It’s been another wild winter in Cornwall but now the days are drawing out and a high pressure is settling over us, excitement is once again building as we look forward to long sunny days on the beach and playing in the surf.
Staying safe in the surf is crucial but it can be hard to know what to look out for when everything in the ocean seems to be in flux. But if you keep it simple, you can learn ‘to read the ocean’ and find a new appreciation of the huge forces that shape our surf.
We always begin our lessons at the Surf Sanctuary with this simple overview, and find that after a couple of sessions, our clients are learning to make sounds judgements themselves. Before we get into it, here are some golden rules of surf beach safety:
Swim between the red and yellow flags
Surf between the black and white flags
Do not enter the water when red warning flag is flying
Beware rips and strong tides
If in doubt, don’t go out
The Three Forces: Swell, Wind and Tide
This is usually the first thing people look for when they get to the beach – after all there’s nothing more thrilling than that first glimpse of the ocean and seeing perfect blue swell lines stacking up to the horizon. Everyone knows that smaller surf is weaker and larger surf is more powerful, but it can be tricky to accurately judge the size when you’re stood on a Cornish headland looking down.
I like to keep it simple and use the following scale: knee high, waist high, head high and so on rather than trying to guess the wave height down to the nearest foot. You can look at surfers in the water or people standing on the beach to get an idea of wave height. Don’t forget that waves usually seem a bit bigger once you’re among them than they did from the land, so be liberal in your estimations.
Look to see how the water is interacting with the shoreline. Are people standing up and playing in the shallows? How fast are the waves coming in? Are they crumbling and weak or ‘tubing’ and more powerful? Look for patterns and clues to give you an idea of the surf’s size and power.
The wind has a huge impact on your surfing experience. The two key things to determine are the direction it is blowing from, and the speed. Handily, your skin is a fantastic instrument for sussing out the wind. To assess wind direction, stand near the water’s edge and turn until you can feel the wind on the back of your neck. When you can feel the wind equally on the backs of your ears (those with long hair may wish to hold it out of the way) you will now be facing directly downwind. That is the direction that the wind will want to push you towards during your session, so take a good look at what’s there.
If the wind is ‘onshore’ and blowing back to the beach, that’s not really an issue. If it’s ‘cross shore’ and blowing along the beach from left to right or vice versa, you will have to keep checking your position to make sure you haven’t drifted. Even in shallow water where you can stand up, the wind can move you along the beach. If the wind is ‘offshore’ and blowing out to sea, consider that the next landfall is America! This is why lifeguards will caution against inflatable lilos and dinghies in strong offshore winds as they are easily swept away.
As for wind strength, the stronger it is the great affect it will have on you. Again, I just use a simple scale for wind strength: light, medium, strong, very strong.
Look for other clues such as spray coming off the breaking waves, flags blowing to indicate direction, and whitecaps out to sea.
We have big tides in Cornwall, the difference in depth between high and low tides can be over 7 metres. Tides are a subject all on their own, but the basics are that there’s roughly six hours between high and low tide and vice versa, and it’s in the middle of those six hours that the tide flows the fastest.
The movement of the tide itself isn’t dangerous, but it can increase the power of the surf as it pushes in. A few other rules apply at Fistral and other beaches nearby regarding tides:
Low tides are typically less suitable for learning to surf or playing in the shallows. This is because the waves start to break in shallow water and can become very fast and powerful.
The middle of the tide range, either dropping or rising usually produces the best conditions for learning to surf in the Newquay area.
When the tide is pushing in, it tends to create a longshore drift to the right as you look out to sea. This reverses with the tide drops.
If you are surfing at a beach for the first time, it’s a good idea to check it out at low tide as you’ll then be able to see any rocks or other hazards that might be obscured when the beach fills up.
Rips are a hazard that many people have heard of even if they don’t know exactly what they are. A rip is not a prime force at the beach; rather it is a by-product of swells and tide bringing water into the beach and that water draining back out to sea.
A rip current is essentially a small river flowing back out to sea. Because the water is deeper in a rip current, they are quite easy to spot. Look for the following:
Darker, deeper looking water
Choppy water where waves are no longer breaking (as it is too deep)
Sand or sediment colouring the water as it is washed out to sea in the current
Rip currents are typically found next to headlands, rocky outcrops, harbour walls, and other fixed features. They can also occur at any place along an open beach, though at Fistral they are generally quite predictable. During the main season, lifeguards will place their zoning flags along the beach so as to keep water users out of rip currents.
If a surfer or body boarder should ever find themselves in a rip current, taking the following steps will allow them to self rescue:
Remain calm and remain on top of your board, never remove your leash
Do not try to paddle straight back to land against the current, instead paddle across the rip
Once back in the breaking surf, use the waves to push you ashore
Raise your hand and shout for help if you need it
Hopefully some of this information has been useful, but there can be no substitute for speaking to a surf coach, lifeguard, or experienced surfer or for taking a surf lesson yourself. Surf coaches and lifeguards are there to help and are always ready to give advice on the most suitable spot on the beach.
I always encourage people to call or email us or drop into the school for guidance before they go out, so please feel free to call on 07540 155123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org .
If there is no one around to ask and you are not sure, remember the mantra: If in doubt, don’t go out. The waves and the beach will always be there for another day.
Surfing is an incredibly healthy and fulfilling thing to bring into your life. As well as the pure joy of playing in the ocean, learning to understand and appreciate the huge forces at work is a very enriching experience in itself.
Stay safe, and we’ll see you in the surf!
Dom and the Surf Sanctuary team.