5 Main Reasons Why Surfers Drown (And How To Reduce The Risk)

One of the biggest worries for beginner surfers is injuries and severe harm, such as drowning. While injury risks are considered low, surfing accidents get more media attention due to their rarity. This article will examine drowning and how we can prevent it.

Here are five different causes of drawing while surfing.

1. Losing consciousness from a head injury.

Depending on the board size, your surfboard weighs around 3-7kg. During serious wipeouts and turbulence in the waters, if the board hits your head hard enough, it can knock you out. Therefore it’s essential to know how to handle the fall and wipeouts.

Head injuries can also occur due to collisions with other surfers or underwater reefs. According to Surfers Medical Association, 8 per cent of head concussions result from near-drowning episodes.

When expecting a wipeout, position yourself so you fall to the side of the board rather than failing with the board. During take-off, beginners often make the mistake of holding on to their board too long, even after the board’s nose has pierced the water (nose-dive) and then goes down together with the board.

How to prevent it:

Practice falling off the board on the side or the back of the board. Practice catching lots of waves at different speeds and angles. As a beginner, it’s impossible to know all the timing of the catching waves, and you will get many wipeouts.

You will slowly learn what acceptable positioning is when catching waves.

Practice falling to the side of the board when you think it’s too late to stand up or ride the wave. Even after you pop up, kicking the board forward and falling into the water is okay. As your paddling technique and power improve, you will slowly catch faster and steeper waves.

You may consider wearing a helmet. Not many surfers wear helmets, but when you ride a reef break or extremely crowded spot, wearing a helmet can protect you from concussion.

2. Long Hold down from big and powerful waves.

As you can see in the photo, waves are formed in circular motion underwater; as it breaks, it causes turbulence. Swimming through this turbulence is impossible, and as the wave passes, you are gradually left behind and eventually re-surface.

See this video and see how an actual wipeout or hold-down may occur.

While surfing, all surfers experience hold-downs for different lengths of time. Generally, a hold down occurs after you try to catch waves, which makes you quite breathless from paddling hard to catch the wave. So there is quite a difference between holding your breath while sitting on a couch and being held down by the wave turbulence after 4-6 powerful paddles.

Ten seconds may seem like 1 minute and can cause some panic in surfers.


Here is an example of how to practice and improve breath hold.

  1. Relax during a wipeout: tense muscles waste oxygen, and you must preserve as much O2 as possible.
  2. Wear a life jacket. If you look at the video above, the surfer is wearing a life vest specially designed for big-wave surfers.
  3. Hold onto your board: your board floats more than you. It’s not possible to hold on to the board during a wipeout. However, during duck diving, Nathan Florence – a highly experienced big wave surfer – suggests holding on to the board and not letting go when diving for big waves.
  4. Train with a professional: Here are examples of specialised breath hold training.

3. Leash getting caught in the reef/rock

This only applies to someone who surfs near the rocky bottoms or reef breaks. The leash can get tangled on uneven rocks and corals and hold you underwater. This can be a frightening experience, even if you know what to do.

All modern leashes come with a quick-release tap and a small handle to pull the leash. Don’t be so sure it’s that simple. Experienced surfers drown while their leash gets stuck, unable to release it. In the impact zone (where the wave breaks ), there is a lot of water movement and reaching to the ankle to remove the leash may not be as easy as on the land.

However, the downside of these leashes is their durability/strength of the leash. Most manufacturers would not recommend using this leash for more than 4 feet of waves.


Experience surfers advised that you bring the leg up by bending the hip and knee to reach the ankle. Our instinct is to bend the waste to bring the trunk down. However, this can be quite challenging while you fight turbulence and are out of breath.

You can practise with your friend holding your board down in the whitewash at the beach. Searching for the leash in turbulence will help you build confidence and technique.

4. Drowning Due To Poor Swimming Ability.

This is more applicable to beginner surfers, but experience surfers or swimmers can drown due to exhaustion if the current is strong.

Surfers usually do not need to swim because the surfboard is attached to the ankle, and retrieving the board is easy. Modern leashes are made with high-quality materials, and it’s rare for the leash to snap.

It’s important to always adhere to the manufacturer’s recommendation when choosing a leash. For example, a competition leash has a thin cord and a small cuff to maximise mobility and minimise drag. However, the manufacturers do not recommend using this kind of leash for bigger than 4 feet waves.

Big waves generally come with strong currents. Therefore, if you lose your board, you will need to fight a strong current, and you can get into trouble quickly.


Learn how to swim in the ocean. Many dedicated teams around most cities near beaches for long-distance or ocean swimming. It’s not just about building stamina.

To swim well in the ocean, you must learn how to swim effortlessly and navigate the ocean including the current and wave zone.

Total Immersion Swimming provides excellent youtube education, and you can practice at your local pool.

5. Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injury is rare but does occur while surfing or swimming on the beach. It’s difficult to estimate the depth of the water while surfing or swimming in the wave-breaking zone because waves lift the sand off the floor and make visibility poor.


When coming off the board, ensure you first fall on your side or legs to avoid injury. Do not assume you are in the deep water and cannot hit the floor. Sand bottoms always shift and change, and they can be unpredictable.

This is not limited to beach breaks, as you will never know the shape of an uneven reef under the water.

When body surfing, always be extra careful if you are not an experienced body surfer. Keep one or two hands in front of you when you catch waves to ensure you get proper positioning.

Why Don’t Surfers Wear a Life Jacket When Suring?

There are several reasons why most surfers do not wear a life jacket.

  1. It isn’t easy to paddle while wearing a life jacket. Life Jackets are mainly bulky around the chest and stomach. Paddling requires a gentle rocking motion in the spine as you paddle each arm, and a life jacket will limit this movement. Furthermore, you are more artificially lifted higher on the board, making paddling difficult.
  2. Surfers are generally good swimmers. Due to similarities in paddling motions, most intermediate surfers will know how to swim quite well. Also, extended periods in the ocean develop confidence in the water, and wearing a life jacket is unnecessary.
  3. When you lose the board, you will need to swim, not just float on the water. Surviving in the ocean/beach involves more than just staying afloat. It would be best if you often dived down to pass the incoming waves and swam to use the channel to find the best path back to shore. With a life jacket on, you cannot swim.

However, life jackets are essential for big-wave surfing. Some have slim design allowing a surfer to paddle, and the jacket assist the surfer in coming to the surface quickly.


My name is James, the person behind SurifngHeadquaters.com. With 15 years of experience in surfing, I am excited to help you on the journey to becoming a competent surfer.

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