Tips for Entering and Exiting Surf
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Being chewed up and spit out onto the beach by a thundering wall of turbid water is not what I call a fun dive outing. Entering and exiting through the surf zone can be a tricky and sometimes punishing scuba experience, but with training and the proper technique, anyone can determine if the surf is manageable and get through safely.
Surf is created as incoming waves break. The location where they break is called the surf break. A wave typically breaks when it reaches water that is slightly shallower than its own height. The area from the surf break to the point where the surf from the wave dissipates on the beach is called the surf zone.
When the bottom contour slopes gently seaward, waves break farther from shore, creating a long surf zone. When the bottom drops off quickly, the surf break is nearer shore and the surf zone shorter. When waves are small, navigating the surf zone can be as routine as walking into wafet-deep water before donning fins and then snorkeling seaward on the surface. However, large waves, especially when teamed with a sharply sloping bottom, can create thunderous walls of surf. This condition requires serious planning and evaluation before ever suiting up.
Assessing the Action
Entering and exiting through heavy surf can be dangerous, especially for divers who are not trained or are not experienced in the proper techniques. Conditions that are beyond a diver's skill and experience level should be avoided. And, if you realize that the surf is too challenging after initiating the entry, don't hesitate to turn around and abort the dive.
When faced with surf, first assess conditions. If you are familiar with the location and have dived there previously, the assessment process may involve nothing more than evaluating the intensity of the surf zone on that particular day.
Generally speaking, the larger the waves the more challenging the surf zone. The size of the wave action can change the character of a dive site and the training and experience levels needed to safely dive it. Just because you made an effortless entry there once doesn't mean that diving the site will always be the same.
If the surf appears too high for a safe entry and exit, consider other locations; often moving to a nearby sheltered inlet or cove may be the solution.
When diving a location with which you are not familiar the assessment process is more involved. First, always check with a local dive center before diving a site for the first time. The staff will be happy to share their knowledge of the site, such as best times to dive, tide and current information, safest entry and exit locations. They may even be able to provide a site map.
Choosing an Entry Technique
The entry technique to use on any given day is based upon a number of factors: wave action, surf zone, tide and current, and bottom contour and composition. The objective is to choose the technique that provides the easiest and safest passage through the surf zone.
When the surf break is far from shore, which gives the incoming surf time to dissipate before reaching the beach, it may be easiest to carry your fins as far into the water as practical before donning. But avoid getting too near the surf break without fins on your feet
Where you don fins also depends on bottom composition. When the bottom is easy walking — smooth sand, for example — most divers walk seaward until the water is at least waist deep before donning. However, when the bottom is rocky it is safer and easier to don the fins as soon as the water is deep enough for you to snorkel. Once your fins are in place, snorkel toward the surf break.
Bottom composition aside, the technique used to enter the surf zone depends on the size of the waves and where they are breaking. When the surf break is near shore it may be safer to don your fins at water's edge and shuttle in.
Although some fins allow you to walk forward safely, always avoid walking forward when wearing conventional, straight-blade fins. A buddy team can either turn perpendicular to the surf break — facing each other — and shuffle sideways, or shuffle in backward. Either way, buddies should establish and maintain positive physical contact when walking in fins.
Navigating the Surf Break
Timing is everything. For the best results, time your entry so that you pass through the surf break during a lull between wave sets — typically six or seven waves followed by a calm period. The entry technique used depends upon wave size, momentum and the depth of the water where they break.
When the bottom slopes sharply it may be possible for the buddy team to submerge and scuba beneath the surf break. Once on the seaward side, continue at depth or, if diving with other divers, surface and regroup.
When the surf is mild you may be able to snorkel (or scuba) through the surf break on the surface, especially if you have timed it during a lull. However, if your timing is off or the wave break is larger than expected, you could end up getting tumbled.
A third alternative is shuffling, through the surf break. When shuffling have minimal air in your buoyancy compensator (BC), position yourself sideways to the wave and maintain physical contact with your buddy. Establish firm footing, hold your mask and regulator in place with one hand, crouch slightly as the wave passes, then resume shuffling. Never turn your back on an incoming wave. Once seaward of the surf break, either descend and continue at depth or snorkel to the dive site.
Whichever technique you choose, have your regulator or snorkel in your mouth, your mask on your face and some air in your BC, unless swimming at depth beneath a mild surf break. Time your actions for a lull between wave sets and once you commit move rapidly; hesitating in or near the surf break is asking for problems.
Exiting Through the Surf Break
Here again, timing is everything. However, divers need to be on the surface to determine the easiest and safest time to pass through the surf break. At the end of the dive, surface outside the surf zone and evaluate the size, pattern and timing of the waves.
Small waves that break gently are easier to negotiate than the thundering walls of water sometimes generated by larger waves. Pay special attention to wave size and the timing of the wave sets. Waves that break close together with little lull between sets are more difficult to negotiate than those that are farther spaced.
Begin your exit immediately following the final wave of a set, taking advantage of its shoreward momentum. Move quickly, as your objective is to pass through the surf break before the next wave arrives. If you don't make it, you may get tumbled. If things go as planned you will end up in the surf zone, hopefully, clear of the next breaking wave. Once through the surf break, continue the exit without delay.
Surf Zone Exit Techniques
There are two techniques for surf-zone exits: walking and crawling.
The walking exit is most common – used when the surf break is far from shore, the bottom gently sloping and the water in the surf zone shallow. Once you clear the surf break and the water is chest-deep or shallower, stop swimming and stand up. Keep the mask on your face and continue breathing through your regulator.
To avoid being surprised and toppled by incoming waves, turn sideways and monitor them as you and your buddy assist each other at removing fins. As you walk out of the surf zone, hold your fins securely or attach them to your BC.
When the surf is large, the surf break close to shore and the bottom contour sloping away sharply, the crawling exit is the answer. While staged just seaward of the surf break, as described earlier, wait for the last wave of a set, then head for shore without delay. To avoid being tumbled by the breaking wave, submerge a couple of feet and proceed underwater until you come in contact with the bottom; then crawl to shore with all gear in place. Don't stop until you're past the wet sand.
Some instructors do not include the crawling exit in their scuba curriculum because they feel that if the surf is large enough to require crawling out, you should be looking for a calmer dive site.
Every beach and surf zone is different, so once you determine that surf conditions are within your skill and experience range, choose the appropriate entry and exit techniques and proceed with confidence. With proper training it is possible to get through the surf zone safely.