By Pete Williams
Anyone paddling a canoe or kayak is conditioned to putting on a life jacket before climbing in a vessel. Even avid swimmers will encounter life-threatening situations while paddling. A life jacket or other personal flotation device (PFD) can save your butt.
So why is it that it’s still common for many if not most stand-up paddleboarders to take to the seas without a PFD or, at most, a life jacket strapped to the board where it’s of little use? After all, you’re more likely to fall off a SUP than tumble out of a canoe or kayak. A life jacket well beyond arm’s reach is of little use.
The PFD debate has raged since SUP exploded around 2010. It’s an issue nobody wants to discuss. For several years, race directors even joked about it at the start of races, saying something like, “Okay, you’re supposed to have a PFD on your board wear a leash. There, I said it.” Everyone chuckled and the race began.
These days, race directors require athletes to wear at least an inflatable PFD around their waists and many require leashes. Funny how a little liability and and nine pages of insurance premium boilerplate can inspire a change in mindset in a race director.
For the recreational paddleboarder, PFDs still are rare. It’s the water equivalent of the motorcycle helmet. “Hey, I’m a skilled rider, I don’t want to be burdened by a helmet/life jacket.”
But just as a skilled biker can be hit by an erratic car driver, an experienced paddleboarder faces constant danger from inconsiderate or drunk boaters and jet ski operators, to say nothing of sudden changes in weather and even marine life knocking you off the board.
Recently I was paddling in Madeira Beach. It was a windy day and the water was choppy. After a few minutes, I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and headed back to shore. On the way back, I encountered a boy of about 13 with his mother. The kid was on his knees, distressed, calling for mom. She was alongside him, also on her knees, trying unsuccessfully to calm him.
I paddled over. They had no PFDs or leashes. “Ma’am,” I asked. “Is this your first time on a board?”
She nodded. They had rented the boards from a city-approved vendor on the beach. They had received no instruction, no safety tips, no leashes or PFDs.
“Okay,” I said sternly. “You two need to head back to shore immediately. This is an awful day for paddleboarding, especially your first day.”
She nodded again and the two headed back. I shook my head. This is a common scene. Thankfully the worst thing to come out of the experience for them was that the son probably will never want to try SUP again. At least his experience ended safely.
Still, think how many people never try SUP again because of similar experiences. Or get hurt or injured.
Even if you’re a strong swimmer, do you want your life to depend on whether you can safely swim back to shore? An inflatable PFD worn around the waist, along with a leash attaching you to the board, is a small inconvenience. At the very least, you’ll save your expensive board investment.
You might also save your life.