Safety check, local enough to paddle out?
In the middle of the second Dutch summer flatness you can read the English translation of the Dutch Surf Safety Check Tool which were published during the first summer flatness a month ago. Off course you can post your stuff in the report-section below and we will also look out to the next North Sea swell to arrive again if so. The Dutch sea isn’t too kind this year for swimmers and surfers. We tragically lost already 7 lives due to strong currents and obstacles. So the need of these advices is not unnecessary. First a quick sum up of the five questions to ask yourself when you paddle out:
L. Is your Leash healthy, connected correctly and instant removable underwater?
O. Which Obstacles will be in the line-up to deal with and how do they affect the water circulation?
C. Your condition should be good enough for swimming back without board anywhere you are positioned.
A. Who is going to shout out Alarm in case you don’t return home?
L. Line-up accidents are the most common accidents. Do you know the local rules and etiquettes?
Safety in surfing often doesn’t have the attention it should get. We could learn from kitesurfing, even this is a very different sport at the same place we ride the waves. The risks when flying a kite are far greater although losing your board due to a defective old leash and having to swim back to the beach is for a surfer more dangerous then a kitesurfer (you still have your kite if the kiteboard is lost). Without you could get easily worried in heavy conditions or when you’re fighting a current.
The checklist in this post will help you make the right choice to jump into the sea safely each every time. Thanks to Maurits for helping with translation of the original post in Dutch.
Are you L.O.C.A.L? That is the question. This list is especially useful when you’re traveling and considering surfing a spot that’s new to you, where you aren’t quite ‘local’ yet. Answering all questions with a firm ‘Yes’ means you know what you’re doing and that you can hop in the sea (or know why not).
Only a surfer knows… how soon velcro can lose its stickiness when used in the sea (after having to swim). After roughly 4 months of intensive use the hooks and loops will stick less and they should be replaced. Especially when you’ve got big ankles which the velcro strip only loops halfway around, you risk losing your board when you get washed. In all my time of surfing it must’ve happened over a hundred times, giving me stories that are fun to talk about now. But in the moment itself I was often in big trouble. Like that one time in winter when I used my leash’s key pocket. A big wave caused my board to pull free and left my car key buried in a North Sea sandbank. I travelled 10km from the beach to the garage for an emergency key, while wearing my wetsuit. This could’ve easily made kookoftheday.
In other words, ALWAYS check beforehand if your leash is properly tied and if the velcro still sticks well. As for your cay key, leave it on land in a lockbox or hidden somewhere. It’s even better to get an extra key made with an immobiliser. That way you can open the car but can’t start the engine. It’s cheaper too and can be done at any locksmith.
When surfing abroad the more important skill might be releasing your leash. Just as in kitesurfing a single move should free you completely from your equipment. Fortunately it hasn’t happened to me often, but one time while surfing ‘de Zuid’ (Scheveningen, south of the harbour) I got stuck in a fishing net. In many countries there are many more obstacles that your leash can get stuck in such as a reef, a breakwater, timber groyne (such as in Domburg) or random trash in the sea.
Do you always know if you stuck your leash on (counter-)clockwise? Would you still know when you’re stuck underwater because it got stuck? There was a decade when leashes were outfitted with a quick release pin like on a grenade that you pulled to immediately be freed. You would not be the first to drown because of a leash that got stuck. Teach yourself this routine while on the beach before paddling out. Unfortunately the velcro does wear down quickly from repeated use. So doing it once each time is enough and after a while will ingrain the motion into your brain, just as you intuitively know which leg your leash is on. Even a beginner knows that after a few surfs. It just goes to show that it is not difficult to train, but it could save your life.
We have already discussed the importance of knowing which obstacles you may encounter while out at sea and the dangers they may pose. But that your leash could get stuck is not the biggest risk of an obstacle. More often, obstacles in the water are a cause of rip currents. An example of this are harbour walls, of which especially the northern ones cause the more powerful rips (in the North Sea). The is because the northern walls in the Netherlands are shorter than their southern counterparts, but also because the tide rises much faster to high tide than it falls to low. Regardless, during both of these tidal movements, water flows along the harbour walls. And those flows can continue out to sea for up to a mile. Only from low tide to about halfway high tide does the water flow away from the wall. This goes against the usual currents along our coastline as a high tide creates a current due north. However, the current around the harbour walls is now so strong that it creates a vortex which pushes water back to the coast and there breaks it up into a southerly and a northerly current. Paddling out to sea right then and there is just about impossible.
The current in the North Sea and a lot of Atlantic beaches is due north from an hour after low tide until some time after high tide. During that time, the strongest current is usually about half an hour before the high tide mark. From that mark on the current slows and around the harbours it reverses.
