by Trey Knight
The topic of leashes in whitewater paddling on a SUP is complicated, unique and a personal choice. I hope to bring some new perspective to people’s view on this and help them increase their sphere of awareness on the river. This article is more lengthy that I had intended, but I felt the nature of the decision people are making and it potential consequences required a bit more time and space.
Who doesn’t love a mountain vista, drinking a cup of coffee on a cabin porch overlooking the mountain landscape as the sun crests the ridgelines. Sounds pretty nice. The mountains have always called people to come recreate amongst them. John Muir said is as good as anyone ever has, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” There is something unique about the mountains and adventure, the decending into the unknown. Surfing the ocean is also one of the most unique and addicting sensations around. James Cook said of someone surfing, “I could not help concluding this man had the most supreme pleasure while he was driven so fast and so smoothly by the sea.” Riding the most powerful force on the earth, finding harmony with the sea is a powerfully emotional experience on par with the feeling we get while in the majesty of the mountains.
Whitewater stand up paddleboarding is a way that we can combine both the magical experiences above. The joy of being on a raging whitewater river on a paddleboard is unique and powerful. Making sense of chaos, finding your line and becoming one with the river is an amazing draw. These are some of the reasons SUP and specifically whitewater SUP is continuing to grow. More and more people are being drawn to the river. The sport of fall down paddleboarding has given way to whitewater SUP. As companies and paddlers continue to refine the boards used for standing up on the river, the access to the sport for new paddlers grows.
As any young sport there are many challenges from education, to race rules, to best practices for safety. There are as many perspectives as there are paddlers and different rivers creating unique experiences for individuals all over the world. We can all agree that we need helmets and lifejackets, affectionately known as PFD’s. Footwear is also key to better performance on the river and the prevention of foot injuries. Leashes are more of a gray area and like anything requires a person to be logical and make a personal decision; just like they have in deciding to take a SUP down a whitewater river.
There are many types of rivers: small shallow creeks, damn released technical rivers, natural flowing big rivers, river with rocks, trees, other random trash and debris. Whitewater in general is a very dangerous sport, this is part of its appeal and attraction. The number of hazards in a whitewater river are limitless. When we add a leash to this equation it doesn’t really change much. We want to think it does, but it is just a small piece of the puzzle we have to solve to make a decision on whether we paddle, and how we paddle. Before we head out on the river we need to decide about a number of things: what is the weather that day, water temperature, difficulty of the river, water level or flow rate, possibility of how the water level may change, who we are paddling with, how many people, what is everyone’s skill and experience level, what board to paddle, whether to wear a leash or not and the list goes on an on. Leashes in whitewater can kill you. There are a number of things in the river that can do this, most of them are outside of your control. The leash hazard is a different circumstance compared to a strainer or other river hazard. While we make a decision to paddle in rivers with hazards that can be fatal, taking a hazard into that environment is a different decision. We have to look at the leash as both a hazard and a piece of safety equipment, simultaneously.
Before we get into the decision to wear a leash or not we need to talk about the type of leashes There are a number of different types of leashes that a paddler can choose to use in whitewater. The thing that HAS to be in common with all of them is the leash’s ability to be released under tensile load, with either hand, and attached on the front of the upper body. The use of rescue PFD’s creates a releasable mechanism that a non-releasable leash can be attached to, but a paddler needs to have take a training class on how to use this PFD; usually a swiftwater rescue class. As a side note, anyone paddling stand up in whitewater should take a swiftwater rescue class. Learning more advanced skills for rescue, specifically self rescue can easily save you life or the life of a fellow paddler. Take a class. Before we talk more about whether to wear a leash, let’s reiterate, leashes in whitewater can kill you and they can save your life. The leash you wear in whitewater has to be releasable by either hand and that release mechanism has to be on the front of your body (this is repeated on purpose for emphasis). Wearing a leash in whitewater in a way, other that as I have described is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS and can very easily become a fatal mistake. There are leashes that come with belts, in which the belt has a releasable mechanism, we will call this a belt leash. There are leashes with windsurf style releases built in that can be clipped to hard point on a PFD, we will call this clip-in leashes. There are traditional ankle cuff leashes that can be attached to the release mechanism in a rescue PFD. Then there are the homemade frankenstein leashes that combine elements of the other categories. There are others I am sure, but for the most part we can lump most into one or more of the above categories. It is important to know how your leash releases, practice releasing it under load, what are the benefits of that specific type of leash and what are the specific hazards that type of leash presents.
