Paddleboard Safety: Personal responsibility and it’s impact on others

Mullet Events, How To, Race Director, The Mullet Leave a Comment

At what point do our choices affect others? At what point does saying “personal responsibility” really mean we’re not taking personal responsibility or responsibility for the other competitors or the race directors?

In the past, most personal responsibility posts have been more on the back end, on the side of accepting consequences for our actions and not blaming others. Or used as an argument against blanket rules or regulations. I still agree with keeping liberty, keeping freedom. However, the real focus of this should be on personal preparation.

As local races get more ambitious, increasing the mileage on what is evolving as an endurance sport, there’s a point at which we need to consider new safety precautions. Part of personal responsibility is asking ourselves, “what if?” and stop assuming the race directors have it covered. What if I got separated from my board? What would I do? What if I needed to contact safety, Coast Guard, or EMS? What if I had to come to the rescue of another paddler?

Too often, we get to a race and transfer the safety and responsibility to the race directors.

How do I know? Because I’ve been that guy.

During the 2015 Cape to Cape race from Lewes, Delaware to Cape May, NJ across the Delaware Bay, I didn’t wear a leash. I remember looking east and west down the line of paddlers getting ready for the start. I don’t think there was a single leash on the prone side. I didn’t put my leash on because I didn’t want to be the only one. I’m 45 and I was acting like a 10 year old. I actually ran back to the truck and threw my leash in my gear bag.

It ended up being the second most difficult race I’ve ever paddled. (2015 Catalina Classic was my most difficult) The wind didn’t cooperate for a downwinder. If it had, and the wind picked up as expected, we would have surfed north for the 16 miles. Sounds great. But in reality, I probably got lucky.

I never asked the right questions.

Sure, I asked if I was physically prepared for the distance and conditions. I asked if had the right amount of hydration and nutrition for a 5-hour+ paddle (4.5 hour cap).  I asked how to get to the start, what to wear, if my Garmin was charged, if I had someone at the finish. I asked all of my usual questions.

What I did NOT ask was what if I had fallen off my board in the international shipping channel. We saw some tankers the size of an Empire State Building. With no way to communicate and unable to reach my board, I’d be floating and hoping. Maybe that’s the origin of the phrase Hope Floats.

The safety team would have no way to know I was in danger until they found me or my board or I didn’t make the cutoff. In searching for me, it would safety and support teams in danger. It would require a safety boat or more than one boat to search for me, drawing them away from the rest of the competitors. I would have put undue stress on the very group of people who were so kindly allowing me to go on this adventure. The same people who worked for months to make this happen.

I had no means of communication. No phone in a dry case. No global satellite communicator. No flare gun. (I’m kidding about the flare gun.)

In the framework of an organized event, personal responsibility extends to the impact of my actions and preparedness on others.

Safety in the Cape to Cape was amazing and I never felt out of contact with the safety boats. They were experienced and I had someone check in with me at least 5 times in the 4.5 hours, offering water, whatever I needed. They allowed me to push myself to my mental and physical limits. They gave me the opportunity to expand my perspective, to accomplish something that was extraordinary for someone like me.

Normally, I would say I took personal responsibility for my safety and outcome. But really, I was transferring the responsibility to the race directors and safety team. I was essentially assuming “someone” would get me if I got separated from my board. Yet looking back, I put them at risk. Dang. Sorry, Chad DeSatnick!

What did I learn about the concept of personal responsibility?

Respect the distance. Make sure to mentally and physically be prepared to do the course.

Respect the possibilities. Make sure I’m prepared for the possibility of conditions deteriorating quickly, for something going wrong.

Respect the conditions. What’s the water and air temp? Am I at risk of overheating, getting dehydrated because of teh heat, or the opposite, of hypothermia due to water and/or air temperatures?

Respect the setting. What type of environment will I face? Am I prepared for chop? Waves? Currents? Rapids? Rocks? Submerged trees? Sand bars? Rip currents? Sun? Wind?

Respect the race. Listen at racer meetings. Ask the questions about hazards. Listen to the safety officials. Follow directions. (Sorry Dan for doing the 6 mile course instead of the 3 miler).

Respect the rules. If a race requires PFDs, as is the law in the US, wear one. If a race requires a leash, wear one. Whatever the rule, respect it or don’t paddle.

Be self-reliant. Have what you need for hydration, nutrition, and safety.

I can’t tell you to do anything. It’s up to you to decide how responsible you feel for yourself and how to prepare. But for longer races, open water paddling and any self-supported events, this distressed baitfish is going to be tethered to his board, and able to be connected to safety personnel. I’m not saying I’ll be perfect or not make poor decisions at times. I have a history of them. Just look at previous posts. What I’m saying is I will try to ask the questions and at least make a decision for each scenario. I will make a choice. Hopefully, those choices will be good ones and I won’t put race directors and their safety personnel at risk again. Because in the framework of an organized event, my personal responsibility extends beyond how this affects me. It also extends to how much my actions and preparedness affect the safety and wellbeing of others.

—The Mullet

And special thanks to Chad DeSatnick for inspiring this post. I appreciate our conversations and what you’re trying to do. There’s something awesome there. 

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