Surf safety series #1: Ocean conditions assessment
Many topics can be discussed about surf safety, all of them crucial to being safe and having fun in the surf. Throughout this series of articles, we will cover them and give you details on what to do or what to look for to make the most out of your surf sessions, applicable as well to beachgoers and swimmers.
In this first blog, we will cover the assessment of ocean conditions, which can be divided into 6 main concepts. All of them can be a hazard if the person/surfer is not aware of them, but with the right information, we can even take advantage of some of them.
Rips and currents
These are sections of water moving in the ocean, both parallel (currents) or perpendicular (rips) to the seashore. The currents can easily be assessed by standing in the shallow and feeling which way the water is moving. Rips will most likely be in an area where waves are not breaking and the water looks bumpy and messy. To stay safe as a swimmer always stay in waist-deep water and swim where there are waves. If you are an experienced surfer who wants to get past the breaking waves, rips can be helpful and can give you a free ride to the line-up.
If ever you get caught in a rip, do not try to swim against it. Instead, swim sideways (parallel to the beach) until you get to the breaking waves section, then start swimming back in.
The size and shape of the waves will tell us a lot about the power and skills needed to get out. Waves always look smaller from the beach, so keep that in mind. Make sure you know your level and are aware of which waves you can ride and feel comfortable with. If it looks too big or you are not feeling confident enough, trust your gut. You can always surf the inside section or the whitewash, use these sessions to practice pop-ups, start turning and reading the waves.
Many factors play a role in creating and defining the tides. Some beaches will be more forgiving, and tides will not matter as much, but others will only be surfable on the right tide. Tides have a big relationship with rips and currents, which can change location and strength depending on the tide.
The shallowness of the ocean can depend on them as well, therefore some surf breaks might be too shallow or too deep for surfing on certain tides. Identifying the tides can be sometimes complex. You can use the wet lines on the beach or read tide forecasts apps before going out. If you are surfing or swimming in a spot regularly, take your time to learn about the conditions that affect it.
In general there are 3 types of ocean floor: sand, rocks, and reef. Reef bottoms are known for making the best-shaped waves but are also the most dangerous ones. Sand or beach breaks are ideal for beginner surfers as even though waves might be a bit more off shape, it is much safer. Tides will also determine how shallow it is.
As the wind helps to create waves, they will mostly help determine the shape and strength of the waves. Winds can be onshore, offshore, or cross-shore. Onshore winds travel from the ocean towards the beach and tend to make choppy conditions and close-out waves. Offshore winds are the most ideal for surfing, as traveling from the beach towards the ocean creates nice and clean waves that are much more enjoyable to ride. The strength of the winds will also be determinant of the conditions, with light winds being the best.