SAFETY AT SEA
Updated: May 15
WHY TALK ABOUT SAFETY?
Without a doubt, the most risky "sport" we practice every day is driving. In comparison —statistically speaking— accidents in windsurfing and foiling are practically irrelevant.
However, safety is necessary and essential to enjoy our beloved sport.
Remember: we are in a natural environment (water). An environment that is not our own...and above all, we are not alone! In the best known spots, such as Tarifa and especially Valdevaqueros beach, the ocean becomes a real highway in summer at peak times. Thus, it is essential that all surfers know and apply the rules of the game to avoid unnecessary risks (or any other trouble).
It is not about knowing the entire ‘Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea’ by heart. But we do need to know the basic rules. First and foremost the right-of-way rules (yes, they exist! and they are the same all over the world) and the restrictions and prohibitions regarding the chosen surfing spots (which we have to inform us about constantly, as they vary from one place to another and even from one season to another).
1. RULES OF RIGHT OF WAY
The right-of-way rules that apply to windsurfing, foiling and other water sports are as follows:
- PORT OVER STARBOARD SIDE: at a junction —just like on the roads— one has the right of way and the other has to give way. If you remember that when driving, the preference is given to the one “on the right”, you will also remember this rule. Those on the starboard side (right hand in front and closer to the mast) have right of way over those on the port side (left hand in front). The one on the port side must change course and give way as efficiently as possible.
- DOWNWIND OVER UPWIND: we all surf with the wind in our back (upwind) and therefore look direction downwind (where the wind blows to). This rule therefore follows pure logic: you can’t see any surfer that is behind you, but you can see those in front of you. So you’ll have to give way to anyone sailing downwind of you, as they have the right of way.
- WHO OVERTAKES KEEPS THE DISTANCE: if you want to overtake, at sea as on the road, you must make sure that you have enough space and speed to do so. You also have to have enough distance between you and the "thing" you want to overtake. This way, the other person doesn’t have to manoeuvre abruptly and unexpectedly to avoid a collision.
The following general rules also apply:
- KEEP YOUR COURSE: Having the right of way doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want. As the surfer who has to let you pass can’t "read your mind". You can’t change your course or start a manoeuvre suddenly. Especially if that means that it’ll be impossible for the other surfer to move out of the way and avoid a collision.
- GREATER MANOEUVRABILITY: Vessels that are easier to manoeuvre (e.g. motorboat, which can normally choose their course freely) should move out of the way of vessels that are less manoeuvrable (e.g. sailboats, which depend on the wind). This also applies when dealing with beginners. Their lack of technique and experience and the slower speed of their equipment sometimes makes it impossible for them to apply the rules, even if they know them.
- GENERAL CAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE: As much as you would have the right of way, no one wants to have a collision and suffer its consequences. If you see that the other person is unable, doesn’t know how or even unwilling to move out of the way, one must act to try to avoid a collision before the situation becomes irreversible.
2. SURFING AREAS
When windsurfing and foiling you share the space with many others. This includes not only other surfers, but also swimmers, bathers and all other activities related to tourism. And, of course, nature itself that surrounds and welcomes us.
We must respect the surfing area that has been assigned to our sporting discipline in the Beach Plans. The plans are drawn by the competent authorities on an annual basis and are specific to each beach.
In general, we must stay away from bathing areas —delimited by yellow buoys— and from safety channels, recognizable thanks to the red cylindrical buoys on the port and green conical buoys on the starboard sides. These safety channels are established as access channels to the beach for motor boats and other rescue vehicles. Furthermore, you mustn’t surf in expressly prohibited areas. There may be many reasons to prohibit any sports in that area such as environmental or safety reasons.
Do not risk any dangerous manoeuvres or drive at full speed near the shore. There might be surfers that are just getting on the board, beginners, or even unwary swimmers...
3. PPE (PERSONAL PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT)
Make sure you are wearing the right equipment for that day’s weather conditions and water temperature. A good wetsuit is almost always essential. Neoprene boots and gloves might also be worn or, depending on the season, sun protection shouldn’t be forgotten. You will be "outdoors" for hours and being cold or hot is a waste of energy. This might even lead to a strong decrease in physical performance.
Forget the prejudice that helmets and life jackets are "beginner's stuff". In fact, in professional foiling, they are even compulsory. In unfavourable conditions and heavy traffic on the water, every precaution makes sense: prevention is better than cure.
