Going face-first into the reef, being held down for a few sets of waves, feeling helpless, trapped and not knowing which way is up, is the ocean’s way of reminding us that we are but mere mortals. Being held down under the waves for much longer than you might like can be traumatizing, and can question your entire commitment to surfing.
Oh, the dreaded surfing wipeouts… Most surfers are afraid of them, and many won’t even charge bigger waves just to avoid them. But, truth be told, they are rarely dangerous. That being said, there’s still that one time out of ten that you should always be prepared for. Wipeouts happen in a variety of waves and for a great number of reasons. Risks are pretty low in 3-4 ft (1 m) waves, but the bigger the waves the bigger the chances that you’ll get wiped out.
We’ve all seen videos of pro surfers getting wiped out in monstrous waves like Nazaré in Portugal, Pea’hi and Pipeline in Hawaii, or Teahupo’o in Tahiti, just to name a few. But how many of us really know what it feels like? When it comes to wipeouts, a big wave means a big punch. However, pros do have a trick up their sleeve – they’ve been through so many monstrous wipeouts that they know what to expect. When they’re paddling towards giant waves, they are fully aware of what they’re up against.
A bad wipeout can lead to injuries, collisions, broken boards or worse. Knowing how to wipe out properly can make or break a surfing trip, and can make the difference between getting out safe and possibly even drowning. Are you ready to take a beating? Here are some basic rules of prevention as well as some general rules to follow during a surfing wipeout.
Basic rules of prevention
Photo by Tim Simpson
There are a few things you can do to decrease the chances of getting wiped out or, at least, of something bad happening while you are being held down.
- Don’t paddle out when conditions are outside your comfort zone. If you feel like you might get into trouble, you probably will. Don’t paddle into waves that are too big for your skill level. Play safe!
- Assess the conditions before you enter the water. Make sure you are aware of the location of razor-sharp reefs, underwater rocks, rip currents. If the surf spot has a sandy bottom, then you can push yourself out. If there’s a sharp reef, you must be careful of the edges and cracks that might catch your ankle.
- Be patient, especially in large surf. Take some time to observe a few sets of waves and take in the ocean’s rhythm. Watch the surf for at least 15 minutes.
- You should always know where your board is. If it is between you and the wave, then the wave will push it towards you and it might hit you. Use your arms to protect yourself from the board.
- You should always know where the other surfers are. If there are other surfers around you, their bodies and boards can hit you. Keep your eyes open when you surf so that you are aware of their position at all times.
What can happen during a wipeout?
Photo credit: mpora.com
- Dings: when the surfboard hits the rocky bottom, or another surfboard, surfer, or even yourself, it might end up with a ding. Don’t worry, this is fixable – you just need to leave your board at a repair shop or fix it yourself.
- Broken boards: contrary to what you might think, it is the force of the lip of the wave that can break your surfboard, and not the rocky bottom. That’s how powerful waves really are.
- Cuts: the sharp fins may cut you and the nose of the surfboard can puncture your skin. If your board breaks, the jagged edges and exposed fiberglass might injure you.
- Losing your consciousness: if you hit the bottom head first, you might become unconscious or even paralyzed, all while being held under water. In 2013, badass big wave surfer Maya Gabeira nearly drowned in one of the most devastating wipeouts ever witnessed at Nazaré. She hit the reef beneath and lost her consciousness. Luckily, her tow-in partner was nearby and rescued her.
- Drowning: drowning is the worst case scenario. This is not a common outcome, all thanks to lifeguards. However, there are still unpatrolled surf beaches in the world and, although quite rarely, surfers still lose their life drowning.
How to wipe out properly
Photo credit: satellitesportsnetwork.com
In many situations, there’s really no way to avoid the contact with the bottom, especially when you’re surfing a shallow break. All you can do is to protect your face with your hands and tuck into the fetal position. Besides this, there are a few other things you can do to escape the ocean’s wrath. And no, panicking is not one of them!
1. Jump away from your surfboard
Photo by Bernard Spragg. NZ
As soon as you realize that you are going to fall, jump away from your board towards or over the wave. Never jump in front of the board; it might hit you in the head. Use one hand to protect yourself from the board.
2. Jump like you would in shallow water
Photo by Brian Box
If you are jumping or falling off your board, try to do it as if you would be jumping in shallow water or in a pool. The bottom might be only a couple of feet (0.5 m) down. If you jump as you would in deep water, you might hit the bottom and sprain an ankle or cut yourself in the reef.
3. Jump butt first
Photo by Sander van Dijk
The best way to enter the water when you know you’re about to get wiped out is by going butt first like you would in a cannonball jump. By bending your legs, you are minimizing the chances of hitting the bottom and spraining an ankle. Whatever you do, never go head first!
4. Cover your head
Have you ever seen a surfer wearing a helmet? Neither have I. Still, our head is the most fragile and important part of our body, and we must do everything we can to protect it. Use your arms to cover your head.
5. Stay calm
The feeling of total helplessness is usually accompanied by panic. This is the worst thing you can do when you feel the wave sucking you in. Train your mind to stay calm. Your body consumes more oxygen when under stress, which means you’ll have fewer resources when trapped under the waves. Being relaxed, even when trapped underwater, will help you retain your air supply for longer.
6. Get low
The ocean is usually calmer on the floor. Let yourself sink and the wave might simply pass above you. Needless to say, you should assess the bottom before entering the water so that you know what to expect.
7. Come out slowly
I’m sure you’ll want to get back up as quickly as possible, but your board might be lying just above you. You could end up with a nasty bruise or even a cut. There might even be another surfer on their board. Come up slowly and keep one arm on your head for protection.
8. Take control of your board
As soon as you resurface, grab your board. Don’t just leave it floating on the other end of your leash. It can hit someone or currents might send it towards you. Get on your board and paddle away.
You’ll probably feel a bit shaky after getting close and personal with the reef and being held down for a few sets of waves that seemed never-ending. Don’t worry, even the best of surfers feel this way. Get out of the water and chill on the beach until you get your strength back. While you do this, look back at what you did well and what you did wrong. What can you improve on? The next time you wipe out, think back on the last time it happened and remember how you got out.
Let go of your fears and get ready to take a beating. It will only make you stronger. On your next wave surfing trip, get ready to charge bigger waves!