How Many People Die Surfing? - Green Iguana Surf Camp

How Many People Die Surfing?

Whilst surfing is a popular surface water sport that has been practiced around the world for thousands of years, the sport still claims many lives due to the uncontrollable risk elements involved.

How Many People Die Surfing?

In this article we will look at the sport itself, the factors involved, and just how dangerous it can be when things unfortunately go wrong. 


Despite seeming like a relatively modern phenomenon, surfing has been practiced for thousands of years at varying points around the world. 


As far as we know, some of the first to incorporate surfing into their daily lives were the ancient Peruvians, who would use reed watercrafts for fishing on bodies of water. 

Using a craft known as the caballito de totora (or “little horse of totora”) made from the reeds of the totora plant (a subspecies of the bullrush), the Peruvians were reported to have used them in a 1590 account from a Jesuit missionary, who claimed they were “stubbornly cutting the waves of the sea” on such apparatus.

However, archaeologists have discovered proof that these “little horses” (or boards) were employed by the Peruvians as far back as 200CE (common era), also known as 200AD. 


Practicing it since 400AD, when the Polynesians made their way from Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands to the Hawaiian islands, many of these traditions were brought with them, including the use of the paipo board (which translates to belly/body). 

It was once they reached Hawaii that surfing became a means of play and necessity, and where the now famous standing technique originated, setting it apart from the “saddled” sitting technique of the ancient Peruvians. 


Sitting just across the Pacific Ocean from the Hawaiian islands, it should be no surprise that California has also become synonymous with surfing, although this is a much more recent development. 

In 1885, three Hawaiian princes (David Kawananakoa, Edward Keli’iahonui, and Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole) regularly rode waves in Santa Cruz, California, prompting local interest. 

In 1907, land baron Henry E. Huntington employed Hawaiian surfers to put on displays along his recently purchased Redondo Beach, proving popular amongst his guests.

Around this time, George Freeth, a Hawaiian-American lifeguard known as the “father of modern surfing”, sought to revitalize the art of surfing, by modernizing the surfboard from the traditional 16 feet hardwood ones to “longboards” which were lighter and half the size.

Later, another Hawaiian native, Duke Kahanamoku, introduced surfing to both the United States and Australia, performing displays for crowds, along with his Olympic level swimming abilities that won him gold medals in 1912 and 1920. 

The Dangers Of Surfing

Despite its image as carefree and relaxing, surfing can undoubtedly be a dangerous undertaking. This is due in part to the amount of unpredictable elements involved. 

The Ocean

Obviously, the ocean is infamous for being untamed and temperamental, so with adverse weather, undercurrents, or misjudged waves, the sea can prove to be the most dangerous adversary for most surfers. 

The larger the wave, the more dangerous the consequences for those taking part, and obvious risks include disorientation, loss of control and consciousness, and of course, drowning.

How Many People Die Surfing?

Heavy waves have also been known to break surfboards and bones, making them especially dangerous. 

The Wildlife

Ultimately, human beings don’t belong in the ocean, and we are only ever guests amongst its wildlife. 

As such, there is always the risk (in some oceans) where sharks, stingrays, jellyfish and other creatures will pose a risk to the safety of surfers. 

Sharks especially have a reputation for attacking surfers, although this is a largely exaggerated phenomenon. 


With strong waves can come collisions, be it with rocks, coral reefs, the ocean bed or other surfers, and if bad enough they could result in serious injury or death. 

With this, sharp lacerations from surfboard fins can also leave serious injuries. 

The Mortality Statistics

When we break it down to the figures, they can be separated into two distinct groups: tourists and professionals. 

As far as the drowning rates of tourists whilst surfing, the figures sit at 2.38 per 100,000 surfers, whilst the figures for professionals and locals sits at around 0.28 per 100,000. 

Similarly, it is thought that around 21 deaths per year from rip currents. 

Whilst sharks do pose a threat, and there are over 100 shark attacks on humans per year, this is not specific to surfing, and in fact surfers only make up a small percentage of that figure. 

Useful Safety Tips

  • First and foremost, when you bail from the board, always make sure you protect your head. Unseen rocks and reefs can prove fatal if struck, so it is best to be safe than sorry.
  • The second useful piece of advice is to try and hold onto the surfboard when bailing. Not only is it a floatation device, but it can stop you getting swept up by rough waves and currents.
  • Another tip is to not swim against rip currents. One should also try to swim at a perpendicular angle from it.
  • Staying hydrated and sun protected may sound like common sense, but it could be the difference between life and death.
  • The most important thing to remember is to know your limits. If you are a beginner, behave accordingly and stay close to the shore. Similarly, if you are tired then call it quits. Tiredness leads to distractions and maybe danger.

Final Thoughts

And there we have it, our rundown of early surfing history, the dangers it can pose, and some useful safety tips for newbies and veterans alike. 

Surfing can be a fun and rewarding experience, but it is more enjoyable for everyone if the rules are followed, the sea is respected, and every surfer looks out for others when they are sharing the waves together.

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