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Just the fact that you have come to this part of the website is a great starting point. You are considering your own and hopefully others' safety. In my experience, the majority of beach incidents occur when people with limited knowledge of the ocean go out swimming or surfing without fully understanding the power of the ocean. So you're here and that means you have respect for the ocean, that's great.
The ocean is an incredibly beautiful part of nature. It's also incredibly powerful, that's what creates those beautiful waves that give so many people the pleasure of surfing. Understanding the signs of dangerous surf will give you the confidence that you are going out in the water only when it is safe to do so.
If you are at a popular surf break and there are waves but nobody is out surfing, there must be a reason. It's not that nobody wants to surf! So take a look at the conditions, what are the waves doing? Are they closing out? Are they sandbusters? If you can't figure it out, look around for a surfer on shore and don't be afraid to ask questions. You'll be surprised what people will share with you if you approach them with the right attitude. Here's a chance for you to learn a few things from a fellow surfer about wave conditions.
Let's assume that you have arrived at the beach and there are lots of people surfing. You should still spend several minutes on shore observing the conditions. You will want to consider where you plan to paddle out to. If you are still riding the whitewater, you will be surfing close to shore, so you're going to need to look for an area where you can safely paddle out to and ride in without worrying about hitting swimmers or other beginner surfers while you learn how to surf.
If you're going to be riding the faces of waves, you will be paddling out to the outside. Watch other surfers for a few minutes. Where are they paddling out? Is there a channel which will make your paddle much easier? Are there big sets coming in that you will want to time your paddle out to avoid getting hammered on the way out? Look for signs of rip currents and use them to your advantage. What? That's right , they can actually make your paddle out easier. Hitch a ride on the outflowing water. This might seem scary at first, but remember you are on a floatation device. A rip current is going to get you to the outside the quickest and the safest. It's safer because the rip channel will have lower breaking waves. If you time your paddle out for after a big wave set has just past and hit the rip you'll be outside on your surfboard with much less energy expended.
This should go without saying, but riding the rip out works great, but it doesn't work the other way around. When you're coming in, you need to avoid the rip currents. For more information on rip currents scroll down to the bottom of the page where there is an illustration and detailed instructions on what to do in the event you are caught in a rip current.
Most people like lists, I know I do ☺ so here is a list of surf safety tips:
Be a strong swimmer:
You should be able to swim at least half a mile without getting too tired. Do not rely on your surfboard to keep
you afloat. Ask yourself if you would be able to swim in on your own if your surfboard leash came off your leg. Too many times I have seen a
panicked look on a surfers eyes when their surfboard leash has separated from their leg. If you can't
swim well enough to get back into shore on your own without a surfboard
then you are crazy to be out there.
Know your limits:
Stay out of big surf if you are not a good swimmer or
experienced surfer. Until you can swim well and
paddle well stay in smaller surf. DO NOT rely on your surfboard and leash to keep you afloat. Surfboard leashes can and
often do come undone. You need to know you would be able to swim into shore without your surfboard.
Know the local conditions:
If you are not familiar with the beach, ask the local surfers or lifeguards about any hazards. Many hazards can be spotted from shore, so spend some time to have a look before going out.
Understand the dangers:
Learn about rip currents and how to
spot them. Watch for close out waves, be aware of underwater hazards like rocks and reefs.
Recognize danger before it happens:
Plan ahead before paddling out. Look for rips, rocks, floating logs and other hazards.
Observe the Wave Sets:
Take the time before going out to observe the timing of big wave sets so you won't be caught in dangerously big closeout surf.
Be Aware of Changing Conditions:
As the tide and weather change the ocean conditions will change. Swell size and direction can change rapidly.
Listen to Your Inner Voice:
If it's telling you to paddle in, paddle in. If you are on shore and it's telling you it's too big, I guarantee you that when you are out in the thick of it, conditions always seem bigger out in the water than they do when you're observing them from the safety of shore.