11 Must-Knows if You Want to Learn to Surf But Can’t Swim

Surfing is a potentially dangerous sport because it takes place in the ocean often far away from the shore. The ocean is unpredictable with rip currents, breaking waves, and underwater obstacles like reefs, rocks and coral.

Surfers put themselves in harms way by attempting to catch waves right before they break. Breaking waves are powerful and wipeouts can lead to an uncontrollable thrashing that is often compared to being inside an under water washing machine.

In spite of this, surfing is a fun sport and more and more people want to try it every year. One of the most common questions I get asked is “Can I learn to surf if I can’t swim?”

Swimming is the most important skill in the sport of surfing because surfers are responsible for their own safety in the ocean. If you can’t swim, you should dedicate yourself to becoming a competent swimmer before learning to surf. Don’t go surfing if you can’t swim.

Because this is such a hot topic in the surfing community, I think it’s important to highlight some of the things you should know if you want to learn to surf and you can’t swim.

We should go ahead and get the disclaimer out of the way early on in this article.


The ocean is unpredictable and dangerous. Do not go surfing if you can’t swim. Use the information in this article at your own risk. The author or anyone else connected with surfersfootprint.com cannot be held responsible for your use of the information contained in or linked from these web pages.

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s review 11 Things You Must Know if you want to Learn to Surf and You Can’t Swim!

1. No Lifeguards on Duty

It is important to highlight the fact that very few beaches have lifeguards. If you go surfing near major cities, urban areas or tourist destinations, some beaches may be patrolled by lifeguards but at most of the world’s beaches you are on your own.

In Western Canada, there are no lifeguards at any of the surf beaches. A popular beach called Long Beach in the Pacific Rim National Park was the only beach that had lifeguards until the program was cut in 2012 due to a lack of funding.

I have surfed at hundreds of locations all over the world and I can only remember a few beaches that had lifeguards.

The ocean isn’t your local community swimming pool, don’t expect a life guard to come and save you if you are in danger.

2. Ocean & Beach Hazards

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), which is a US Federal Agency, there are many different hazards that you may encounter at the beach.

NOAA is run by a team of scientists that conducts research, studies the oceans and the sky, guides protection initiatives and warns the public about dangerous weather.

From pollution to unsafe bacteria levels, some of the hazards that you may encounter at the beach are highlighted in NOAA’s article titled, “The Top Nine Dangers at The Beach and How You Can Stay Safe”. I have summarized the information below but feel free to click on the link to be read the full article on NOAA’s website.

3. Rip Currents

Rip Currents are strong, underwater currents that flow away from shore and pull swimmers and surfers out to sea.

Rip currents aren’t always visible to the unsuspecting beach goer and and are the top hazard at the beach.

Rather than fighting against a rip current, it is recommended to swim parallel to shore to get out of the current.

Watch the following video to Learn more about Rip Currents

4. Sharks, Jellyfish & Other Sea Creatures

Although it is rare to encounter sharks, jellyfish, and other sea creatures when surfing, it is important to know about the risks before going in the ocean.

According to the Florida Musuem‘s – Yearly Worldwide Shark Attack Summary, there were 64 unprovoked shark attacks in the world in 2019. The United States recorded the most amount of shark attacks in the world with 41 and Australia was in second with 11 in 2019.

The United States shark attacks occurred in the following locations: Florida (21), Hawaii (9), California (3) and North Carolina (3) followed by single digit instances in other states on the coast. Read the rest of the article by clicking here.

Check out the Video of a Shark trying to attack professional surfer, Mick Fanning during a South African surf contest

You don’t want to unknowingly go to a beach that has a higher risk of shark attacks or jellyfish stings. Surfers should look out for warning signs, talk to other surfers and educate themselves in advance.

5. Shorebreak

Shorebreak is where the land meets the sea and waves break against the shore. The shore break is unpredictable because it most often occurs where the deep water transitions to shallow water.

When waves break they release a considerable amount of stored energy that can cause injuries by slamming swimmers and surfers against the bottom.

6. Heat & Sunburn

Heat and Sunburn may not seem like something you need to worry about but they are the top weather related killers in the United States.

It may seem surprising but heat and sun cause more death than any other weather event. If you are planning a day at the beach make sure to protect yourself against sunburn, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

7. Swimming and Surfing are Forever Linked

People often link swimming and surfing together because most experienced surfers are knowledgeable about water safety and have strong swimming skills that help them handle big waves and challenging ocean conditions.

