The short answer to this question is yes, you can physically surf with a life jacket on, although it is unclear as to why you would want to.
There are many water sports in which wearing a life jacket is sensible and the common thing to do, kayaking and paddle boarding come to mind.
Surfing, however, is not a water sport in which many people wear a life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) of any kind, excluding the large board of foam you’re strapped to.
Why Life Jackets Can Be Good
There are a few reasons that back the school of thought that life jackets are good or useful when surfing.
It is often people who are crossing into surfing from other water sports in which wearing a life jacket was not only encouraged but sometimes mandatory, that want to wear one while surfing.
The act of wearing a life jacket for people who are used to it can instill a level of confidence they are used to while on the water. This can mean life jackets are a good thing because more than anything, you want people to be confident while they are in the ocean.
Another reason why people believe that life jackets are good when surfing is because they keep you from being held under the water.
For example, if you were to wipe out and become unconscious or semi-conscious, a life jacket would ensure that you returned to the surface and would be able to breathe.
Why Life Jackets Can Be Dangerous
There are many reasons why surfers do not commonly wear life jackets or PFDs, but mostly it’s because they can make an already dangerous sport even more dangerous.
When wearing a life jacket on a surfboard, paddling becomes a lot harder due to the restricted range of motion in a surfer’s arms caused by the bulky life jacket.
While this may sound like somewhat of a minor inconvenience, the more difficult it is to paddle, the more quickly a surfer will tire and could risk becoming exhausted and in need of rescue or assistance.
This is ultimately an irresponsible position to put yourself and other surfers in. also, if you are unable to swim effectively because of the life jacket, you increase your chances of being hit by another surfers board which is incredibly dangerous.
Another activity impacted by the presence of life jackets is duck diving. While this may not be an immediate safety concern, an inability to duck dive while paddling out to the waves can also result in exhaustion and the need for rescue or assistance.
The mix of difficulty paddling and an inability to avoid being pushed back by waves is a recipe for danger and accidents while in the ocean.
A final, and more concerning safety issue with wearing a life jacket whilst surfing is an inability to swim under the waves and out of the impact zone.
If you get caught in the impact zone, you can be battered by the full force of the waves, dragged around, and held under the surface by the weight and power of the waves.
This is obviously highly dangerous and a situation that should be avoided at all costs. If you are able to swim, which you should be able to as a surfer, you should not be wearing a life jacket.
When A Life Jacket Could Be Necessary
There are of course exceptions to those who shouldn’t wear life jackets, namely children who are learning to surf.
With children learning to surf, the safety concerns mentioned above cease to exist almost entirely and the safety benefits far outweigh any concerns.
They are not yet strong swimmers, they do not have the muscles to allow them to be, therefore they need the assistance that a life jacket offers them.
With a life jacket or personal floatation device, a weak swimmer does not have to exhaust themselves trying to stay afloat and fight against the tide and currents.
Similarly, all children learning to surf will be accompanied by an adult who will most likely be doing the majority of the paddling for the child.
This renders the range of motion limitations irrelevant as they will not be required to paddle at all. Also, because they are just starting out and do not have the swimming capabilities of older or more advanced surfers, they will not be attempting duck diving at all, removing that concern.
Finally, a great safety feature of child surf students wearing life jackets is that if they are separated from their supervising adult, they will be floated to the surface, will be able to breathe, and will be easier to find when the adult resurfaces too.
When A Life Jacket Is Not Necessary
There are a few reasons why wearing a life jacket while surfing should be unnecessary. The most important of which is that if you are surfing, you should be a strong, confident, and competent swimmer.
You should have enough strength and stamina to be able to handle paddling, swimming, and surfing for the entirety of your session.
It is also important to be aware of and respect your body’s limitations and any changes in the weather or ocean conditions. If the water becomes rougher than you are used to or can safely surf in, you should leave the water.
If you begin to get physically or mentally tired, you should leave the water, even if you have been able to surf for longer before. Listen to your body.
Alternatives To Life Jackets
There are a few alternatives to life jackets that can help alleviate any concerns you might have when getting into the water.
The most simple alternative to a life jacket is to surf with companions, friends, instructors, or anyone who is experienced and can be looking out for you.
These people can jump into action should you get into trouble, without you needing to wear anything unnecessary in the water.
Inflatable surf vests are also a valid option for surfers that effectively sidestep the safety concerns mentioned above.
Inflated by CO2 canisters on demand by tugging a pull tab, these life vests are designed to be used during big wave hold-downs. They are not usually necessary for surfers attempting average waves.
Finally, the greatest piece of safety equipment for surfers who are concerned about being knocked unconscious is a helmet.
Most of the time life jackets would be useful in returning a surfer to the surface when they have been knocked out by impact with a wave, rock, or board. The need for this can be avoided by the wearing of a helmet to mitigate the risk of being knocked out in the first place.
While it is perfectly possible to wear a life jacket while surfing and may seem like the safest, most sensible option, there are many factors that make the opposite true.
If you are a capable swimmer, it would be unnecessary to wear a life jacket on a surfboard and may bring more risks than it alleviates.