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Surfing is a sport that requires the participants to be able to swim. All people participating in surfing lessons must be able to swim. There are no exceptions allowed. Here are some of the reasons why:

The act of “Surfing” itself, as in standing up on the wave, is not that physically difficult, but the environment is dangerous. Conditions in the ocean can be extreme, and the ocean always presents inherent dangers. Especially the ever-present risk of drowning.  The surfing environment, even close to shore, is never the same each day. So any location that might appear to be fairly calm and Safe on one day, might be rough and unacceptable the next. 

Surf Lessons from professional Surf Instructors are “Risk-managed”: Surfing instructors usually help evaluate the conditions and choose the best location and the best times and days when it is safe to do surfing lessons. This takes years of experience and training to be able to know about the ocean conditions and what is safe. But even the most experienced surfers know that there are days and times when they should not go into the ocean. And what would be considered “safe” conditions for one person is different for the next person. A surfing lesson is risk-reduced, but the risk never goes away entirely. There is some risk even during a surfing lesson. The risk increases for the whole group when any participant cannot swim strongly enough. Even a surfing instructor cannot keep you safe in a lesson if you cannot swim.

For people that cannot swim, there are no safe ocean conditions for surfing: There is no “Safe Depth of Water” for learning to Surf, if you cannot swim. Drowning can even occur in knee-deep water or less. And people who cannot swim could easily find themselves in water deeper than they can stand. Even if you started in shallow depth water, there is no guarantee that the water will continue to stay shallow. There are several reasons for this: 

  • One reason is that the water is moving sideways and can easily push you from a shallow area into deeper water.  
  • Ocean currents move sideways and they often move away from Shore towards deeper water. 
  • Whenever there are waves there are always ocean currents, because waves make the water move. 
  • Water depth also changes throughout the day as the tide comes in and out.  So you might start in shallow water and it can gradually get deeper until you cannot stand. 
  • Also, just because you are in standing-depth water does not mean that you can stand up. When the waves come through, they can easily knock you over, push you down, and make it difficult or impossible to stand back up.

What is an “Undertow”? Typically the wave action creates a hydraulic undertow which is where the water close to your feet is moving in one direction while the water at the surface is moving in another direction, and this can easily turn you upside down. So it is possible to get into trouble and not be able to stand up in standing depth for water. This is more than a possibility, it is almost a certainty that you will get knocked over and held underwater when swimming or surfing in the waves. 

The minimum swimming skills that are required for surfing are:

  1. To be able to swim comfortably in water deeper than you can stand.
  2. Practice treading water (unassisted) for long periods of time.   
  3. You must be able to hold your breath and dive underwater.
  4. You should be comfortable doing a forward and backwards somersaults underwater and bringing yourself back up to the surface. 
  5. Practice regaining your orientation, and opening your eyes underwater.  
  6. You should always be able to swim a distance greater than the distance that you might find yourself from shore. So practice long-distance swimming as well.

A surfboard is not a life preserver: Some people think that having a surfboard is a sort of flotation device or life preserver, but this is not the case. Having a surfboard with you actually makes it harder to swim at times because when the waves come,  they can easily flip you off the board. And then the board will be caught in the waves and pull you along with the surf leash.  This can pull you backwards, and sometimes underwater, for extended periods of time. So being strong enough for surfing means being stronger than actually swimming by yourself because you have to swim for yourself and the surfboard.

CAUTION: Never abandon your surfboard. Even if the surfboard is making it harder to swim, or if you are getting blown away from shore, you should never abandon your surfboard. Always stay with your surfboard. 

The surfboard itself can become hazardous because it can sometimes hit you when it is bouncing around in the waves. Sometimes the surfboard can hit you hard enough to injure you,  or even knock you unconscious. So when surfing, you need to be always mindful of where the board is, and if it is likely to hit you. Your surfboard can also hit someone else.  

Board Control: So because of the risk of being hit by the board or hitting other people, you also need to be able to control the surfboard in the waves. This means that you need the strength to be able to hold onto the surfboard while the waves are hitting it. But you also need to learn when to let go. 

Diving Underwater: There are also times when you will need to be able to dive down and swim underwater to get out of the way of a surfboard if it is flying towards you. This might be another surfer riding on a board, or a loose surfboard. 

Getting into trouble: Finally having a surfboard actually enables people to get further away from Shore than they can swim on their own.  This means that people are more likely to get into trouble,  and end up in a situation that they cannot handle if they have a surfboard (the same applies to bodyboards, canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards as well).  

Surfcraft increase risk: Having any kind of floating surfcraft allows people to get into trouble more easily.  When you have a surfboard (or another type of surf craft) you can be caught in an ocean current and pulled away from the shoreline: You can easily get caught in an offshore wind that pushes you away from the shoreline faster than you can paddle back against it. In Hawaii, the offshore wind is often much stronger than anybody can paddle against. 

While surfing it is important to always use a surf leash.  The purpose of the surf leash is so that your board does not hit other people.  but it also means that your board usually stays close to you. Unfortunately, people tend to over-rely on the fact that at least keep their board close to them, but leashes do fail every so often. 

Surfboard leashes cannot be relied upon to stay connected to the board 100% of the time, because there are many ways they can fail.  A beginner might forget to put the leash on, they might put the leash on correctly so that it falls off, and leashes can also break. 

The leash itself can also become a hazard because it can become entangled with the rider’s feet, or another surfboard, or it can get stuck on the reef.  So every surfer needs to have the ability to take the leash off in an emergency.  This sometimes means swimming underwater, and holding your breath. So if you do not have the skills to remove your leash in a dangerous situation, the leash can become a liability. 

Surfing is not for non-swimmers: For these reasons and many more not mentioned here surfing is not an activity to be undertaken lightly, and it is definitely not suitable for non-swimmers. 

SWIMMING LEVEL REQUIRED FOR SURFING: anyone thinking about taking surfing lessons should be confident swimming in the ocean, in deep water. And be confident diving under the waves, and holding their breath underwater.

GET SOME SWIMMING LESSONS: If you are interested in learning to surf, the first step is to get some swimming lessons first from a professional swimming instructor. Do not skip this step.  and focus on the skills mentioned above, Ask your swimming instructor to prepare you for “ocean swimming, and the skills needed for surfing”. 

Aloha and be safe, Surf Club Maui