It’s early morning, the sky is clear with a light breeze and you’re out gently paddling your SUP. Life is good at SML!
Stand Up Paddle Boards (SUPs) have become a very popular option for getting out on the water. They are versatile, great fun, excellent exercise and safe when used properly. So let’s consider the things we should know before we launch. Remember, unless you’re in a designated swimming area, the SUP is a vessel operating on State or Federal waters. For this discussion, we’ll limit our considerations to lake or flat water use. Rivers and coastal surf will dictate different approaches.
Life Jacket – First of all, it’s required that everyone aboard a paddle board have an approved life jacket along. The US Coast Guard requires children under 13 years to wear their life jackets. For the rest of us, it is extremely wise to also be wearing ours since one carried on the deck will likely scoot away with the paddleboard should we take a spill. Inflatable PFDs are approved on SUPs but in most cases they must be worn to meet regulations. Auto-inflate models are OK to use, but should they get wet and discharge, a new arming kit will have to be purchased (usually about $20) and installed. An additional “Throwable Flotation Device” is not required on SUPs as it is in boats.
Whistle – Regulations require an “efficient sound producing device” be carried. A whistle is the best option and it is best carried attached to your life jacket--another good reason to wear that PFD!
Flashlight – If you’re paddling after dark, you must have a light to make yourself visible to other boaters. Obviously being out in low light conditions can be risky. Be sure to avoid areas where power boats operate.
SUP Leash – Since you are already wearing your life jacket, the next most important safety item is the paddle board leash. It doesn’t matter what your experience level is, this is a critical piece of equipment. The leash attaches the paddler to the SUP. In windy conditions, an SUP without a leash can float away in seconds. The leash should be one foot longer than the SUP. The best choice for flat water use is the coiled leash since it will stay on top of the board and not drag in the water, slowing you down. The leash attaches to your ankle or just below the knee and should have a quick release feature.
Where to Paddle – Here we have great freedom. Paddle boards can go just about anywhere. However, let’s choose our course carefully. Although we have great visibility when standing on an SUP, we present a fairly small silhouette to other boaters. And if we have fallen into the water or are laying on the board, we may be almost impossible to see. While others boats are required to stand clear of paddle craft, it’s in our best interest to operate defensively. Staying out of high traffic areas and being aware of other watercraft will help. Staying relatively close to shore is a good practice, but remember that shallows or shoreline can cause injury should you fall off. If it’s necessary to cross a channel, pick your time carefully and go directly across to minimize your exposure.
Falling off the Board – There are those that don’t find this as a concern. For the rest of us, getting wet is just part of the adventure. When a dismount from the board seems inevitable, consider giving in and falling clear. A plunge into the water is better than hitting the board on the way down. Push the paddle away so you don’t fall on it. When you resurface, swim to the SUP before retrieving the paddle to reduce the chances of the board drifting out of reach. The paddle will float and can be retrieved after re-boarding the SUP.
Conditions Deteriorate – When starting out, consider paddling into the wind. This will usually result in a return with the wind, thus not over-exerting an increasingly tired paddler. If conditions turn nasty, remember you can paddle from a kneeling position for more stability. For even greater stability and reduction of wind effect, lie on top of the board and use your hands to paddle as if on a surfboard.
Safety in Numbers – Paddle with a partner. It’s more fun to share the experience with a friend. It also makes you more visible and increases options for self-rescue. Having someone close at hand who can either directly assist or call for help can make a real difference. Always know the unexpected can happen. Prior to departure it’s also wise to let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. Carrying a cell phone in a waterproof bag is a good idea for voyages away from your immediate area.
Sunscreen – As a final reminder we should take some precaution against the sun’s UV rays. There’s no shade out there and that's compounded by the reflections off the water. Sunglasses for the eyes and a broad hat to protect the head and shoulders is a good start. For areas not covered, a good high-SPF waterproof sunscreen is recommended. Re-apply per the product’s directions as you would after swimming.
If you haven’t yet ventured out on an SUP, perhaps it’s time to give it a try: borrow one from a neighbor or rent from any of the lake's providers. But whether you’re a new or veteran paddler, attention to a few rules and precautions will make your time on the water more enjoyable and safer.