Ocean Sports


For the purpose of this essay, the term ocean sports is taken to refer to sporting activities involving a single individual in some portion of a deep body of water (such as a sea or ocean) requiring only a minimal amount of equipment. Sports included in this definition include scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, and windsurfing.


A young woman and man kite surf in the ocean. Most ocean sports are enjoyed recreationally, as very little advance conditioning or training are needed to participate.

A young woman and man kite surf in the ocean. Most ocean sports are enjoyed recreationally, as very little advance conditioning or training are needed to participate.

Kelly Slater was born February 11, 1972, in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and is recognized around the world for his accomplishments in surfing. He has been the youngest and oldest surfer to win 11 world surfing titles. His accomplishments in surfing have allowed him to present himself on popular television shows and be the title character of a video (Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer) game released in 2002.


Some of the best available data on participation in ocean sports can be found in the annual report of the Outdoor Foundation. The organization's 2016 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report provided the following statistics on the four ocean sports covered here:

More detailed information on the demographics of ocean sports are available from other sources, including the Sports and Fitness Industry Assocation ( https://www.sfia.org/ ) and Statista ( http://www.statista.com/ ).


Each of the ocean sports described here has its own unique history. Surfing is perhaps the oldest of these sports, with its origins dating at least to 1000 BCE, and perhaps much earlier, along the coasts of northern Peru. The sport also has very ancient beginnings in the Polynesian culture, from which it was probably transplanted to the Hawaiian Islands in the period from about 300 to about 750 CE. Throughout history, the sport has, quite naturally, had its greatest popularity in regions where good surf is regularly available, such as Hawaii, Australia, and parts of the California coast. Modern surfing is often dated to the 1960s in the United States, when a series of movies (“Gidget” and the “Beach Party” films) and some popular music themes (for example, songs by the Beach Boys) popularized the sport, until it eventually reached its current appeal.

Compared to surfing, windsurfing is a much younger sport. Its origin can be dated to a 1948 invention by a 20-year-old man by the name of Newman Darby, who designed the surfboard to which a sail was attached, the first windsurfing board. Although relatively simple in concept, the final design of a practical windsurfing board took almost twenty years. In fact, it was not until 1970 that the first patent for the board was approved. That patent was granted to Jim Drake, an aeronautical engineer, and his surfer friend, Hoyle Schweitzer. Some dispute still remains as to who it is that should receive credit for designing the first windsurfing board: Darby, Drake and Schweitzer, or Peter Chilvers, a 12-year-old English boy who, some claimed, built the first windsurfing board in 1958.

As with windsurfing, scuba diving also has a very short history, dating to the winter of 1942-43 when two Frenchmen, Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Émile Gagnan, invented the first “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus” (SCUBA) that they called an Aqua-Lung. The device allowed a swimmer to remain underwater for extended periods of time with an easily controlled, longterm source of air. Although the Aqua-Lung has undergone a number of modifications, it still serves as the general model for underwater aids used by scuba devices.


In order to surf, all one needs is a board on which to stand or lie down and waves of sufficient power to carry one toward the shore with some degree of speed. A form of surfing known as bodysurfing allows one to dispense with the surfboard, producing a somewhat similar experience as that with the board itself.

A windsurfing board consists of a surfboard-type platform to which is attached a sail by means of a universal joint. The windsurfer stands on the board and pivots the sail in such a way as to catch the wind to propel the windsurfer across the water.

The sport of snorkeling is simply a modified form of swimming with the aid of goggles, to allow one to see underwater; a breathing tube, through which the diver can obtain air from just above the water’ surface; and swim fins that allow one to propel himself or herself more easily. With these aids, a person can swim easily beneath the water and enjoy the scenery to be found there, usually beautiful coral formations and unusually colored and figured fish.

The most common scuba device today is a single-line, two-stage device in which compressed air (or oxygen-enriched air) is stored in a cylindrical tank at a pressure of about 200 atmospheres (200 times normal atmospheric pressure). The delivery tube contains two regulators that control the pressure of air leaving the tank. The first regulator is attached to the tank itself and reduces the air pressure from 200 atmospheres to about 10 atmospheres. The second regulator is connected to the opposite end of the hose, at the diver's mouth. It reduces air pressure a second time, to what it would be in the water surrounding the diver (about 1–5 atmospheres). Air exhaled by the diver passes directly into the water surrounding the diver.

The name of the original type of scuba-diving device invented in the 1940s by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Émile Gagnan.
decompression illness—
A condition that develops when a diver ascends from a dive at two rapid a rate, resulting in the accumulation of gas bubbles in the bloodstream.
A device on scuba-diving apparatus that controls air pressure within the apparatus.


Unlike many sports, such as baseball, football, tennis, and track and field, ocean sports do not required much advance conditioning or training. Perhaps the most important form of preparation is ensuring that one has the necessary equipment in the best possible condition. Being aware of weather conditions that might promote or inhibit one's participation in a sport is also of some importance.


