Posted by divebumNsandyeggo
As the title of this article suggests, surf entry is one part preparation and one part process. The surf doesn’t care much whether you get through it or not, and in fact is constantly trying to put you and your gear back on the beach. I learned this the hard way early on in my dive career, having learned to dive along the central and northern California coast as a teenager.
Back then we donned our fins on the beach and backed in. You can still use that method if the surf line is short, the beach steep, and there aren’t any hazards as you enter, but for most beach entries that’s not going to be the best method. If you’re backing into the surf, you still have to be watching it as you back in, which puts you a bit off balance as you go in. Too, it’s much harder to see what you’re about to step on as you enter the water, which means you’re increasing your exposure to stings and punctures from the critters that may be living in the tidal zone.
Before I even start unloading my gear, I always evaluate conditions to ensure that it’s safe to dive. If the surf is really up, conditions are going to be pretty stirred up anyway, so I always take a look at the surf beforehand to be sure that the training and experience of the divers is going to allow them to safely get through the surf without issue. While I’m looking at the size of the surf I’ll time the waves (seconds of separation between waves), I’ll look at how far out they’re breaking (depth of the surf zone), and I’ll consider the variation of the sets. Surf normally comes in two sizes, large and small – the waves will usually roll in with a large set of waves (typically three or four of them), followed by a smaller set (again, three or four of these). If the waves are breaking far out, I know I’m going to be in the surf zone longer than normal, and I’ll make the call not to dive that day.
Once you’ve made the decision to dive and unloaded your gear, getting through the surf begins where you gear up. What I advise students to do are three things: (1) make sure your mask and snorkel are down around your neck, (2) have your fin straps arranged such that they are ready to put on, and (3) have your Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) one-half to two-thirds inflated. Another consideration in terms of preparation is what other gear you’ll be carrying out with you. If you’re bringing lights, cameras or other gear, it’s a good idea to clip them to your BCD prior to entering the water. Lots of gear gets lost in the surf zone, and you don’t want to be a contributor if you can avoid it.
Having your mask and snorkel down around your neck is key in order to prevent it from being pulled off during the surf entry. If you wear contact lenses you might want to have the mask on your face, but a better solution is to get a prescription mask and leave the contact lenses on the beach. I subscribe to a local dive email list, and there is one email that I can count on nearly every weekend during the summer, that being a lost mask and snorkel, invariably lost during surf entry. Also, if you like the snorkel you have, and depending on the size of the surf, you may want to upgrade your snorkel keeper to a more secure one. Most of the stock snorkel keepers aren’t all that secure, and the upgrade here will cost you less than two dollars.
Your goal during surf entry should be to minimize the amount of time you have to spend in it, and having your fins ready to put on when you get to that point serves that purpose. Having the straps fully extended (or nearly so) makes it much easier to find the strap and get it up over your heel quickly. One upgrade you might want to consider here is the addition of spring straps, which make the donning process even easier. Spring straps can be mounted to virtually any fin out there these days, and many higher-end fins come with them already installed.
You want to have your BCD at least partially inflated during surf entry too. As you get out past waist deep the force of the waves gets stronger, and the bigger waves have a tendency to knock divers over their feet. If you have your BCD partly inflated you’ll be more stable during that phase of the entry, and it will also help keep your head above water if you happen to lose your balance when donning the fins. I normally enter the surf with my BCD ½ full, and increase from there based on the size of the surf.
When you’re ready to make your surf entry, be sure to time it so that you get the least amount of grief from the process. I normally try to begin the surf entry process during a large set of waves, so that I encounter the fewest number of large sets on the way out. Be a good dive buddy and stay close together as you make your way through the surf. You can’t be of much assistance to your dive buddy if you’re spread out, nor can they be of much help to you if you need it. Two sets of eyes on the surf and bottom give you both an advantage and make passage through the surf less troublesome. As you enter the surf, move slowly and keep your eyes not only on the surf but also on the bottom below the surf to avoid stepping on any marine critters on your way out. A lot of sensitive marine life lives in the tidal zone, and they really don’t want to encounter you anymore than you do them.
Once you get out to about knee depth, turn sideways as the wave approaches, and lean into the oncoming wave. This will take the punch out of the wave and keep you from getting pushed backwards. When you get out to waist depth this becomes even more important as the mass of water increases. If you’re getting pushed off balance by the waves, add a bit of air to your BCD for stability. At waist depth and beyond I often turn sideways and duck under the wave to take the force out of it.
At mid-torso depth, use the figure four method you were taught in your Open Water course to don your fins. With the figure four, you use your dive buddy to balance, and cross one foot over in front of the other to get the foot above the other knee. If you’re new to surf entry, hand your other fin to your dive buddy for safe keeping while you work with the first fin. The dive buddy’s job here is to watch your back (keep their eyes on the surf and let you know if there’s a big wave coming in) and keep a good grip on your other fin. Your job here is to trust your dive buddy and get your fins on so you can get out of the surf zone quickly. If you’re both watching the surf during this phase you’re essentially doubling the time you get to spend in the surf zone.
Hold the fin in the hand opposite the foot you’re going to put it on, and place that hand near the toe in the foot pocket (not the fin tip, and not with your thumb in the foot pocket of the fin). Make sure that the fin strap is down and out of the way of your foot. Slide it over your foot, pull the strap up and cinch it up by pulling on the near (upper or inside) side of the strap, then reach under your heel and cinch up the other (outside portion of your foot) side. Make sure that the strap is high up on your heel when you get it tight. It can be pretty frustrating to get it tightened only to have it slip off your foot as you start kicking out.
Once you’ve got one fin on, turn 180 degrees, take the other fin from your buddy and repeat the process with the other foot. Once you’ve got your fins on, take one of your dive buddies fins and help them put their fins on, watching their back as they don their fins. As soon as you both have your fins on, inflate your BCD fully (to the point where the over-pressurization valve lifts) and start kicking out.
If you don’t recall the figure four method, or weren’t taught it for some reason, try it at home (as described above) prior to going to the dive spot, practice it at the dive site prior to gearing up, or even wade out into the surf and practice it prior to putting your gear on. It’s going to be a bit more challenging wearing your scuba unit, weight and other gear when the waves are coming at you, so practicing it under controlled conditions first will make passage through the surf much easier.
With your fins on the most challenging aspects of surf entry are behind you, but you’re still in the surf zone, so next you need to kick out beyond the surf. When you’re kicking out, resist the temptation to lay your head back in the water. Kicking out works best if you sit relatively upright in the water, as though you were sitting in an easy chair watching your favorite movie or team. Visually line up a couple of stationary objects on shore, and keep them aligned as you move out. Use deep, long kicks, keeping your toes (and fin tips) pointed at the beach during your swim out. Try to keep your fins from breaking the surface as you do. This will transfer the most energy to your fins and get you out of the surf zone quickest and with the least amount of effort.
One final reminder for some locales - watch for rip tides in the surf zone – these will be marked by lines of foamy seawater moving away from the beach. Rip tides are formed from sand bars in the surf zone that channel the water out, and they can be wicked nasty if you get caught in one. If you get caught in a rip current, inflate your BCD fully, drop your weights if you have to, put your regulator in, and move down the beach 100 yards or so and you should be out of it. They don’t typically run very far down the beach, but they where they exist they can sweep a diver off their feet pretty quickly.
The other closing recommendation here is to remain close to your dive buddy throughout the dive. If you can’t get to your dive buddy on one breath you’re too far away. One other thing to keep in mind regarding dive buddies is that they may be the one on the dive finding all the cool stuff, and you don’t want to miss out on that. Dive S.A.F.E!
PADI MSDT #235938