There is evidence that people rode waves thousands of years ago by body surfing, which means that the first surfers were combining swimming and surfing by propelling themselves with their limbs to ride waves by holding their body in a prone position (lying flat).

The sport of surfing that we recognize today, began hundreds of years ago and originated in Polynesia. The first surfers rode large wooden boards without leashes. The first surfboard leash, which connects the surfboard to the rider, wasn’t invented until the 1970’s.

For hundreds of years, surfers needed to be strong swimmers because if you fell off your surfboard, you would have to swim to retrieve your board. Leashes were a game changer for the modern surfer because they save you energy but on the downside they also can give you a false sense of security.

Swimming is still one of the most important skills in surfing because you may become disconnected from your surfboard if your leash snaps. You should have the ability to “swim in” through breaking waves to retrieve a lost surfboard just like the original surfers.

8. Swimming Level Neccesary for Surfing

As mentioned previously, swimming is an important skill if you want learn and get better at surfing. I have heard many people say things like “you should be able to swim 100-200 metres unassisted if you want to learn to surf”, but swimming skills aren’t directly related to how many lengths you can do in a pool.

It is important to develop all of the the basic swimming skills, which include, comfort in the water, breath control, floating, treading water, kicking and strokes. You don’t necessarily need to have an efficient swim stroke to be a great paddler.

I know plenty of experienced surfers that are very comfortable in the ocean, but aren’t the most graceful swimmers. That being said, experienced surfers have the ability to use all the different swimming skills when necessary.

Becoming a better swimmer will help your surfing by increasing your comfort in the water, paddling efficiency and survival skills.

9. Take Swimming Lessons

If you can’t swim and you want to learn to surf, you should consider taking swimming lessons because you will need to develop your swimming skills if you want to learn to surf and progress in surfing.

It is never too late to learn to swim and dedicating yourself to becoming a better swimmer is an awesome life goal.

Although I learned to swim when I was young, I had to re-learn long distance swimming skills when I was 30 and started the sport of Triathlon. I took swimming lessons, found training partners and spent many hours in the pool. After 1 year of intense training, I was able to swim 2 miles without stopping.

If you are looking to improve your swimming, consider taking lessons at your local community pool or check out Total Immersion Swimming, which is one of the top swim training programs available.

Watch the Video below about learning to swim by following the Total Immersion Swimming program.

10. Paddling

According to a study published by the Auckland University, surfers spend more than 50% of the time paddling when in the ocean. That means that if you go surfing for 2 hours, more than 1 hour will be paddling.

The same study found that a large portion of the paddling efforts lasted 1-10 seconds in duration as surfers attempt to position themselves and paddle to try and catch waves.

So, a quick summary of the facts about paddling are as follows:

  • The most physically demanding part of surfing is paddling
  • Paddling needs to occur before you catch waves
  • Short bursts of paddling efforts will help you catch waves
  • Practicing paddling exercises will improve your paddling skills

There are many different ways to improve your paddling ability and technique without going in the ocean.

See the Video below for surf exercises to improve paddling.

Surf Exercises on Land

11. Fatigue & Exhaustion

Although swimming and paddling efficiency are very important skills that will help you catch more waves, most surfers get into trouble because they no longer have the energy to deal with the challenging conditions in the ocean like breaking waves and rip currents.

I have helped a number of exhausted surfers get safely to shore over the years. Whether it’s because they lost their board, got caught in a rip current or where too tired to continue paddling, it is usually fatigue that impacts your ability to save yourself.

According to a study published on PubMed, hyperventilation will cause muscle fatigue during prolonged exercise.

Surfing is a very active sport, which requires a large amount of energy. If you focus on increasing your overall fitness level, it will reap benefits when you decide to learn to surf.

Any sport or activity that increases your strength and aerobic capacity, like walking, jogging, biking, swimming, resistance training and even Yoga will better prepare you for surfing.

In Conclusion:

If you want learn to surf, it is possible to become a good surfer if you are willing to make the effort necessary to learn to swim and develop your paddling skills to a competent level.

You will need to put in a lot of hard work, practice and dedication but be patient because it is worth the effort.

Best of luck and thanks for reading!


I am the person behind Surfers Footprint. Thank you for taking the time to read through the post! If you want to know more about our story, scroll down and click on ABOUT SURFERS FOOTPRINT at the bottom of the HomePage.

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