Every month, we hear of someone either drowning while paddleboarding, or having to be rescued because they either underestimated the wind or didn’t see it coming. Consistently, those in danger are separated from their boards, most often in high winds with choppy, cold water. In many of these cases, a leash could have undoubtedly helped save their lives.
So what do we do? Make a law? Put stickers on boards? Require everyone to wear a leash? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe that’s not enough. Maybe it’s too much.
There are a number of variables that contribute to these accidents: Conditions or settings, such as air and water temperature, currents and structure. Logistics preparation, such as sharing your planned route and time, identifying entry and exit locations, and knowing where to go for help. There is the gear: Do you have proper safety gear such as a pfd, leash, communication device, whistle, air horn, lights, flares, strobes. What is your experience level, and how well are you physically prepared for the conditions. Where are you? And who are you paddling with and how prepared are they?
All of these things and more come into play every time we paddle. As experienced paddlers, we take most for granted, but for the most part, we’re educated on what can happen, why and when. However, for new paddlers, people without their own gear or water experience—recreational equipment borrowers and renters—the depth of considerations is far too great. We can’t expect them to know everything. Ignorance of the conditions and risks is to be expected. SUP looks too easy. It’s so accessible and nearly anyone can do it. That access and ease implies a lack of danger to the outside world. Who can blame someone on vacation who wants to try it and just hops on top and paddles out? And 99.9%, it ends well. But for that small %, what do we do? People will drown. It’s horrible and inevitable when your activity is on or around water.
As many of you know, I’m a huge advocate for personal responsibility. I like having the freedom to do what I want as long as it doesn’t negatively impact others. That means I take the precautions I deem necessary. I know my waters. And I know anything can happen. I take responsibility for myself. Everyone should take personal responsibility.
But what if I didn’t know anything about paddling except for some photos of Taylor Swift paddleboarding on Facebook and the only information I receive when I go to try it is a sign that says “$25/hour Paddleboard rental.”
So what do we do? As an industry? As a community? And who is responsible for making sure people are safe? How do we get rental companies to provide a leash or a life jacket for renters? How do we become more aware of wind and weather hazards? What if a rental company doesn’t share general warnings as well as being constantly aware of the weather patterns? What if the rental company is completely unprepared to help in case of an emergency? No boat or jetski/wave runner to collect their paddlers when a weather front moves through? No safety protocols. Who is to blame? It’s not like Jamie Mitchell is renting a board. These are normal people in an unfamiliar surrounding.
Keep in mind, this scenario is the exception and not the rule from my experience and has nothing to do with the loss of life we’ve experienced yet again this spring/summer, but it begs the question: Where does safety begin?
I don’t have the answer. I’m not sure there’s one answer for all. I guess that’s the whole point.
At very least, it’s a good discussion. One worth having—over and over again. And I’m not convinced it can be solved with a blanket leash law. While leashes are a great start in most lake and coastal areas, they aren’t the silver bullet by any means. In fact, the wrong leash in the wrong conditions can and have been deadly. Quick release vs velcro and ankle vs calf vs waist connection points all need to be taken into account.
Where do we go from here? Do we turn to the ACA? Will we have to wait for some horrible legislation written by a public official who doesn’t paddle? Or do we wait on litigation to drive it? Will insurance companies refuse to insure rental companies unless they fulfill certain safety criteria such as an instructional video, proper equipment, USCG-approved life jackets. That is where it will trickle down, or up from the bottom.
It’s a good start in the right setting with the right options, And I’m not sure if it starts with the manufacturers or pros. They can both play a role, but is the real place to effect this is at the first touchpoint of a new paddler? Is it at the resorts where the volume of completely new paddlers is most concentrated. Is it education on the wholesale rental fleet level? Is that where manufacturers step in? At the rental fleet level? It might be the best spot for now.
Again, I don’t have the answer, but are warnings on new boards and paddles, plus more education and preparation by rental companies may be our best option. Leashes where and when appropriate and life vests on all renters would also be a great start. The conversation continues.
One fact: The community is ready for something. A shift. For now, I wish there was a simple and clear answer. I wish it was as easy as just, “wear a leash.”