Surfing, like all water sports, carries the inherent danger of drowning. Anyone at any age can learn to surf, but should have at least intermediate swimming skills. Although the board assists a surfer in staying buoyant, it can become separated from the user. A leash, attached to the ankle or knee, can keep a board from being swept away, but does not keep a rider on the board or above water. In some cases, possibly including the drowning of professional surfer Mark Foo, a leash can even be a cause of drowning by snagging on a reef or other object and holding the surfer underwater. By keeping the surfboard close to the surfer during a wipeout, a leash also increases the chances that the board may strike the rider, which could knock him or her unconscious and lead to drowning. A fallen rider's board can become trapped in larger waves, and if the rider is attached by a leash, he or she can be dragged for long distances underwater. Surfers should be careful to remain in smaller surf until they have acquired the advanced skills and experience necessary to handle bigger waves and more challenging conditions. However, even world-class surfers have drowned in extremely challenging conditions.
Under the wrong set of conditions, anything that a surfer's body can come in contact with is potentially a danger, including sand bars, rocks, small ice, reefs, surfboards, and other surfers. Collisions with these objects can sometimes cause injuries such as cuts and scrapes and in rare instances, death.
A large number of injuries, up to 66%, are caused by collision with a surfboard (nose or fins). Fins can cause deep lacerations and cuts, as well as bruising. While these injuries can be minor, they can open the skin to infection from the sea; groups like Surfers Against Sewage campaign for cleaner waters to reduce the risk of infections. Local bugs and disease can be a dangerous factor when surfing around the globe.
Falling off a surfboard or colliding with others is commonly referred to as a wipeout.
Sea life can sometimes cause injuries and even fatalities. Animals such as sharks, stingrays, Weever fish, seals and jellyfish can sometimes present a danger. Warmer-water surfers often do the "stingray shuffle" as they walk out through the shallows, shuffling their feet in the sand to scare away stingrays that may be resting on the bottom.
Rip currents are water channels that flow away from the shore. Under the wrong circumstances these currents can endanger both experienced and inexperienced surfers. Since a rip current appears to be an area of flat water, tired or inexperienced swimmers or surfers may enter one and be carried out beyond the breaking waves. Although many rip currents are much smaller, the largest rip currents have a width of forty or fifty feet. However, by paddling parallel to the shore, a surfer can easily exit a rip current. Alternatively, some surfers actually ride on a rip current because it is a fast and effortless way to get out beyond the zone of breaking waves.
The seabed can pose dangers for surfers. If a surfer falls while riding a wave, the wave tosses and tumbles the surfer around, often in a downwards direction. At reef breaks and beach breaks, surfers have been seriously injured and even killed because of a violent collision with the sea bed, the water above which can sometimes be very shallow, especially at beach breaks or reef breaks during low tide. Cyclops, Western Australia, for example is one of the biggest and thickest reef breaks in the world, with waves measuring up to 10 metres high, but the reef below is only about 2 m (6.56168 ft) below the surface of the water.
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