The southerly current is strongest from mid tide until low tide. During SW windswells this is the best time to dive in. The opposite holds for a NW windswell or N swell with wind. The current pushes you towards the south with low tide and the only possible option is to go out with mid to high tide. Sometimes the only few hours to surf during the whole day. When the wind then drops completely, a window of opportunity opens for the spots north of Hook of Holland all the way up to the Wadden islands.
The strength of the current is influenced by the moon. At spring tides, two days after both full moon and new moon, the increased amount of water creates stronger currents. At neap tides, two days after half moon, the currents will be a lot weaker. Here in the North Sea the wind often influences the current even more than the tides. During a stormy SW water won’t even travel south anymore in some spots, even between when the tide drops between mid and low. To surf in those conditions, your only option is to go behind an obstacle for cover. Using one like that actually increases your safety!
Are you at peak physical condition to swim back from a deep sandbank to the beach if your leash comes undone or breaks? If not, stay on the closer bank or find a different surfspot. Your swimming level is your ultimate safety precaution in case you get into trouble out at sea. Do you have some of the world’s best surfing spots on your bucket list? Then work on your swimming as well. A good exercise is training a sea mile against some current. We have to learn to swim against the current. Not necessarily to shore but sometimes parallel to it for getting out of a rip. And sometimes it is simply best to not panic and let the current take you out to sea. With some luck you’ll keep warm for a few hours which, by the way, also has to do with your physical condition. Have you trained your brown fat-cells? Do you practice Wim Hof breathing techniques or cold water exercises? These steps can all help when you surf in winter. Besides obviously wearing a thick suit. For example a 5/3 in spring and a 4/3 in summer. Unless it is beach weather when a 3/2 suffices.
The question of your physical condition is not just relevant when you are just starting your session. It is even more so after an hour of surfing. Are you still capable of swimming to shore then, when you have to? And what about helping a swimmer or another surfer that cannot manage alone?
Another important step to remember is the alarm someone should sound if, after 3-4 hours of surfing, you don’t let them know you’re safely out of the water. Especially in winter, at a spot where you are the only one surfing, or for those who paddle out close to sunset. Three no go’s for kitesurfers, because that is something you should always do with a buddy. For us in surfing the general rule is a little different and we’re expected to look after ourselves. Although it’s always nice to have a friend around when you’re in the water, if you do paddle out alone let someone know. At least tell them your spot and what time to start searching if you’re not back ashore. In the Netherlands you can even do this with the KNRM app by setting the start and finishing time. Just leave your phone or smartwatch in the car and if you don’t sign off before the time runs out, they start by calling the contacts you’ve set. If those don’t pick up, they start a proper search for you. That should give you an extra sense of security when you’re on your own in the middle of winter.
Always set an alarm. Who will sound yours, if you seem to have vanished and it is past your predetermined time?
Perhaps the biggest risk is that you are not alone. Starting with the paddle out to the lineup. Do you pass straight through? Better not, if you want to avoid getting in the way of those surfers, or even getting run over or fallen on. Always paddle in a big arch around the group in the lineup, if you even want to join them. In fact, it is often a better idea to create your own group at a different peak and break that one up again if it, in turn, becomes too large. Such a simple idea and mostly decided by your physical condition. Can you continuously paddle away from the pier when that is where the current is taking everyone? Because that is the true reason it is so much more crowded nearby the walls.
The ideal size of your group? It depends. Some surfers get annoyed at 2 people in the lineup, while others enjoy sharing the waves, learning from each other rides, and getting stoked when seeing someone stick a manoeuvre. Generally, 3-5 surfers in a group is a good amount. It’s okay to cheer each other on, but keep it down a little for those that paddle out to find some peace and quiet.
To summarize, observe the Lineup before you paddle out. Focus on the sea and the waves, but also on the surfers that are out there. Where do you get in? Are the waves mostly left or right handers? Are there many locals out? Especially take care when you’re abroad. Even if you are strictly abiding by the surf etiquette (in Dutch) and only take leftovers. Localism can be a real buzz kill, only leaving you the option to pack up and leave. Often there are other options nearby that weren’t mentioned in the Stormrider’s Guide. Another solution is to go for an early morning surf and avoid those surfers that sleep in, although this doesn’t work everywhere.
That’s all for this. I hope to have given you some tools to stay safe. It is by no means the final word on the topic. I may have forgotten some aspects and place your comments below. I edited this idea from the Dutch kitesurfing scene that, together with the KNRM, created the acronym BROMFLY (in Dutch). In full: Buddy, Release, Obstacles, Mes (Knife), Forecast, Leash, and Yes (answering yes to each). The difference for us surfers is that the B, R, and M are not as important. Knowing the forecast is vital of course, but that’s what this website is for once there are waves heading our way in the future!
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