— -- Go to any popular lake, beach or river and you are bound to see someone on a stand-up paddleboard. The sport has grown at an epic rate: according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, its popularity has surged by nearly 120 percent over the last 3 years.
But the U.S. Coast Guard is offering a new warning: it says the uptick in paddlers has meant more rescues. Fifteen paddleboarders died in 2016 -- three in just one weekend. In many cases, an unknown danger -- wind -- played a huge part.
If you read nothing more in this article:
-- Wear a life vest and attach a whistle to it. Coast Guard regulations mandate that outside of swimming areas, paddleboards are vessels. Therefore children under 12 must wear a life vest and adults must have access to a life vest.
-- Wear a leash. If you are paddleboarding on a river, keep reading ... it's a little complicated.
-- Check the weather and wind speed and direction before you go on a paddleboard.
-- Tell someone where you are going, when to expect you back and at what point they should call 911 if you have not returned.
It Happens Fast
Nancy Kupa says she was paddling back from the lighthouse in Lewes, Delaware, when the wind came up. She says a wave knocked her off her board. She wasn’t wearing a life jacket or using a leash. The current and wind swept her board away.
"I was way too far off shore for people who were sitting on the beach to be able to see me," she says, adding that she started to get tired. "[I thought] 'how am I going to tread water for long enough for someone to come and hear me?' I thought this was it."
Kupa believes she would have drowned if a passing boat didn't rescue her. The Coast Guard says they don’t keep data on the exact number of paddleboarders they rescue each year, but that Kupa’s story is all too familiar.
The Wind Experiment
I started paddleboarding 6 years ago, now it’s a passion. I own 3 boards, take my kids out on them, and consider it a fun and challenging workout. But the thing I’m most concerned about when I hit the water, is an unexpected change in the wind speed or direction. To show how much wind factors into this sport, I head to Doran Beach in California, and meet up with the crew from Bodega Bay Coast Guard station.
I start by paddling out 300 yards for five minutes with a light breeze at my back. Despite the merely 10 mile an hour wind, its ferocity surprises me when I turn around. Paddling as hard as I can, it takes me 15 minutes to get back to shore.
Paul Newman, the Coast Guard’s Recreational Boating Safety manager, greets me back at the beach to explain some of the issues.
"I was actually very worried for you," he says. "I was not happy standing on the beach watching you do that."
Newman points out that with the wind at their back, paddlers often totally underestimate the power of it. When paddlers turn to face it, their body acts like a sail, making it much harder to paddle against the wind. They get fatigued and often panic.
Newman describes the aforementioned issue: "When you came to the beach you said you were right at your limit," he says. "You’re a sports person. You do this. You’ve been paddling for a while. And to get to know that that was your limit just going that short distance in 10 mile an hour winds that was a lot."
He’s right -- it was a lot! I was fighting hard and making little progress. I was concerned about whether I would make it back to shore.
To show how "scary" can quickly become a dangerous or even deadly situation, we wait an hour. The winds have picked up considerably and the Coast Guard estimates it’s blowing between 18 to 20 miles an hour.
I launch from the shore and paddle just 5 minutes with the wind at my back. When I turn around, I am shocked, the Coast Guard measures my distance at 700 yards off shore -- more than one-third of a mile. As I turn to head back, the waves that had seemed gentle, suddenly hit me sideways and I have to drop to my knees to stay on the board.
I wobble up to a standing position and start to dig in. I can barely get any momentum going. The waves are concussive enough to knock my board off course so I spend more time switching sides with my paddle to get the board’s nose headed straight into the wind.
I get just a little sideways to the waves and boom- I’m off the board and in the water. I get up on my board to give it another try, but even sitting on it, the wind gets under the nose of the board and flips me back in the water again.
The Coast Guard pulls the plug on this experiment for safety reasons and hoists me into their boat.
The Coast Guard’s Newman points out that four people died last year in the exact same situation, saying, “The waves knocked them off their boards and they drown.”
He also notes the role cold water plays in these situations, “The water temperature here is 49 degrees. People hit the cold water, it shocks them, they gasp and inhale a big mouthful of water.”
It’s called cold water drowning and while the Coast Guard doesn’t have a hard rule on water temperature they recommend paddle boarders wear wet suits if the water temperature is under 70 degrees.
Nothing in this article is meant to scare you away from the sport. Newman describes paddleboarding best, saying, “It’s a lot of fun and it’s actually really safe if you just do a couple of things.” So let’s get to the specifics.
Top Paddleboarding Safety Tips
Check the weather: specifically thunderstorms and wind. I like the apps WindFinder and WindAlert, they forecast wind speed changes and also show maps with wind directions.
Lifevest: Read this Coast Guard FAQ on paddleboard lifevest regulations. Outside of swimming and surfing areas, you must have a lifevest available on your paddleboard, it’s advised you wear it. Children 12 and under must wear a lifevest. There are inflatable lifevests that you wear around your waist--most serious paddle boarders prefer those.
Whistle: Attach a whistle to your lifevest so you can call for help if needed.
Leash: Staying with your board is your best chance of survival if something goes wrong. In wind and waves your board can easily get away from you. If you are paddling on a river, the leash issue is a little more complicated. Because of trees and other strainers you may want a breakaway leash. Talk to someone experienced before you hit the river.
Float plan: Tell someone where you are going, how long you’ll be gone and when to call 911 if you are not back. If you can’t tell someone, download the Coast Guard app and file a float plan using the app before you leave. While cell phones can sometimes work on the water, the Coast Guard says that for long treks and serious downwind paddlers, a marine band radio is advised.
ID your board: If you own your own board, the Coast Guard asks that you put a phone number on it. If they find a board floating, they assume there’s a paddler in the water somewhere and commence a search. If there’s a phone number on the board they can call to see if the paddler is safe.
Paddle lower: If you hit wind that makes it impossible to move forward while standing- drop to your knees and paddle, you’re more aerodynamic. If that still doesn’t work, lie down on the board with your paddle under your body and paddle with your arms like a surfer. Never abandon your board and try to swim.
Stay with your board: Imagine a boat or a Coast Guard helicopter team trying to spot a wet bobbing head in the water. Compare that image to trying to spot a 10 foot long board. You are always safer and easier to find with the board. If possible wear bright colors.