If you're coming from a sport like whitewater rafting, jet skiing or kayaking where it's common to wear a life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) you may be wondering why don't surfers wear life jackets?
While life jackets can help you float and prevent drowning there are actually some very good reasons why surfers don't wear life jackets or PFDs.
Surfer's don't wear life jackets because they don't really need them and they look bad. Surfers are usually strong swimmers with good ocean knowledge and they are attached to a giant floatation device anyway (their surfboard). PFDs also make duck diving and paddling harder. Big wave surfers occasionally wear inflatable life jackets.
Life jackets are more of a hindrance than a help and are going to make surfing hard for you and just generally aren't requirement when surfing.
I've been surfing for nearly 20 years now and never worn a life jacket when surfing.
Below are a bunch of the reasons you'll rarely if ever see a surfer wearing a PFD out in the lineup.
1. Your Surfboard Is a Giant Floatation Device That You're Attached To
One of the major reasons surfers don't use life vests is that when they are in the water they are strapped to a giant floatation device, their surfboard.
Surfboards are extremely buoyant and surfers are almost always attached to their surfboards through a leg rope which velcros around their leg.
This means they can always find their board and if needed use their board to help keep them afloat.
While a surfboard and leg rope is NOT designed as a life saving device it can definitely be helpful out in the water. But most surfers are very competent swimmers and have good ocean knowledge which we'll touch on next.
Big wave surfing can be a little different as leg ropes can actually be more of a hindrance than a help and surfers often opt for no leg rope and do use inflatable PFDs to help them stay alive (more on this later).
2. Surfers Are Generally Strong Swimmers
While my skills as a surfer are probably better than my skills as a swimmer I would count myself a fairly confident swimmer.
At least confident and competent enough to get into shore in big swell after losing my surfboard.
Being a strong swimmer is an important part of surfing and while different being a strong paddler also makes you a stronger swimmer.
So most surfers are decent swimmers, can at least tread water for an extended period of time and also are good enough to get back to shore if they lose their board.
When it comes to big wave surfing the competence of these people as swimmers needs to be at extremely high levels.
Not only that but most, if not all of them, do breath work training so they can hold their breath for extremely long periods of time.
Where you or I might only be able to hold our breath for 60, maybe 90 seconds max, the best big wave surfers can hold their breaks for 5 minutes on average.
Check out some of the training regimes big wave surfer Laird Hamilton teaches people:
3. Surfer's Have Strong Ocean Knowledge
On top of being a strong swimmer surfer's also tend to have good ocean knowledge.
Learning above rips and beach safety goes hand in hand with surfing. My kids are currently 10, 8 and 5 and they already know how to identify a rip as well as what to do if they get caught in one and swept out to sea.
The more experienced you are as a surfer the better your ocean knowledge tends to get and you know how to take care of yourself out there and how to get back to shore.
Avoiding rips and using the power and energy of the waves to push you back to safety can be really useful if you ever lose your board.
4. Life Jackets Make Duck Diving Difficult
Sometimes when surfing being able to go under the water is the safest option. A broken wave have more force above the water but if you can get down deep enough the water is calm and the wave will just pass you buy.
Surfer's will do what's called a “duck dive” to get down under a wave when it has already broken and is hurling towards them.
If you're wearing a life jacket that keeps you above the water then you won't be able to duck dive properly and you'll end up getting hit by the full force of the wave.
This can make surfing with a life jacket on more dangerous than not having one on and it's why big wave surfers have inflatable life jackets they can quickly deflate if needed.
5. Life Jackets Make Paddling Harder
When you're a surfer you spend a lot of time paddling and it requires a lot of energy and strength.
You'll generally spend more time paddling than you do actually surfing.
Wearing a life jacket across your torso makes paddling more cumbersome and difficult and that's not something most surfers want.
Wetsuits already make paddling harder but we put up with them because they keep us warm when the water is too cold to surf otherwise. But most surfers I know wouldn't want to make paddling even harder than it already is.
6. You're Generally Surfing Close To Shore
Whether it be a point break, reef break or beach break most surfers are generally surfing close to shore.
They'll start on the beach (or the rocks), jump in the water and then paddle out to the break. But they'll rarely be extremely far from the shore.
This mean if something does happen and you need to get to land it's not too hard to do. You simply catch a wave in or paddle into shore and there you have it.
So it's not a situation like in the open ocean where you're stuck treading water with nowhere to go. You can just head back to land.
7. Wetsuits Make You More Buoyant Anyway
While not a lifesaving device wetsuits are made out of neoprene, which is a rubber filled with thousands of nitrogen bubbles. This is why wetsuits keep you warm.
Wetsuits are buoyant and add a bit of buoyancy to the surfer making it easier to keep your head above water even when separated from your board.
While as a surfer you'll never mistake a wetsuit for a life saving device, every little bit helps.
8. Life Jackets Can Be Dangerous When Stuck In The Impact Zone
While you may think that life jackets and PFDs would make surfing safer this is not always the case.
If you get stuck in the impact zone wearing a life jacket that you can't deflate it can make it extremely difficult to escape the force of the waves.
Big wave surfers will use life vests they can inflate and deflate on demand. So when they are pushed under by a wave they can get back to surface, but if a big wave is coming they can deflate and swim down to safety under the water.
Being stuck in the impact zone with a life jacket you can't deflate could actually be a negative.
9. Life Jackets Make Carving Harder
For advanced surfers upper body movement and rotation is paramount to carving on the waves and perform the tricks, rotations and maneuvers they want to.
A life jacket restricts this movement and can make you a worse surfer as a result.
This isn't the case for helmets but surfers rarely wear helmets either.
10. Life Jackets Make You Look Like a Kook
Let's be honest here, this is probably the #1 reasons apart from the “we don't really need it” reason that surfers don't wear life jackets.
No one else surfing wears a life jacket so you'll look a bit silly if you're the only person out in the lineup wearing a life jacket.
If you have some medical issue that makes it difficult for you to swim and you need it as a result then cool, but otherwise people just don't want to be seen in life jackets.
Big Wave Surfers Do Wear Manual Floatation Devices
The exception to this rule is big wave surfers. When you're riding a 50-100 foot wave the ability for that wave to pin you underwater is extreme.
Recently big wave surfers have started wearing inflatable PFDs that contain carbon dioxide canisters they can pull when underwater to quickly inflate their life jacket and bring them to the surface.
The life vests can also be deflated quickly if the surfer needs to dive down under the wave.
But these are for surfers who are riding in extreme conditions with the biggest of waves. Not your local person heading out the the 4 foot beach break near their house.
Young Kids Often Wear Life Jackets When Surfing
Another exception to the rule is young kids who aren't quite strong enough swimmers.
Parents (myself included) will often take their kids out to teach them how to surf before the child has become a proficient swimmer.
With a parents help they can get out there and start catching and standing up of waves.
But when you push your kids onto a wave you can't keep up with them and if they fall off and can't swim it can be really dangerous.
So life vests with kids that bring them quickly to the surface and keep them upright so their head is out of the water and they can breath is extremely important.
As the child grows up and becomes a better swimmer (and grows out of the life jacket anyway) it'll likely be left behind….or maybe passed down to a little brother or sister.