The ocean is an alien and hostile environment

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Surfing is a safe sport, but it takes place in an alien and hostile environment. Although we may feel invincible, drowning — although a remote possibility — is always a danger.

If there was any time I did not think I could get myself back to shore on my own power without the surfboard, then I did not go out. If it looked too big, radical or crunchy, I remained on shore.

Almost any injury can keep you out of the water, as there should be no surfing if you do not have all of your parts in working order.

XXL waves have claimed several surfers. Mark Foo failed to surface after a wipeout at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay in northern California. Wiamea and Pipeline have also claimed surfers. While in college I helped recover the body of a young surfer in St. Augustine, Florida. 

Being hit by the board is a common injury. Even in small surf the board can become an unguided missile. If pointed straight into a wave, the board will pass through the white water of the broken wave smoothly. However, if the board is even a little bit sideways, it can suddenly jump up in the most unpredictable ways. Frequently the face is the recipient of the smack, resulting in split lips and broken teeth.

A local legend was struck in the neck by the rail of another’s surfboard one November while surfing at Seventh Street in Ocean City. He suffered a ruptured cervical esophagus that required surgery for repair. He returned to the water after the injury, and even went on the World Tour.

Unfamiliar breaks

Danger can also come from stationary objects. On my first safari to the tropics in the early '70s, groggy from the midnight flight to Puerto Rico, I was having breakfast on the oceanside porch at the Holiday Inn when I saw a perfect wave. 

I grabbed my board and within minutes was paddling out. Mesmerized, I pulled into a perfect left just in front of the hotel less than six hours after landing. But halfway down the face I saw a huge rock or coral formation rising in the wall just in front of me. I had never had this experience before. Recovering from my startle, I went around it and paddled straight in. Lesson learned: Always study a new break carefully. There were good reasons no one else was out.

I developed the habit of purchasing a coffee after arriving at an unfamiliar beach, and sitting down to study the break. Where is the launch? How much of a paddle is there to the lineup? Where is the best takeoff spot? What is the vibe of the crowd? What currents are out there, and where will my board end up when I lose it? A few minutes of study can save a lot of trouble and uncertainty. 

Paradoxically, the most dangerous waves are small waves in shallow water. Larger waves may be scary, but with a wipeout there is plenty of water underneath to cushion the fall. Not true for small waves. Since the water is shallow, a fall can mean a twisted or broken ankle, wrist, neck, etc. A wipe in small surf requires being aware of this danger and falling flat and shallow in the water.

The danger is obvious with large waves. A miss can result in a hold down — leaving you trapped beneath tons of swirling white water, unable to find the surface and air. Perfect conditioning, training, and new equipment can somewhat lessen the dangers of the holddown.

Speed on the face of an XXL is another risk. Ejection at high speed means hitting the water at high speed. The water is unforgiving at this speed, and the impact can result in trauma to the extremities and torso. Helmets are seen in the lineup of some of the more vicious breaks.

Sharks, sea urchins and reefs

Last summer was the year of the shark. Several attacks in shallow water resulting in the loss of limb have occurred, mostly in Florida, Australia, and a few in California. Bethany Hamilton, who has Ocean City ties, lost an arm to a shark while surfing at Log Cabins on the north shore of Kauai in 2003. Her recovery has been spectacular; she returned to surfing and has won contests.

I have only seen sharks on a few occasions. During spring break in college I paddled out to ride some sandbar waves at Daytona Beach. Halfway through the gully, my buddy Bill saw fins on the outside. No questions asked; we just paddled in and enjoyed an afternoon on the beach.

Spiny sea urchins are a tropical menace. They live on the ocean floor and wait for a surfer to step on them. Their sharp and painful quills embed themselves deep into the foot and are quite excruciating and difficult to remove. Wearing boots when surfing reefs and tropical waters offers some protection.

Learning to surf on sand beaches, I had never encountered reefs until my first safari. It was a rude awakening. 

Reefs pose several problems. The inside becomes very shallow very quickly. In the days before surfboard leashes, the reef was disaster after a wipeout. The lost board is carried in to the shallowest part of the reef by the whitewater, especially if the fin is up. The far inside of the reef can be only inches deep. Walking over the reef in bare feet results in lacerations of the soles of the feet. After retrieval you have to get in, either walking the board off the reef and enduring more pain, or turning the board upside down to paddle into some deeper water. Fortunately a leash and boots can alleviate the problem. 

A local surfer was injured in a strong October swell that produced what I call “waves of doom.” They were crunchy, powerful and seemed to have teeth in them. Surfing alone, he was found floating in the water at Ninth Street after suffering a broken neck. He has made a spectacular recovery, although he has been unable to surf again.

Exhaustion, cramps and surfers knots

A tired surfer is more prone to injury. At the end of a long session the arms and body are in a state of fatigue. Arms feel like rubber bands, and the pop-up on takeoff is lengthened. The surfing is not sharp and crisp. Wipeouts can and will occur more frequently at this time. Be careful on that last wave of a long session.

Cramps can occur after a particularly bad wipeout. Generally they occur in the calf and can be relieved by forcefully pulling the “toes to the nose.” The trick is not to panic in the water, and to concentrate on grabbing your toes and pulling to end the cramp. Next is concentrating on finding your board and getting yourself into the beach.

Surfer’s ear results from repeated exposure of the ear to cold water. The external ear canal reacts to the repetitive insults by producing excessive bone growth in the canal. These exostoses, or bony growths, obstruct the canal, causing pain, hearing loss, balance difficulties, and repeated infections — sometimes necessitating surgery.

Surfer’s knots, or surfers knees, were the scourge of the ’60s. On the longboards of the era, knee paddling was often used. One could accelerate faster and move the board faster, plus it looked way cool. The consequence is surfer’s knots, which are lumps of thickened skin and connective tissue just below the knees and on the top of the foot where it contacts the board. These were seen as a badge of honor for the surfer, indicating extended water and paddling time. During the the Vietnam era it was rumored that a bad case could earn a surfer a medical exemption from the draft.

Fred Weber is a goofyfoot who lives in Ocean City. For suggestions or to comment email

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