Types of leashes:
- Rescue PFD
Looking at each of the above style leashes, belt leashes, clip-in leashes, rescue jacket leashes, and homemade leashes there are some commonalities. They are not tested or approved by an objective agency such as the USCG or UL as are life jackets, so buyer beware. Companies generally have the best interest of the paddler at heart when producing a product, but they have a mission to stay in business by selling their products and have a bias towards their product. Certain products might be better for certain types of rivers or certain regions of the country where rivers, paddlers, and the culture are more aligned with a certain product. Some questions to think about: how much tensile force does a leash withstand before breaking, are there circumstances when you want it to break, is there a tensile load that can cause the release mechanism to fail and not release, what happens when the release mechanism or leash is twisted, pinched, torqued or sheared? While your leash can save you life by preventing board separation it can also kill you; you have to think about these questions and fully understand the limitations and risks of your chosen leash.
Let’s look as some specifics of the leash types for the river.
Belt leashes are very easily adjustable and user friendly, they allow different people to use the same leash, the same paddler to change how they can wear the leash and the release mechanism is one that has a history of use in whitewater in a way that it is reliable in its performance. The fast-tec buckle is widely used and tested for use in whitewater under heavy tensile and other load forces because it has been used by companies manufacturing life jackets and other products for a long time. The major risk of a belt leash is that your release mechanism is a rope attached to a buckle that you have to pull, and while attached to a belt that is by nature never attached to anything else only wrapping around yuo can move. This means depending on how you fall and entangle your leash this release mechanism may end up somewhere where behind you in a difficult to reach location. Now, I can, while standing and typing this reach around my back, grab and release this mechanism; doing this while drowning is a whole different story. There are ways to help minimize the potential for this to happen, but the only way to eliminate this hazard with belt leashes is to attached the belt to you, doing so will take away the belts releasability and mitigate the whole point of the belt. The way a belt can move might allow a leash to stay towards your back while paddling, especially surfing so this specific benefit while surfing is also a hazard. More on the positives of leashes weighed against the hazards later.
The clip-in leash also allows for a variety of paddlers and usages in how the release mechanism is down load of the hard point. The leash attaches to you in a way that it is not releasable, but just down the leash is a release mechanism allowing you to detach the leash from the hard point. This release mechanism is similar to the ones used in kiteboarding and windsurfing and thus in a way has been tested and is reliable under certain conditions. It has not been tested over a long period of time or on a large scale in whitewater; where some forces are of a similar nature in their size and direction there is a significant probability that there are just as many forces that are not similar. This type of leash does not inherently move around if you take care how you attach it to you. When attaching the hard point to your life jacket you can place it on a long strap that will allow the hardpoint top move making it hard to find and potentially unreachable. You can prevent this by making sure to attach it to a point on the front of your life jacket to a point that will not allow it to move. The shoulder strap may seem like a good place, but if pull back and down this will quickly become unreachable, and will also pull your upper torso down towards the water. By clipping to the front of your life jacket you may feel the leash can get in the way of moving while surfing and want to place it on your side or back. Doing this may significantly change the risks associated with wearing a leash, remember the river is a dynamic place and things can change quickly.
There are a number of ways we can use a rescue vests to create a releasable leash for whitewater. One way is to attach the ankle cuff of a tradition leash to our rescue ring. The rescue vest functionality allow for this to be releasable by a mechanism located on the front of the jacket, reachable by both hands, and in a way that the release mechanism doesn’t move. The hazard with this type is the snag potential the cuff can have; making sure to wrap the cuff tightly around the ring helps minimize this risk. You should always use a rescue ring, never attach the leash cuff to the rescue belt on the jacket. Remember, hard on soft, soft on hard; never soft on soft. Due to the significant testing and third party approval process for life jackets, the rescue vest leash is one of the best options for reliability and functionality; which help minimize some of the hazards with a leash. The downside is the rescue vest is more complicated and user error or lack of user education can mitigate all the benefit and actually increase the risks associated with this type.
