Surfing

Over 250,000 people go surfing in our waters every year. With so many beaches to explore, it’s no wonder we want to get out into the surf.

Surfer at Boscombe Beach, Bournemouth

Photo: RNLI / Nathan Williams

Surfer at Boscombe Beach, Bournemouth

Understand the risks and surf safely

Surfing hotspots can be a mass of bodies and boards when the sun is out and the surf is rolling.

Impacts between surfboards and other surfers can cause serious injuries and so being aware of others in the water and staying between the black and white flags is essential.

There were 8 surfing fatalities in UK waters between 2011 and 2015. Most surfers have a good understanding of the risks involved in their sport but more experienced surfers tend to push themselves in bigger surf and dangerous conditions. Those new to surfing can lack the experience to manage difficult conditions and surf outside lifeguarded areas.

Following some basic surfing etiquette and safety advice helps to make the surf a safer, friendlier and fun place for everyone.

Surfing safety checklist

Nine simple checks for safe surfing

  • Always surf between the black and white chequered flags
    Follow the advice of our lifeguards.

  • Surf with a mate
    Especially in a big swell. Surfers look out for one another.

  • Tell someone you’re going surfing
    Let someone know when and where you are going out and, importantly, when you expect to be back.

  • Check weather and tides
    Before you set out, check the local forecast for wind, swell and tide.

  • Know your limits
    It’s easy to be caught out. Don’t challenge yourself too early and know your limits.

  • Be aware of rip currents
    Speak to an RNLI lifeguard to get advice on the location of rip currents.

  • Always wear a leash
    So you don’t become separated from your board.

  • Wear the right wetsuit
    Wear an appropriate wetsuit for surfing. As well as keeping you warm, wetsuits give some added protection from scrapes on rocks or impacts from other surfboards.

  • Understand surf etiquette and rights of way
    Consider other surfers and water users. See some basic tips in our free download In the surf: your guide to surfsport safety (PDF).

Surfing equipment checklist 

Here’s a list of the surfing equipment you need to get started...

  • Board – when selecting a board you need to consider your height, weight and ability. When starting out, a soft foam board is ideal as it is thick and wide, making it easier to float, paddle and catch waves.
  • Leash – always wear one around the ankle of your back foot so you don’t lose your board if you fall off!
  • Wetsuit – a wetsuit will keep you warm and comfortable allowing your body to perform more efficiently.
  • Wax – apply this to the deck of your board to give you grip.
  • Fins – these are vital when bodyboarding to help you catch waves and swim against strong currents.
  • Helmet and hood – to protect your head it’s always advisable to wear a helmet when learning. Try wearing a neoprene hood if you get cold easily!
  • Buoyancy aid – a buoyancy aid is a great confidence builder if you’re not comfortable in the water. The buoyancy aid should have a minimum buoyancy of 50 Newtons.
  • Boots and gloves – to provide additional insulation, protection and grip.
  • Signalling device – if you get into difficulty it’s tempting to try and swim to safety but you should always stay with your kit as it will keep you afloat and make you easier to find in an emergency. A whistle is a simple and effective method of calling for help when close to shore. When venturing further offshore carry a suitable means of calling for help (waterproof and fully charged VHF or flares). Don’t forget the international distress signal of hand waving and shouting for help still works! 

Surf etiquette

To maximise your enjoyment and keep yourself and others safe when riding waves it’s important to understand surf etiquette. Here are a few basic tips that apply to all board riders catching waves. If you are unsure, ask a lifeguard to explain.

  • Priority goes to the person closest to the peak.
  • Do not snake.
  • Priority goes to the person furthest out.
  • Paddle wide, not through the peak.
  • Do not drop in.
  • If you are caught inside a wave, stay in the white water.
  • Do not throw your board.
  • Do not dive head first.
  • Priority goes to the person first to feet or on the wave.
  • To communicate call ‘left’ or ‘right’.

Environment

Our coastline supports some of the most important habitats and species. In recognition of this, many areas are legally protected for their wildlife value. These range from statutory sites of national or international significance to smaller, non-statutory sites of local importance.

To protect local wildlife, some sites may have restrictions on certain surf sport activities, and it is important to check this before you set off. All surf sport activities should be undertaken with care to prevent damaging fragile environments such as dunes and soft reefs, particularly in sensitive areas or where there are high numbers of people using the beach. Birds can be especially sensitive to disturbance so remember to avoid roosting or nesting sites, particularly around high tide.

Most creatures around the coast of the UK and Ireland are harmless, but some can cause a painful injury.

Surfing safety: Useful links and resources

Figures taken from:

  • RNLI lifeboat return of service data UK and Ireland 2020.
  • RNLI lifeguard incident data, UK only, 2020.

Don’t be a statistic

8 uk surfing fatalities between 2011 and 2015

22 lifeboat launches to surfers in 2020

1,062 surfing incidents attended by lifeguards in 2020