How Do Surfers Die? Top Causes and How to Avoid Them

If you’ve ever seen first-hand (or through videos) surfers riding monster waves and then wiping out spectacularly, you might be wondering questions like: Did that surfer die? Is surfing a dangerous activity? How often do surfers drown or lose their lives?

In this article, we will be going over the most common reasons for drowning deaths while surfing, as well as ways to reduce the chances of it happening. It’s a morbid topic, but one that needs to be discussed.

Top Causes of Surfer Deaths and Drownings

how do surfers die

Rip Currents

Rip currents are powerful and fast-moving channels of water that flow from the shore out to deeper parts of the ocean. Think of them as underwater rivers that run perpendicular to the shore.

They can form near structures like jetties, piers, and even sandbars. When waves travel from deep to shallow water, they can create these currents as water returns to the sea.

For swimmers and surfers, getting caught in a rip current can be dangerous. Here’s why:

  • Speed and Power: Rip currents can move faster than an Olympic swimmer, with speeds reaching up to 8 feet per second in some cases. This makes it extremely challenging for even elite swimmers to combat the current directly.
  • Fatigue: Many people’s first reaction when caught in a rip current is to swim directly back to shore. However, trying to swim against the current can quickly lead to exhaustion, reducing one’s ability to stay afloat or make sound decisions.
  • Misunderstanding: A common misconception is that rip currents will pull you under the water. In reality, they pull you out to deeper water. Recognizing the signs of a rip current and knowing how to react can make all the difference. Instead of swimming against it, you should swim parallel to the shore until you’re out of the current, then swim at an angle back to the beach.

Hitting the Seabed

When a surfer is riding a wave, there’s potential for them to be thrown or pushed downward, especially if the wave breaks powerfully. In areas where the water is shallow or the waves break close to the shore, there’s a significant risk of the surfer being pushed all the way to the seabed.

This can lead to:

  • Injuries: Hitting the seabed can result in anything from minor scrapes to severe injuries like fractures, dislocations, or spinal damage.
  • Temporary Disorientation: The force of the wave combined with the sudden impact can disorient a surfer, making it hard for them to figure out which way is up and where the surface is.
  • Long Hold Down from Subsequent Waves: After one wave pushes a surfer down, subsequent waves can make it challenging to resurface, increasing the time spent underwater and risking water inhalation.

To mitigate these risks, surfers are advised to use their arms to protect their head when being pushed downward and to always be aware of the ocean’s depth and seabed’s nature where they’re surfing.

Board Injuries

Surfboards are essential tools for catching waves, but they can also pose a danger to the surfer. These boards are solid, and when propelled by the force of a wave or due to a fall, they can hit the surfer with significant force.

Possible dangers include:

  • Head Injuries: A common injury is a blow to the head, which can lead to cuts, concussions, or in extreme cases, loss of consciousness.
  • Lacerations and Bruises: The fins and edges of a surfboard can cause cuts or bruises if they strike the surfer.
  • Tethered Danger: Surfboards are usually attached to surfers by a leash. If the board gets pushed back by a wave while the surfer is still moving forward, it can then spring back towards them with increased force.

To reduce the risk of board injuries, surfers can wear protective gear like helmets or wetsuits with padding. Additionally, learning how to fall safely and maintaining a safe distance from other surfers can help.

Getting Trapped Underwater

While surfing, there are various elements in the ocean that one might not always consider. From the surfboard leash to marine vegetation and debris, there are several things a surfer can become entangled in.

Some of the concerns related to entanglement are:

  • Leash Tangles: The very leash meant to keep a surfboard close can sometimes wrap around a surfer’s legs or arms, restricting movement and making it hard to paddle or swim.
  • Seaweed and Marine Debris: In certain areas, thick seaweed or floating marine debris can trap or entangle a surfer, making it difficult for them to move or reach the surface.
  • Underwater Caves and Crevices: The ocean floor isn’t just sand; it features caves, crevices, and rock formations. While these structures can be intriguing, they also pose risks for surfers who might get trapped within or under them.
  • Panic: Getting trapped underwater can induce panic, especially if a surfer finds themselves unable to move freely or if they’re pulled under the water. Panic can exacerbate the situation, causing the surfer to use up oxygen more rapidly.

Awareness and preparation are key. Surfers should always be aware of their surroundings and ensure their equipment is in good condition. If trapped underwater, try to remain calm, conserve oxygen by taking slow, deep breaths, and methodically work to free yourself or signal for help.

Exhaustion or Panic

Surfing, while exhilarating, is a physically demanding sport that requires both strength and endurance. The ocean can be unpredictable, and even experienced surfers might find themselves in situations that test their limits.

Factors contributing to exhaustion or panic include:

  • Physical Fatigue: Paddling against waves, maintaining balance on the board, and making quick movements can tire out muscles. Once exhausted, it’s challenging to react swiftly to changing conditions or to make it back to shore.
  • Emotional and Mental Stress: Being caught in a set of large waves, getting tossed underwater, or being pulled out by a rip current can be terrifying. Panic can set in, leading to rapid breathing, disorientation, and poor decision-making.
  • Environmental Conditions: Cold water can expedite muscle fatigue and reduce the body’s core temperature, potentially leading to hypothermia. This can further weaken the individual and impair judgment.

To combat these challenges, surfers should ensure they are physically fit, familiarize themselves with the surf location, take regular breaks, and always surf with a buddy to keep an eye out for each other.