I will say it yet again, a leash will save your life or kill you. Something so important should not be the subject of your MacGyver flashbacks. Unless you have training and experience with engineering and manufacturing you should not try to create any complicated leash systems with redundancies, lower or higher tensile breaking points etc. Now a fixed length of rope attached to my rescue vest may seem homemade, but I would put it under the rescue vest category. Significant time and energy should be spent testing any mechanism that is this important; not only testing for its design, but also the manufacturing quality and reliability.
Coiled or Fixed Length
Other than the type of release mechanism on your leash you also have to consider the leash type itself; length and style (coiled vs. fixed length). An advantage of a fixed length leash is that it is usually not on your board and the section that is will not be disruptive to your paddling if and when you step on it. This also means that the leash is dragging in the water where it may become entangled with branches, trees, rocks, litter, etc. A coiled leash might get in the way of moving on your board and can destabilize you if you step on it at an inopportune time, but it also does not drag. There are risks and rewards for both. The type of river you are paddling and the type of paddling you are doing can change the risk versus reward decision for each person, but paddlers have to understand that these decisions are taking place and make them objectively, with good information.
To Wear or Not to Wear: That is the question
Now that we have a better understanding of the specific types of leashes, their benefits and risks, we can talk more about the decision of whether or not to wear a leash on the river. This post is, as many are this week, in reaction to recent tragic events. Another letter from paddlers that I respect (Dave Kalama & Warren Currie) states that “We believe that we, as a collective industry, must take a vehement stand in the education and encouragement of the use of leashes on all types of SUP’s, on all types of water, and in all conditions.” I could not disagree more with the section of this statement that states “leashes on all types of SUP’s on all types of water, and in all condition.” Leashes do save lives, as with anything when used properly and in appropriate conditions for that leash. There is a great public service announcement video from the ACA that talks about leashes and lifejackets for SUP that frames this very well and is a great informational and educational tool. Some of the first reported drownings in SUP were on moving water rivers; not whitewater, but flat moving rivers. In these drownings paddlers were wearing leashes but not lifejackets. Their leashes entangled trees or some other entanglement hazard and held them down. They, in this case, underestimated the power and relentless nature of the river and used the wrong type of leash for the paddling environment. Those decisions cost them their lives. There is no rule that can be applied to any and all situations except to stop and think objectively about the risks and rewards of wearing a leash or lifejacket.
Let’s look at a few hypotheticals and past incidents so we can analyze what the decisions people make really mean and if they are rationalizing a bad decision or making a good one.
A year or two ago at a popular park and play spot on the Potomac River stand up paddlers and kayakers were surfing together on several consecutive waves. The upper wave being better for longer faster boards and a latter wave better for shorter slower playboats, many SUP’s were upstream of the kayaks. There has been a growing practice while river surfing on a SUP to bail and swim for the eddy dragging your board behind you. This allows for you to push it a bit further on the wave, not really being concerned about how dynamic a fall may become and what might happen to the board during a dynamic fall. This practice was no doubt being used by many stand up paddlers that day. Now, I wasn’t there and have heard several stories about what actually took place, but regardless of accurate facts the gist of this situation is worth considering. A SUP surfer bailed on a wave, began swimming towards the eddy towing the board or just got flushed downstream separate from the board but attached by a leash; either way the end is the same. The stand up paddlers’ leash is wrapped around the kayaker while they are upside down; arm, wrist or neck all result in a hazard and risk to the kayaker. The stand up paddlers, having a releasable leash releases and swims away unharmed. The leash remains tangled around the kayaker attached to a board being pulled downstream by the river.
This type of situation can be fatal for those around us when we choose to use a leash on a river where other paddlers are present; this could be at a play spot or while paddling downstream on a river. It could be kayakers, canoes, or rafters swimming out of their boat. What is the real risk to the stand up paddler in this incident. If the water and weather were cold long swims can be dangerous because of hypothermia, but this is a popular and easily accessible play spot in an urban river. If the stand up paddler loses the board a fellow paddler can retrieve it for them or they can walk downstream to retrieve it himself. If the board is gone forever, they can swim across a calmer spot and walk to the car. So why did this paddler endanger not only himself but potentially cause a fatal incident for another lover of the river? What was the real upside measured against this risk to self and other? They didn’t want to chase their board.
