How to stay safe while having fun on your standup paddleboard
Standup paddling is the fastest growing outdoor activity in the United States —and it’s easy to see why – it’s a fun way to get a great core workout, enhance your balance or even practice yoga on the water. But before you set out on a standup paddleboard, there are a few essentials you need to know to stay safe and get the most out of your experience.
Take a class: Seeing people on SUP Boards looks so fun and easy, giving people the impression that it requires no training. However, in the years I’ve been teaching standup paddling, I know how easy it for beginners to get into a difficult situation. For instance, I’ve seen people paddling downwind a long distance, only to struggle on their return trip, fighting waves and a head wind. In conditions like these, effective paddling techniques can not only help you steer your paddleboard better, but also help you with controlled and more effective paddling technique to get where you want to go faster. The American Canoe Association (ACA) offers classes all over the country.
Balance is key: Just because you’re athletic, doesn’t mean you’ll be a SUP star. I recall teaching a 200 lb. athlete and his petite wife. Tried as he did, he could not stay up on the board, whereas his wife, who did yoga, took to it easily. If you struggle with balance, it’s fine (and recommended) to start off on the board kneeling until you get the hang of it. This is especially recommended in oceans and big waters where the waves can easily throw you off the board.
Start flat: If you’re a beginner, start in flat waters and master your paddling techniques, including how to hold the paddle and how to turn around, before paddling on a large body of water or a river.
Quit while you’re ahead: Fatigue sneaks up on you fast, especially when you’re doing long-distance paddling or white-water river paddling. Slowly build up paddling distances and time spent navigating rigorous river or surf conditions. Accidents often happen when people are tired.
SUP safety tips:
- Before you get on the water, if you’re planning to paddle any distance away from shore, always share your float plan (your paddling route, expected departure and estimated arrival) with a friend or relative. In the unlikely case of an emergency, it will make locating you and getting help for you that much faster.
- If possible, paddle with a buddy and a phone in a waterproof case. Even if you do both of these, you still need to share your float plan.
- Floatation: Because standup paddleboards are considered watercraft vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard, all standup paddlers (except in surf zones) are required by law to wear a Coast Guard-approved personal floatation device (PFD) (life jacket) with a whistle. If you’re a strong swimmer, you might consider wearing an inflatable CO2 PDF (which inflates by pulling a tag). But know that these can fail if a person is panicking, unconscious or can’t reach the pull string in high seas. If you have one, test it out to make sure it works. If you’re a novice, stick with the life jacket, especially if you’re going to be away from shore. Of the 16 people who died in SUP accidents in the U.S. in 2016, 93.3% were not wearing life jackets. So, buckle up! Another safety device is a leash that keeps you connected to your board. Make sure this is secure on your angle or calf, no matter how calm the conditions.
Remember the Four Ws:
- Weather: Primary concerns are lightning, fog, and quickly changing temperatures. If it’s hot and sunny, UV-protected clothing, sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat is essential. Also bring plenty of water. Conversely, in colder temperatures you’ll need a warm hat, neoprene booties, gloves, and a dry suit or wet suit. Weather can change quickly, so be prepared for anything and be sure to check the local forecast frequently before your paddling session.
- Wind: To adjust to different wind directions and speed, learn different paddling techniques to help steer your SUP board. You also may have to adjust your intended route if high winds come up fast. Weather websites will also forecast wind speeds, so be sure to scan them before you go.
- Water: Know the water conditions: Is there a tide? What’s the bottom of the water like? Where is a safe place to launch your board? Are there motorized boats in the area that you need to stay away from? Give other boats (including sailboats) a wide clearance because you can’t assume they’ll see you and be able to easily avoid hitting you. Beginner paddlers should stay within 25 yards of shore at all times.
- Waves: The size and frequency of waves can seriously challenge a paddleboarder. Inexperienced and beginner paddlers should only be out in flat water. A beginner in big waves will find it difficult to keep their balance and stay on the board. Navigating in the waves can also be extremely challenging. Experienced paddlers will look for waves and are trained to paddle waves in surf zones, river white water or riding the waves downwind also called “downwinders.”
Above all, have fun! Not only is SUP a great way to get in shape, but it’s also a great family activity and allows you to explore scenic areas you might not be able to access otherwise. Just last week an eagle dove for a fish 50 feet from my board. So, what are you waiting for? If you live near a body of water, rent a paddleboard and get SUP’ing today!
Andrew Yeager is an ACA (American Canoe Association) Certified Standup Paddleboard instructor who’s been Standup paddling for 15 years and playing on the water for nearly 50.