How to Surf Safely in Australia
Australia is without doubt one of the best surfing destinations in the world. Whilst most surfers enjoy the beach and surf zone safely, like any activity involving mother nature there are hazards to be aware of.
Here is a list of the must know do's and don't to make sure your Australian surfing dreams are realised safely:
Take surfing lessons when starting out
For your own safety and to learn how to surf correctly, and therefore have way more fun and success when surfing, go and take surfing lessons with an accredited surf school. Even if you have surfed a few times before, or if you're getting back into surfing after a long time out of the water, a good surf coach can provide you with feedback on what you are doing correctly, and what you can improve to become a better surfer.
If you're visiting the beach and want to experience what it's like to surf just once in your life, you will have a much better experience if you take a lesson as opposed to renting or borrowing a board and getting out there with no idea. You will learn about the surf zone, along with how to catch waves, stand up and surf all the way to the beach which will be an awesome experience that you'll remember for very a long time.
Have a plan before you enter the water
When you first start surfing independently, check the surf reports to find out when and where the safest surf conditions are for beginner surfers and kids. Knowing where to go will help ensure that you have more surfing fun and success as on many days, one beach may have messy, big, challenging or even dangerous surf conditions for beginners, yet at another beach close by the waves can often be much better for learning to surf.
Once at the beach, spend at least 15 minutes assessing the surf conditions before entering the water to work out how big the waves are, where along the beach are you going to catch your waves and how you are going to get out there. It's also really important to identify where the rip currents are. By having a plan you will catch better waves and stay safe in the surf. Without a plan, you may get really tired paddling or walking out through the surf zone in the wrong areas, catch few waves, cause an accident or get caught in a rip...For more information, see the topic plan your surf session.
Surf at lifeguard patrolled beaches or with an experienced surfer
Don't surf or swim alone at Australia's many stunning yet isolated beaches as many are a long way from help if an accident or injury occurs. Surf at lifeguard patrolled beaches or with an experienced surfer (someone with at least 20 years of surfing experience). Search the surf spots map to find out which beaches and when each beach is patrolled by lifeguards.
Know how to spot and get out of a rip current
Understanding how to identify, avoid or get out of a rip (currents that flow out to sea in the surf zone) is one of the most important aspects of surfing that you will learn when you take a surf lesson. Understanding how rip currents flow is a must if you want to surf safely. Read more on rip currents.
To avoid rips when swimming, swim between the lifeguard patrolled red and yellow flags.
Display good surfing etiquette
Paddling out into the line up with other surfers without knowing the surfers' code (surfing etiquette) puts you and others at risk and causes a lot of frustration for other surfers. Here is a list of what you need to know about the rules of surfing: The surfers' code - surfing etiquette. When starting out with surfing, it is always easiest to stick to catching whitewater waves so that you can repeat practising catching waves, standing up and surfing waves. In the whitewater, you will also be away from where experienced surfers are catching and riding waves.
A big surfboard and small spilling waves equals learn to surf success
Many people fail miserably when attempting to surf in waves that are too big, steep, peaky or powerful and / or on a surfboard that is too small (not enough volume) for their surfing level. Small, spilling waves are easier to catch and ride (waist high wave days are often the best for improving your surfing skills). A high volume surfboard will also give you more paddle power, stability and flow to make it easier to catch waves early, stand up and surf on, along with fostering a smooth style as you progress to a skilled surfer.
So find the correct surfboard and surf conditions for learning and progressing your surfing - you will stay safe and have way more fun.
Avoid catching dumping (or plunging) waves in shallow water
When catching green waves (that is forming waves, yet to break), the deeper the water that the waves break in the better in terms of safety and ease of surfing, This is because waves form and spill more slowly in deeper water, allowing a surfer more time to paddle, connect with and ride a wave before it is too steep. Attempting to catch green waves that break in shallow water will lead to lots of nosedives as waves plunge (or dump) more quickly and are steeper when breaking on shallow sandbars. There have even been cases of spinal injuries from people nose diving and being dumped head first onto a sandbar when attempting to catch a green wave in shallow water.
Even small waist high green waves are best caught in water depths of over chest deep and the bigger the wave, the deeper the water should be (beyond head high depth), so high tide is often best for catching green waves on inner sandbars close to shore, or sometimes, some beaches have deeper outer sandbars where waves break only during lower tides (when the water depth is still overhead) - this often occurs after big swell events.
For adults, catching whitewater waves is also safer in waist to chest deep water, so that if you wipeout when catching or riding a wave, there is less risk of impacting with the ocean floor (sandbar). The other benefit to surfing whitewater waves that roll in deeper water is that they maintain their energy for longer as they roll to shore, making them easier to catch and surf than in very shallow water when whitewater waves normally lose their energy more quickly as the roll to the beach. This shallow water / low energy whitewater wave combination is however ideal for small kids to practise surfing.
