow these simple steps:

Wear Sunscreen

Always protect your skin when surfing. Whether you’re a new surfer catching waves for the first time or a veteran with 20 years of experience, you need sun protection.

The sun doesn’t care how good you are. It will burn and you will suffer.

In addition to sunscreen, you can get protection from rash guards and other surfing apparel.

Learn About Sharks and Other Marine Life

Read about the local marine life. Sharks, jellyfish, stingrays—make sure you know where they are, when they come out to play, and what to do if you’re attacked.

Shark attacks are surprisingly uncommon. Even in shark-infested waters, your chances of being attacked are quite low. But that doesn’t mean you need to tempt fate. If sharks are nearby, you should be far away!

Learn to Swim!

Learning to swim is more important than learning to surf. If you’re even entertaining the idea of learning to surf, there’s a good chance you can swim to an extent. But you need to be a strong swimmer to keep the risk of drowning low.

If you are a proficient swimmer, consider open water swimming.

Surf with a Friend

Always take a friend with you when you’re surfing. Not only can they call for help if you get into serious trouble, but they can pull you out of the water if you’re knocked unconscious.

Your friend should be nearby (without getting in your way) and you should look out for one another.

Check the Surf Forecast

Use sites like Surfline to check the forecast of your local surf spots and learn to read a surf report. The surf forecast will give you an idea of everything from the water temperature to the wind direction and tides.

Stick to Your Level

Beginner surfers should stick with longboards and flat surf. Leave the bigger waves for when you know how to handle them. Stick with warm water, pleasant surf spots, and weak waves.

Take it easy and try to enjoy yourself. As you gain some surfing experience, you can test yourself by catching bigger waves in more challenging conditions.

Wear a Leash

A surfboard leash will ensure that your surfboard is never too far away. It means you’ll always have something to hold onto and it won’t become a lethal weapon when you wipe out and send it into the path of another surfer.

Learn About Rip Tides

Watch out for rip currents and rip tides. It doesn’t matter how strong of a swimmer or surfer you are; rip currents, rip tides and undertows can be deadly.

Follow Surf Etiquette

Last but not least, remember to always follow surf etiquette.

It’s not just your safety that you need to think about. You also pose a risk to other surfers.

Inexperienced surfers are more likely to make this mistake, which is why many pros get frustrated with large groups of newbies.

Wear the Right Wetsuit

A good wetsuit will keep you insulated and warm in cold water. Summer surfing gear can also protect against harmful UV rays.

There are surf suits for all weather types, so find the one that’s right for you.

Use a Buoyancy Aid

If you’re not comfortable in the water or just want some additional security, purchase a buoyancy aid. It will keep your head above water and give you some extra confidence if you’re a weak swimmer.

Stay Calm

Mother Nature isn’t the only problem. You can be your own worst enemy in the event of a wipeout, shark sighting, or rip current. Try to stay calm, keep your head, and remember what you have learned.

As soon as you start panicking in the water, you head down a very slippery slope. Yoga and meditation can help get and keep you centered in times of stress.

Summary: Is Surfing Dangerous?

To summarize, there are many surfing risks, especially for beginner surfers. But most of these can be negated and the risk of serious injury is generally very low.

Of course, there is always a chance you could become one of the few people killed while surfing every year, and that’s why it’s important to buy the right equipment, avoid big waves, pay attention to shark sightings, wear sunscreen or a rash guard, and become a better swimmer.

If you do all of these things, you should be perfectly fine in the water and can surf without issue.