Hazardous Conditions

The allure of the waves often draws surfers to various beaches, but the ocean’s mood can shift rapidly. From changing tides to approaching storms, hazardous conditions pose serious risks.

Dangers from hazardous conditions encompass:

  • Big Waves: Massive waves, especially at famous big wave spots, can hold surfers underwater for extended periods or push them onto hard surfaces.
  • Rocks and Reefs: Some surfing locations have rocky or coral bottoms. Wiping out in such areas can result in severe injuries. Moreover, being pushed or pulled into these structures by waves can be life-threatening.
  • Changing Tides: Tidal shifts can alter currents and wave patterns, making conditions unpredictable. An outgoing tide, for example, can strengthen rip currents.
  • Storm Surges: Surfing during or after storms can be risky due to increased wave heights, stronger currents, and debris in the water.

Surfers are encouraged to stay informed about weather forecasts, tidal phases, and local hazards. When in doubt, it’s best to wait for safer conditions.

Medical Issues

While the ocean and its challenges can be immediate external factors, a surfer’s internal health condition can also put them at risk. Sometimes, underlying or sudden medical issues can arise while surfing.

Potential medical complications include:

  • Heart Attacks: Strenuous activity, cold water, or pre-existing conditions can lead to cardiac events in the water.
  • Seizures: Individuals with epilepsy or other conditions causing seizures might experience one while surfing, rendering them immobile or unconscious.
  • Dehydration or Heat Exhaustion: Surfing in hot conditions without proper hydration can lead to heat-related illnesses.

To reduce risks, it’s crucial to know one’s health conditions, take necessary medications, and inform fellow surfers about any potential issues. Regular medical check-ups and staying hydrated are also vital.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many surfers drown each year?

It’s challenging to provide an exact number of surfers who drown each year globally, as this statistic can vary based on factors like surfing conditions, the number of surfers, and the reporting capabilities of different countries.

Moreover, not all drownings are always reported, and some may be categorized differently (e.g., “missing” rather than “drowned”). While organizations like the International Surfing Association (ISA) and local lifeguard services might provide data for specific regions, a comprehensive global number can be elusive.

Consult up-to-date local and regional statistics for the most accurate representation of the number of surfer drownings each year.

Is the risk of drowning high for surfing?

Compared to many other water sports and activities, surfing does carry its inherent risks, but generally speaking surfing is considered a safe activity.

Factors contributing to the risk include the surfer’s skill level, the surf conditions, the type of break (reef, point, beach break), and environmental conditions.

While there are instances of drowning or near-drowning events in surfing, many surfers go their entire lives without a severe incident. Proper training, understanding of the ocean, and safety precautions significantly mitigate these risks.

How do surfers not drown?

To reduce the risk of drowning while surfing:

  1. Training: Take lessons from a certified instructor if you’re a beginner.
  2. Know Your Limits: Don’t surf in conditions beyond your skill level.
  3. Buddy System: Always surf with a friend; having someone nearby can be lifesaving in an emergency.
  4. Awareness: Familiarize yourself with the surf spot. Know where the rips, rocks, and other hazards are.
  5. Physical Fitness: Ensure you are physically fit, as surfing can be strenuous.
  6. Avoid Alcohol and Drugs: They can impair judgment and physical ability.
  7. Equipment Check: Ensure your surfboard and leash are in good condition.
  8. Learn About Rip Currents: Understand how to spot them and how to get out of one.
  9. Check the Weather: Be aware of changing weather conditions that could make the surf more dangerous.
  10. Communicate: Let someone know where you’re going and how long you plan to be out.

Should I wear a life jacket and helmet while surfing?

Life Jacket: Traditional life jackets aren’t typically worn while surfing because they can restrict movement and make it challenging to paddle or duck dive under waves. However, for big wave surfing or specific high-risk conditions, some surfers wear specialized vests that can be inflated in emergencies.

Helmet: Helmets can provide added protection, especially in areas with shallow reef breaks or rocky conditions. They can help prevent head injuries from the board or the seabed. While not universally adopted by all surfers, those surfing in hazardous areas or concerned about head injuries might choose to wear one.

Whatever safety equipment you choose to wear, make sure they don’t restrict your movement much or the ability to respond to changing ocean conditions.

How does wildlife, like sharks, factor into surfer drownings?

While shark attacks on surfers make headlines, they are statistically rare. However, when they do occur, the severity of the injuries can lead to significant blood loss, shock, and potentially drowning, especially if the surfer is far from the shore or other people.

It’s worth noting that far more people die from other ocean-related risks, like rip currents, than from shark attacks.

To reduce the risk of a shark attack, surfers can stay informed about local wildlife activity, avoid known shark breeding areas, and stay out of the water during early morning or dusk when some shark species are more active.

Are certain beaches or surf locations more dangerous than others?

Yes, some beaches and surf locations are inherently riskier than others. Factors that contribute to increased risk include:

  • Type of Break: Reef breaks, especially shallow ones, can be more dangerous due to the risk of injury from the reef.
  • Strength of Currents: Beaches with strong rip currents or tidal changes can pose a greater drowning risk.
  • Wave Size and Power: Big wave spots or beaches with powerful shore breaks can be challenging and dangerous even for experienced surfers.
  • Local Hazards: Some locations might have underwater caves, sharp rocks, or other hazards that can trap or injure a surfer.
  • Water Temperature: Extremely cold water can lead to hypothermia, reducing a surfer’s physical capacity and decision-making abilities.

Surfers need to research and familiarize themselves with a location before entering the water, heed local warnings, and always respect the power of the ocean.