Respect and avoid the impact zone
When catching whitewater waves, don't venture out to far to where the waves are breaking in the impact zone. Stay shoreward and well away from the impact zone. Wait for the wave to break, then begin to roll as a line of whitewater to the beach before you attempt to catch the wave. Many a beginner surfer has been smashed whilst attempting to catch a wave right when or even just after it has broken in the impact zone.
If you plan on paddling out to the line up to catch green waves, do so during a lull in waves and move very quickly (wade out until it is too deep, then paddle out) beyond the wave breaking, impact zone into deep water, so as to avoid being smashed by breaking waves or being run over by other surfers (find a spot where other surfers aren't catching and riding waves). Once in the line up, when it's your turn, attempt to catch green waves that look likely to form and break in deep water - as mentioned in the point above, waves break more slowly and are less steep when they break in deeper water, so you will have more time to catch the wave, pop up to your feet and ride down or along the wave face.
Don't sit and wait for waves or try to catch green waves in the impact zone closer to shore, as even small waves break more quickly in the shallower impact zone and are steeper, which increases the risk of nose diving, especially during lower tides. Beginner surfers who wait for waves near the impact zone often unintentionally get caught inside by bigger set waves and also get in the way of more experienced surfers who would prefer to catch and ride waves without having to worry about avoiding beginner surfers - no one wants accidents in the surf.
Be sun smart
The suns out, the waves are fun and the water is crystal clear and really warm...enjoy, but be aware that in less than 20 minutes you can get seriously sun burnt and continued sun exposure over decades has lead to the Australian population achieving the highest rates of skin cancer cases in the world.
- Always put on sunscreen and/or zinc cream 20 minutes before you go out into the sun and remember it does wear off, so put more on every 2 hours.
- Go surfing before 10am or after 3pm as the sun is at its strongest between these times. Surfing during the hottest part of the day drains a lot of energy, so surf early or late when it's cooler and you'll be able to stay out there for longer (it's often when the waves are better too).
- Stay cool by finding some shade under a tree or where ever else there is some shade and a breeze.
- Wear loose long sleeve clothing to keep cool and to keep the sun off your limbs and body. In the surf, even when the water is warm, wear a long sleeve wetsuit vest or rash shirt. If your wearing board shorts or bikini bottoms remember to put sun cream on the back of your legs as they are fully exposed to the sun when you are lying on your surfboard and paddling around in the surf.
- You see a lot of kids wearing full-length wetsuits (steamers) even on hot summer days at the beach these days as parents have realised that this is a great way to help keep their kids sun safe. The other benefits of wearing a steamer are that it keeps kids (and big kids) warm if they spend the whole day in and out of the water, and it also eliminates the risk of being stung by a jellyfish on the limbs or body.
- Wear a hat and sunglasses. Even in the water you can wear a surf hat and sunnies that have been designed specifically for surfing and they won't fall off your head when you wipe out.
Freaked out about sharks? How to reduce the risk of meeting a shark
Yes, like most healthy marine environments around the world, there are sharks in the waters around Australia's coastline but the chances of meeting a shark are very slim. To minimise the risk:
- Don't surf after heavy rain or in murky water. Especially avoid surfing around rivermouths when it's raining or after rain.
- Exit the water if you spot a shark or if the shark alarm sounds when surfing at a patrolled beach.
- Surf in shallow water and in groups.
- If you see large schools of fish, seals or even dolphins near the shore, exit the water.
Other hazards to be aware of when surfing in Australia
Marine Stingers: Fortunately the most dangerous types of jellyfish (the box jellyfish and irukandji) are normally found in tropical waters that are further north of the popular and more accessible surfing destinations. For information on what to do if you are stung by a jellyfish see the link to the Surf Life Saving Australia fact sheet:
Over exposure to heat or cold: The Australian surfing experience varies greatly depending on where and when you surf around the nation. You could be surfing in Queensland in 26C water with air temperatures of 40C, or be in 12C water temperature with a 5C air during a Tasmanian winter's day. So, be prepared for where you are surfing by wearing the right wetsuit (and clothes to the beach) and stay hydrated by drinking enough fluids between surfing sessions. For more information on what to wear in the water during the seasons around Australia check out the climate page.
Surfing + Alcohol: There have been accidents and even cases of drowning due to people entering the surf under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Experienced surfers who respect the ocean know that the surf zone and alcohol is not a good mix, and those that risk it are risking their lives and that of others.
Here are some more tips on what to bring along on your travels if you are planning an Australian surfing holiday.
So understand how to surf safely and get out there and enjoy your surf adventures wherever you are in Australia.