You and some other paddlers are paddling down a class II-III river with higher flow rates and the river is in a gorge without much access. The weather is on the colder side and the water is cold as well. There are not many other paddlers on the river. In this, very common hypothetical, you have a completely different risk versus reward situation. In this, being separated from your board could me long dangerous swims, hypothermia, long overnight hikes out of the gorge for you or for others. So the leash becomes a tool to help prevent those occurrences. It still carries risks, but now the reward has changed. If this river is full of strainers and downed trees the risk is higher than if there are very few entanglement hazards.
These are vastly different situations and this discussion can go on forever as the number of variables that affect each paddler in uniques situations are limitless so all situations are unique. The other aspect that affects this decision is what is the paddler’s skill level and how does that compare to the river. At times I have asked myself of other paddlers; are they using the leash as a crutch to minimize certain risks associated with paddling at or above their limit. You will fall off your board in whitewater SUP, but there is a significant difference how and where you fall in a rapid that is dependent on your skills and knowledge. Falling at the top of a rapid versus the pool at the bottom is one example. Does the river have pools between rapids or is it continuous? These things affect whether or not you might to choose to wear a leash.
In past Tuck Fest races I have allowed leashes in downriver single racer races and not allowed them in SUP cross because of the change in risks for those 2 situations. In hindsight I should not allowed them in the downriver race due to the risk they present to kayakers and rafters at the US National Whitewater Center. I allowed the leashes so that paddlers who fell could get back on their boards faster and have better times. I should have not allowed the leashes. Having the leash did not minimize risk of injury to the paddler, but helped them have a faster time if the fell; while it raised the risk to other river users. Since then I have chosen to prohibit the use of any leash on any board at the USNWC. During the female SUP cross at Tuck Fest, the racers asked if they could wear leashes, since it was just two of them and the risk of both of them being tangled in one another’s leash was smaller, could they wear their leashes so if they fell their times could be faster. I again allowed this to happen when I should not have.
Since I started not wearing a leash a few months back I have changed the way I paddle and the way I fall. I rarely lose contact with my board, where when I had a leash I fell with no regard for my board increasing the risk to myself and others around me.
One of the main arguments for leashes being worth the risks is that board separation can be very hazardous. You are at higher risk of injury swimming through a rapid as compared to going through it on your board. The same can be said about kneeling versus standing, but we choose to stand and bear the higher risk because of the reward. A board is not like a kayak or canoe that fills with water and can be retrieved in most circumstances. A board has a better chance than other craft to continue downstream, potentially for miles, leaving a paddler stranded. However, if that river is next to a road, that risk is not as significant. The type of river you are paddling and what your skills and experience are, greatly change how much of a rapid you may swim, how dynamic a fall might be, and the chance of a swim in certain places so while one paddler may feel they need to wear a leash another may not.
I choose to wear a leash on some rivers and not on others. Some rivers I wear a leash on certain rapids and take it off for others. These decisions continue to evolve as I do as a person and as a paddler; affected by both my experiences and those of others around me. I hope this article has helped people expand their sphere of awareness on the river. My hope is to not convince you to change your decision about whether or not you wear a leash or when to wear a leash, but to make you think critically about that decision and come to an objective and reasonable decision about what you chose to do on the river.
About the Author
Trey Knight is the Kayak and SUP Manager at the US National Whitewater Center where he oversees the participation of 40,000+ paddlers in flatwater and whitewater paddleboarding. Trey is also the Vice Chair for the SUP Discipline Committee for the American Canoe Association. He is the only Level 4: Advanced Whitewater SUP Instructor Trainer for the American Canoe Association and is a Level 4: Whitewater Rafting Instructor Trainer and Level 5: Advanced Swiftwater Rescue Instructor. He is a team paddler for C4 Waterman and one of the designers of the River Pro Opae SUP. He has been an outdoor recreation education administrator for 8 years and has been training outdoor sport instructors and educators for over 10 years. Trey has lectured on SUP education and paddlesports risk management at the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education National Conference, the International Boating and Water Safety Summit, the American Camp Association National Conference, the US Coast Guard Auxiliary Conference, the East Coast Paddlesports and Outdoor Festival, Canoecopia and the New Jersey Paddler’s Paddlesport Show.