4. EQUIPMENT: TYPE, SETTINGS AND CONDITION
Choosing the right equipment is important. Even if it is sometimes difficult, get back to the shore and change the equipment. Especially if the conditions changed significantly. Sometimes it is enough to move the mast foot forward or backward and/or "tune" the sail by increasing or decreasing the tension on the clew and tack.
In gusty winds, it is better to choose a board with enough volume so that you can float through the "bald spots" or stay afloat in case the wind drops. This way there is no risk of drifting and having to walk back along the shore (which we also call the "walk of shame") or even having to be towed ashore.
Remember that with good technique you don’t need too big a sail and you don’t need to wait for the gust to blow with full force. It’s better to get used to pumping to start planing than to be overpowered when the wind picks up a bit or blows stronger outside than at the shore.
Before you go out on the water, check that the sail’s profile is correct and that all parts of the sail, the board and all the lines are in good condition and well tied. If possible, take a spare line with you —just in case. A spare line can bail you out or be useful when helping someone else.
5. KNOW YOUR LIMITS
Windsurfing and foiling are intense sports where you are at the mercy of the elements for hours. To withstand the specific conditions of the day and the spot you have to be fit.
Make sure you drink enough and don’t go out on the water with a full stomach. The sun can be very intense and the water cold: Heat stroke or digestive problems are no fun.
The degree of difficulty of a ski slope is easily recognised by the blue, red and black markings. Unfortunately, there is nothing comparable for windsurfing and foiling. Determining the "colour" of the spot and the day’s conditions is neither easy nor an exact science (it's rather like making a horoscope!). You have to look at the forecasts, which always have to be up to date, compare them with each other and confirm them with the experience of the locals (e.g. surf schools) whenever possible... and even then, it's not always right.
If you are a beginner and not sure what to do, come to Spin Out. We’ll give you advice on everything you need to know or provide you with the best instructors (and equipment) if you’d rather be guided or think you need to improve.
6. CAUTION, CAUTION, CAUTION!
It doesn't matter if you were about to break your personal speed record or finally get that manoeuvre you've been working on for so long. Safety always comes first. There will be more gusts and more waves to come. But to benefit from them, the equipment and especially the surfer must stay whole!
Remember: any risk of collision is a potential collision. Therefore, you should act accordingly in time to avoid an accident or damage. A mistake by you or another surfer can quickly ruin your session or even your holidays —especially if you could have prevented it.
Check with surf schools and locals about dangers and foreseeable changes in sea and wind conditions, especially in areas with strong currents, rocks or shallows. Also, always let someone know you are out on the water.
Don't hesitate to come to Tarifa Spin Out for advice. Whether you are a client or not, we are happy to help you make the most of your windsurfing or foiling day in Tarifa. You are very welcome!
7. RESCUE AND SELF-RESCUE. USEFUL NUMBERS
In the water as well as on land, failure to provide assistance is a serious offence, so much so that it is included in the Spanish Penal Code (art. 195). If you see someone in the water far from the shore, you should ask if they need help. However, if you see a surfer making the international distress signal (arms outstretched to the side, clearly moving slowly up and down, or waving a cloth over their head), do not hesitate to help in any way as long as you don’t put yourself in danger.
There are two types of rescue services: private and public ones. Before going out on the water, find out about the available options at the spot (e.g. rescue vouchers) and the emergency numbers in the region. In Spain, especially Salvamento Maritimo —although they are mainly in charge of more complex situations and should only be called when really necessary.
Where possible, towing the other surfer may be the most effective and immediate rescue action. If that is not possible and conditions are difficult, you can stay with the person and ask another surfer to go ashore and call for help. If this is also not possible, before going ashore to call for help, make sure the person has something with them that they can move to identify their position from shore (e.g. a coloured lycra shirt or harness). Also tell them to do so. That way it is easier to find them again from land. That's because, if there are waves or visibility isn’t ideal, it can be difficult to see a floating item from land. Moreover, currents could cause the surfer to drift even faster...and then the search for the needle in the haystack would begin.
Last but not least: Don't take excessive risks just because you think that "someone will be after you if something happens". Your recklessness can jeopardise not only your own safety, but also that of others who may need to come to your rescue. And fundamentally: LEARN TO RESCUE YOURSELF. The board is our life raft so try never to let go of it. Swim towards the nearest point of the shore, always letting the current pull you along and try not to paddle against it or you’ll end up exhausted. Once you’re ashore, you’re sure to find someone willing to help you, whether it’s directly on the beach or at the surf schools.
8. READY FOR DEPARTURE
Now that you've ticked off all the items on your checklist, grab your harness and get on the board! You are ready to take off.
The Spin Out team wishes you a good flight.
And very good wind.