Safety Discussion from the Surf Expo

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surf expo safety meeting

“We need to take responsibility for the safety of the people in our sport.” Tyler callaway leads off the stand up Paddleboard manufacturer’s safety meeting at @surfexpo.

On Friday, September 9th at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida manufacturers, media, and representatives from the Coast Guard, American Canoe and Kayak Association (ACA) and the Water Sports Foundation (WSF) met to discuss the manufacturer’s’ role in addressing the increase in injury and death while paddleboarding.

Jeff Hoedt from the USCG lead off with the state of boating safety statistics. From 2011 – 2015 there were 3205 boating fatalities in the US of which SUP was an extremely small percentage of those fatalities attributed to paddle sports. However, while the actual N was small, it has tripled in the past year. And with participation rising, so will the number of deaths. In 2016 alone, we have 14 deaths and it’s only September.

Many of you are wondering “What about cardiac events?”

The USCG records the deaths as they are reported. There is an investigation period where the cause of death is determined and a corresponding investigation deadline at which time any fatalities that were not related to the paddling, such as a cardiac event, are disqualified from the statistics. They are taken off the list.

Next questions: “How many were wearing PFDs?” “How many were wearing leashes?”

Good questions. Of the 14 deaths in 2016, 8 drowned, of which 7 did not have a pfd and 1 did. The remaining 6 have an unknown cause of death (under investigation) and none of them are confirmed to have been wearing a pfd.

USCG statistics

Note that this doesn’t include having a pfd on your board which is compliant with the law, but not common sense.

What is the problem?

For paddlers: the problem is with what they ingeniously called self-service retailers where people are buying boards and paddles off a rack at a big box store, unassisted and without warnings of the risks. They not only aren’t given any instruction on how to paddle safely and effectively, but also aren’t given warnings on the potential hazards. The inexpensive products lower the barrier of entry, increasing the number of people out on the water. They leave with a board and paddle with the impression that there is not only no skill or preparation involved, but that it is inherently safe and easy. They have no knowledge of the risks not because they are lazy, but because they don’t even consider the possibility of danger. There is no one to simply say, “you will need a pfd and appropriate leash, and this is where you can access the water, this is how you treat boat traffic, look at the weather forecast and are you a strong swimmer or are you familiar with where you plan to paddle?” So many simple questions that specialty retailers talk about every day, but self-service retailers don’t have the staff or knowledge base to provide.

“You have drawn in millions of new users. You have created a new industry. But users don’t think it takes any skill to go out.” —Jeff Hoedt, USCG

Herein lies the risk to manufacturers. They are at risk of being sued for providing equipment without educating the consumers on the potential risks of using their products. We’ll get to that.

Now couple the cheap equipment, purchased as easily as a gallon of milk or an AR-15, with glossy pictures of paddlers in the media and magazine ads and articles without any safety equipment, and you have a blissfully ignorant group of happy-go-lucky paddlers getting themselves into dangerous situations. Again, we could get into swim proficiency, health status, age, conditions, etc. but we’ll save that, too.

So it looks fun. It looks easy. It’s cheap to buy at Costco. Everyone they see can do it. These uninformed novice and first time paddlers don’t have the benefit of a warning or even a hint of the possible perils they may face. Even the ones who do find out the laws, are left with a pfd on the deck of their board which obviously does nothing to protect them as the fall off the back and shoot the board downwind and out of reach.

“Life jackets work only when you wear them.” —Water Safety Foundation educational video

Why is the Coast Guard concerned if there are only 14 deaths out of 3205 total boating deaths?

As strange as this may sound, it’s a combination of two things. First, there are increased media reports highlighting a new danger to fear. These are dramatic stories because they highlight people dying in ways no one thought you could die. Newspapers love this. It’s not a Darwin award, it’s as odd sounding as a person died while making toast. People don’t think you can die doing this. The media gets tired of shark bites and an alligator chomping off someone’s buttocks and need something to dramatize.  The second part is the phone calls the USCG is getting from legislators saying “What are you going to do about this problem?”

The rate has tripled this year, but the number is low. However, there is a trend. They want to head this off. That’s why we all met.

The meeting wasn’t set to change legislation or shape new laws, it was meant to guide best practice recommendations and potential warning language for manufacturers and retailers to adopt with their packaging and labeling and for point of purchase displays.

The Coast Guard is simply saying that if you don’t fix this problem as an industry, we will. It’s fine to say that people need to be personally responsible and be better watermen, but honestly, the ones getting hurt are often blissfully unaware of the risks.

If as an industry we can make consumers understand the risks, they can make better, more educated decisions. The key is not to have more legislation and more laws, but to decrease senseless, preventable accidents. It’s a tricky balance and that’s why so many people were in the room. It’s a process. I’m happy to say it was nice to see the ACA and SUPIA work with the coast guard and legal counsel to find a workable solution.

Personal responsibility has to follow education. An education starts with manufacturers and extends to rentals and retailers.

I think that’s the key. Many of us understand the risks from experience on the water. We take personal responsibility. But we now live in an inflatable cheeseburger world where sups are closer to pool toys than ocean crafts and they are being treated as such. People have no idea.

I don’t think any of us want new regulations. And the chances of changing the law are slim to none and would take an estimated 13-15 years according to the USCG, and that’s with a congress that worked.

The bottom line is manufacturers have to find a way to do a better job of letting consumers know the risks and how to plan accordingly. The media has to educate the consumers. Advertising has to present paddlers with safety equipment. Rental companies need to adopt the appropriate leash addition and wearing PFDs. And self-serve retailers have to do a better job of creating point of purchase displays warning consumers of the risks.