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What Are Shore Breaks & Why Are They Dangerous?

The joy of riding waves cannot be described. You just have to experience it to know the feeling. Visit any surfing spot close to you and you’ll find several people with boards in a lineup hoping to catch a couple of waves. But there is a certain type of wave you shouldn’t attempt to catch and that’s shore breaks.

This article aims to educate you about shore breaks and how to stay safe during your surfing trips. It’s important to have fun but it’s even more important to stay safe as only those alive and well get to enjoy surfing.

What is a Shore Break?

A shore beak is an unpredictable and dangerous ocean condition that occurs when a wave breaks directly onshore. Usually, shore breaks occur as a result of the fast transition from deep to shallow water.

The dangerous thing about shore breaks is that they are powerful enough to knock off anyone in the water and carry them into corals, sharp rocks, or hard sands on the ocean floor, especially where the water is shallow.

As a result, shore breaks can cause serious injuries and that’s why it’s advisable to avoid them. Remember I said shore breaks are powerful? A three-foot wave can transition into a five-foot or six-foot wave which will eventually pound the beach.

Now, a three-foot wave has been estimated to have about 10kW of energy. To put this into perspective for you, that’s about the energy of a small vehicle at full throttle. Then imagine how powerful bigger waves would be and imagine these waves driving you into rocks, corals, and wet sand at high speeds. Yeah, you get the gist.

Why is a Shore Break Dangerous to Surf?

Much about the danger of shore breaks has been discussed above so I won’t be needlessly repeating myself. Shore breaks are to be admired from a safe distance as you witness the forces of nature into play. Never venture into them unless you want to risk spinal injuries as well as injuries of the extremities. I’ll be discussing the different types of injuries you risk by riding a shore break.

Waves, regardless of size, will typically pull up the water below and then build up until you surf to their edges. Should you wipe out, you are sure of the wave pushing you down into the water after it breaks and although you go close to the bottom, you can safely make your ascent to the surface.

Shore breaks, however, are formed close to the shoreline (the reason they are called shore breaks) and anyone riding them will crash into the shallow sea bottom or on the shoreline. Crashing into the shallow sea bottom or shoreline wouldn’t have been much of a hazard were it not for the incredible force of the shore breaks.

What Kind of Injury do You Risk When Riding a Shore Break?

Shore breaks are to be taken seriously no matter how harmless they seem as even a 1-foot shore break is powerful enough to break bones. Surfers and swimmers in the area could be pinned to the ocean bed and there is the risk of drowning. People sitting close to the shoreline can be swept into the surf and this is particularly dangerous if children are close to the shore.

Injuries sustained from shore breaks could be minor being no more than bruises or abrasions to the forehead or bloody nose. However, there’s the risk of fatal injuries to the neck and spinal cord and this usually occurs when shore breaks drive surfers’ heads first into the ocean bottom. Shoulder and ribs injuries are also not uncommon.

Mortality is another serious risk and shore breaks have claimed the lives of surfers in the past. But should one survive, a spinal cord injury is the worst injury that could happen to a surfer due to the risk of lifelong paralysis. Many surfers have remained confined to wheelchairs for life and even need assistance to perform the most basic tasks due to spinal cord injuries sustained from riding shore breaks.

Other Hazards to Take Into Consideration

Shore breaks aren’t the only thing you should be concerned about when surfing or swimming. Other hazards to take into consideration include:

Rip Currents

Rip currents can sneak on you like a thief in the middle of the night. One moment, you are having the time of your life in the water and before you know it, you are much farther out into the ocean than you thought. So you try to swim back to shore but notice you aren’t making any progress swimming forward. And that’s where the true danger of rip currents lies.

Contrary to public opinion, rip currents don’t pull you under. Instead, they drain people’s energy since they can’t swim away and eventually drown due to exhaustion. Should you ever find yourself in a rip current, try not to panic and let the current take you further back into the ocean. Yes, it’s scary but you won’t make any progress trying to swim in a rip current. When you notice you are no longer being channeled out the back, swim to the side and toward the breaking waves, and you’ll be safe.


Yes, hypothermia is a real risk when surfing in cold waters (during the winter months or cold weather). If you intend to stay in cold waters for some time, you’ll have to put on a wetsuit, booties and gloves. Wetsuits do more than provide warmth as they also protect against stings from jellyfish, sea urchins, sting rays, and other marine creatures that may not take to you kindly roaming in their kingdom.

Water Pollution

There is no shortage of pollutants in the water from plastics, oil spillage/leaks, industrial waste and effluents, agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, sewage, urban waste, and so on. These pollutants constitute a serious threat to marine life and even surfers if they paddle after it rains as pollutants may be washed to shore by rainfall. You definitely don’t want to ingest polluted water and you should pay attention to your local water quality alerts.

Reefs and Rocks

Be careful when surfing over bank reefs or rocky seabeds as they are potentially injurious. You also don’t want to surf alone in these areas as hitting your head and losing consciousness could be fatal.

Absolutely Want to Ride a Shore Break? Here are Some Tips

My stance on shore breaks is clear – stay away from them. Many authorities believe this also and advise the public accordingly. But there are some surfers that love the thrill and dangers associated with shore breaks.

In fact, they are addicted to them and see riding shore breaks as the ultimate fun. And in a world where extreme sports aren’t a new concept, we can only wish those intending to ride shore breaks well.

I’d also like for you to come unscathed from riding shore breaks and would give the following safety tips.

Always wear a helmet: The most serious injuries caused by shore breaks occur when surfers hit their heads on sands (which will be as strong as concrete considering the force of the wave) and corals. Wear a helmet unless you fancy getting your spine or neck broken.

Catch the wave early: Catching the wave early means you might get to ride the wave’s face and avoid making the drop.

No time for hesitation: If you are going to ride a shore break, ride a shore break. It’s do or do not. There’s no try. Shore breaks are to be taken seriously and if you decide to ride one, you better commit to it.

Angle your board: No need for anything fancy here, buddy. Just keep the board and body parallel to the beach;

Ensure you don’t put too much weight forward. Instead, move back on your board. The reason for this is to prevent moving your surfboard into high-impact zones.

Ensure you don’t hit your head on the ocean floor or shoreline. Yes, you are wearing a helmet but that doesn’t mean you should let your head hit the sand or corals and you can do this by raising your chest.

Grab the outside rail: The reason for this is to ensure you remain in control and not allow the incredible power of the wave to turn your board around.

Pull up the nose of your board: You should try to defy gravity for as long as you can – the bottom of the board should be first to touch down on the sandy beach.

Final Thoughts

It’s better to admire shore breaks from a distance and not be in the thick of it. Many people have lost their lives or sustained lifelong injuries from shore breaks. But if you are a daredevil that can resist the allure of riding a shore break, you better take precautions and put yourself in a position to come up unscathed…mostly.

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