Surfboards are commonly made of solid or hollow polyurethane or balsa wood. They are light, but strong enough to support the weight of the surfer. They take many different shapes, but are always elongated, with a length ranging from six to 30 feet (9.1 m) in length. Shorter boards are known as short boards, and longer boards as long boards. The specific board suitable for surfing depends on a person's weight, experience, and surfing objectives. Beginning surfers normally seek the advice of experts in the field to select the board most appropriate for them. The design of a windsurfing board is determined to a considerable extent on the purpose for which it is intended: beginning surfers, slalom racers, freestyle boards, recreational sailing, or racing. In general, most boards measure from 6 to 12 ft. (3.7 m) in length, powered by a sail that is anywhere from 20 sq. ft. (1.9 m) to 100 sq. ft. (9.3 sq. m) in area. A measure often used in selecting the appropriate windsurfing board is board volume, since the board's volume determines the amount of weight the board can support and the extent to which it rides on top of, versus slicing through, the water.

Snorkeling requires only a face mask, a snorkeling tube, and fins. In the simplest possible cases, one can snorkel using only the tube itself.

Scuba diving requires a sophisticated and dependable apparatus that includes all the elements that store a supply of air (the “tank”), that deliver the air to the diver at the proper rate and pressure (the tube and regulators), and provides the diver with information about the amount of air left in the tank (indicated by a dial that reads the air pressure in the tank directly). A complete list of equipment needed in addition to the air system itself includes a number of items, such as


An estimate of the risk of surfing injury was reported in 2007 by a group of researchers at Rhode Island Hospital. They studied injuries that had been incurred at 32 amateur and professional surfing competitions between 1999 and 2005. They recorded a total of 116 injuries, 89 of which occurred during the competition itself, for an injury rate of 5.7 injuries per 1000 athlete exposures. This number is relatively small, less than that of amateur soccer games. The greatest risk to surfers occurred when waves were over their heads or when they were surfing in water with a rocky ground. Sprains and strains to the lower extremities were the most common type of surfer injuries, with lacerations and contusions being the next most common injuries. Such injuries, found in other studies to be the most common surfer injuries, usually resulted from contact between a surfer and his or her own board or the board of another surfer.

A study reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2006 followed 107 recreational and competitive windsurfers over a period of two years. Researchers found that the average rate of injuries among windsurfers was 1.5 injury per person per year. The most common types of injury were muscle and tendon strains (accounting for about half of all new injuries), followed by ligament sprains. Cuts and abrasions were common, and a total of six concussions were reported among the experimental group. Researchers found a somewhat different pattern of injuries between recreational and competitive windsurfers and concluded that methods should be developed to reduce the most common types of injuries.


The most common injuries incurred by divers (either snorkeling or scuba diving) are scrapes, abrasions, and contusions resulting from rubbing against the sharp edges of coral and other rocks. While these injuries are not in and of themselves very serious, they may often lead to infections that are of much greater concern. Another category of injuries associated with diving sports are stings and bites resulting from contact with organisms such as jelly fish and the Portugese manof-war. These stings and bites may range in severity from moderate pain to neuromuscular effects, such as anaphylactic shock and paralysis. More serious accidents, while not common, are hardly rare. Such accidents can result in death or permanent disability. The three most common causes of fatal diving accidents (each accounting for about a third of such accidents) are drowning, arterial gas embolism, and cardiac arrest. About 10% of all fatalities during diving accidents results from other causes, such as decompression illness, trauma or loss of consciousness while diving. There is also some evidence that frequent diving can result in certain types of chronic health problems affecting the ears and circulatory system. These injuries are far more common among people who make their lives diving than those who dive less often for recreational purposes.

http://natafoundation.org/ ) and sports and health related websites, such as StopSports Injuries.org ( http://www.stopsportsinjuries.org/ ).



Collis, Jim, and Amanda van Santen. RYA Start Windsurfing. Hamble, UK: Royal Yachting Association, 2006.

Jennings, Gayle. Water-based Tourism, Sport, Leisure, and Recreation Experiences. Oxford; New York: Elsevier, 2007.

Robison, John. Surfing Illustrated: An Illustrated Guide to Wave Riding. Chicago: International Marine/McGraw-Hill, 2010.


“Health Benefits of Surfing.” Surfinghandbook.com . http://www.surfinghandbook.com/knowledge/health-benefitsof-surfing (accessed January 19, 2017).

“Snorkeling Basics.” Snorkeling.info. http://www.snorkeling.info/snorkeling-basics/index.html (accessed January 19, 2017).


International Surfing Association, 5580 La Jolla Blvd. #145, La Jolla, CA, 92037, (858) 551-8580, Fax: (858) 551-8563, info@isasurf.org, http://www.isasurf.org .

International Windsurfing Association, Mengham Cottage, Mengham Lane, Hayling Island, Hampshire, PO11 PJX, United Kingdom, 44 (0) 1983 854938, ceri@off shore-sports.co.uk, http://www.internationalwindsurfing.com .

Professional Association of Diving Instructors, 30151 Tomas, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA, 92688-2125, (949) 858-7234, (800) 729-7234, Fax: (949) 267-1267, customerservice@padi.com, http://www.padi.com .

David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.