Paddle Safety Reminder

It’s been a sad holiday weekend, dare I say holiday week, or even summer.  It seems, anecdotally at least, that there has been one report after another about paddlers drowning in any number of circumstances – from tourists renting boards for the first time, to more experienced folk getting into bad conditions, to inner tubers going out for a lazy float.

And again, the common thread seems to be the Personal Floatation Device.  It was on the board, boat or even in one case, being trailed behind, but NOT on the drowning victim.

So, we’re going all squeaky wheel here. And again, we may be preaching to the choir, but perhaps getting the information out, and keeping the conversation going, and taking a closer look at our own habits and practices will help. 

Swimming Ability

Our friend, life guard and prone paddling pro Cynthia Aguilar reminds us that swimming is a key component of our sport but is all too often overlooked when folks try SUP. Especially when travel and tourism and industry marketing makes out to be “so easy anyone can do it.” 

That may be true, but SUP is a water sport.  You will be in the water.  Water conditions can change, be deceiving and can be dangerous, even in the small local lake you have paddled on for years.  You may have to swim to get back to your board if you fall, or tread water while using your leash to get your board back to you.  You need to be a competent swimmer who is comfortable in the water. Ironically, there are many experienced paddlers out there who will admit to not being great swimmers.

If you are not comfortable in the water or believe your swimming to be lacking, please, please, please improve your ability- take some classes, spend some time in a pool with a lifeguard on duty, in a controlled environment and work on your swimming skills.  And until you do, wear the full PFD when you’re paddling, and don’t go alone.

If you are taking someone out SUP’ing for the first time, fantastic! But, assess their swimming ability, their water comfort level and insist they wear a PFD and a leash. 

Know the Conditions and Your Limitations

Water and weather conditions change.  When you go out, know what the weather, wind, current, tide is forecast to do and how it can change and under what circumstances. If you are exploring a new place, get some local knowledge, learn about hazards that might be unique to the area.  Don’t assume a downwind run off the North Shore of Maui will be like a downwinder off the coast of North Carolina, or up the Columbia River Gorge.  You get the picture.

All of us, and I mean all of us, have limitations.  From the most experienced waterman or waterwoman to the newbie.  We all make mistakes.  We can all suffer injuries that make us vulnerable on the water.  Even instructors, pro racers, triathletes, master swimmers, big wave surfers and experienced watermen and women can get into trouble. And if you fall into any of those categories, remember, you are a role model.  People admire you, watch what you do and emulate you.

There may be a fine line between pushing yourself so you learn as opposed to getting in over your head, so know where that line is.  And respect it.  Be honest with yourself.  It could save your life, and the lives of those around you.  And remember, wearing a leash and a PFD isn’t a sign of weakness….it’s a sign of intelligence.

Traditional PFDs

  • Inherently Buoyant Personal Floatation Devices will keep you from sinking without any form of activation, you don’t pull an inflation tab.
  • When worn properly – ie NICE AND TIGHT – they can help others rescue you by providing a way for said rescuer to grab onto you. And they will help YOU rescue someone else by giving you added buoyancy.
  • They will provide extra insulation and warmth in winter months.
  • New designs take SUP range of motion needs into account.
  • They DO NOT impede you from getting back on the board as much as you might think.
  • They cannot help you if you don’t wear them.
  • They are essential when in whitewater, fast moving rivers – especially those with snags and strainers (submerged logs and other obstacles) and in water under 68 degrees.
  • They may not be appropriate in the surf zone, when paddle surfing because they can impede your ability to dive under waves for safety. The USCG does not require their use in the surf zone when surfing.
  • And yes, they can be hot, especially in certain climates, so stay hydrated!

Inflatable PFDs

  • These popular waist belt PFDs are only USCG approved if they are worn.  Let’s say that again: you MUST wear the inflatable PFD for it to be “legal.” Having an inflatable or Type V PFD under your bungees DOES NOT MEET COAST GUARD REGULATIONS.

  • Inflatable PFDs must also be charged – ie: they must have a Co2 cartridge installed to be USCG approved.
  • Kids under 16 cannot wear inflatable PFDs.
  • They are to be worn in the front!

  • Practice using that inflatable PFD – know if you need to put it on over your head or have to hang on to it for flotation after it is deployed. Inflating it helps you know if it’s working properly. If you have one that uses the smaller cartridges, they are not expensive to replace, so practice, practice, practice!
  • You need to check it routinely for damage, like holes or rips and tears. See above.
  • It will not aid others in rescuing you.
  • Depending on the type, it may not help you rescue others.
  • It will not be useful in cold water scenarios.
  • Inflatable PFDs do have their place, like in training scenarios and in racing, when you may need to wearing a hydration pack.   Just accept and know the limitations of this type of PFD when you use it.


  • Yep, the Coast Guard requires us to carry a whistle. Sometimes yelling just simply can’t be heard.  But an emergency whistle can attract attention and fast. Have one handy.
  • Three long whistle blasts are the international signal for HELP! Use this when you are in an emergency or need help responding to one.
  • Two blasts is the call-back signal.  Use that when you want someone to come to you in a non-emergency scenario.
  • Blow one blast if you are trying to find someone and want them to answer.
  • Make sure everyone in your paddle party knows these signals.


  • The leash can make it so much easier to keep your board with you. Even on flat water.  Use it.
  • A leash alone is not going to keep you floating.  Only your PFD or your board will do that. See above about being a competent swimmer.
  • Coiled leashes are for flatwater.
  • Straight leashes are for surf.
  • If you are on a river, especially in white water conditions, use a quick release leash that is attached to your FULL PFD.

Rescue Skills

Have you ever had to rescue someone in the water? Would you know how to do it safely if you needed to? If not, think about taking a class that teaches those techniques -whether you paddle SUP, kayak, canoe, or surfski.

Learn and practice those techniques.  One of the most useful is the SUP Flip rescue:


Consider taking first aid and life saving classes, and keep a first aid kit handy, along with your phone. ALWAYS have a form of communication with you!!


We could go on and on. But we hope that at least this will get you thinking, if you haven’t been already, about the things you can do to stay as safe as possible and keep the stoke going!

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