PFDs, Leashes and Lives: How Do We Get the Message Across?

Lisa Schell Explore, Safety Leave a Comment

A Note on the Cover Photo: Current US Coast Guard regulations only require a PFD be on the board, as shown in the photo above. But it is extremely difficult to put a PFD on in an emergency situation, or if the board gets away from you and you are not wearing a leash.  ALWAYS WEAR A PFD.

Leashes, PFDs and SUP Education

Here at Mullet Central, we try to maintain a Stoke Only Zone. It’s important to us to stay positive and stoked about all the things about paddling that make us so happy and keep us strong as a community. So what I am writing might seem like a departure.

And I might be preaching to the choir.

But honestly, there is something I am growing very weary of – writing, it seems like every other week or so, about another needless SUP-related drowning in a lake or river or otherwise benign-appearing body of water somewhere.   In fact, it seems to be getting to be so commonplace, I actually found myself worrying that I’m getting desensitized to these stories. The scenario is almost always the same:  paddleboarder falls off, gets into trouble, disappears underwater and is found a day or two later by search and rescue officials. The story always includes this sentence, “He/she wasn’t wearing a leash.” And/Or “his/her pdf was found on the board.”

Leashes, PFDs and SUP Education

Safe Paddling is No Accident

And it’s not just the SUPs.  It happens to kayakers too.  Every time I visit one of my near-by lakes, I see just as many recreational kayakers on the water not wearing PFDs as I do SUPs. But the fact of the matter is, more people are trying SUP, and the easier access is to paddle boards — whether it’s via inexpensive warehouse discount store boards or low-cost inflatables — the increased number of inexperienced paddlers there is on the water without the proper safety gear. 

When I teach classes, I am always amazed at the number of students who scoff at having to wear a PFD or a leash. Or even when we explain our weather safety protocol, which includes coming off the water for a full 30 minutes after thunder is distinctly heard.  That clock starts over if thunder is heard at any time during that half hour reset.  If we see lightening, we usually cancel that class period.  Now, thunderstorms are a part of life here in the South, but we have to take them seriously. And if you have ever been caught exposed and vulnerable in one, it’s not something you ever want to go through again.

But it’s easy to misread the weather, especially in a place where if you don’t like it, all you have to do is wait five minutes for the meteorological conditions to change.  But not wearing a PFD and a leash, that’s a little more willful. Every time we undo the straps on our boards, take them off the car, and walk them to the water’s edge, we have a choice.  Either we put on the PFD and the leash or we don’t.

Just like when we get on a bike. We have a choice to put on a helmet.

Just like when we get in the car. We have a choice to buckle the seat belt.

However, in some places, wearing a bike helmet and a car seat belt might be the law.

Wearing a leash is not a requirement (except in some local coastal surfing communities where town ordinances may require them in the surf zone.)  The PFD has to be on the board.  Regulations do not require it be actually be worn.

But we all  know they cannot help you if you don’t wear them.

Or do we?

Do all of those folks buying boards from places like Costco or Dick’s or even REI or online, know that paddling can be dangerous but there are steps to take to lessen that risk? If no one is there to explain it to them, how will they learn?  Many people just simply don’t believe how fast a board can get away from you, especially in unpredictable, changeable weather.  Or how hard it can be to swim after a board.

Pretty likely ,just judging anecdotally by what I see on my favorite lakes, many of those paddlers aren’t paying any attention to written materials that might accompany their purchase.   Outfitters and rental agencies need to make sure they are including PFDs and leashes with their rental gear, along with a stern talk about why they need to use them.   And retailers need to do all they can to encourage purchases of both items with any purchase of a paddle board.  Maybe offer a discount. Maybe include it in the purchase price. Starboard has taken a step in this direction. Other board makers, too.  Many local shops are doing this as well.

Leashes, PFDs and SUP Education

Image from Yolo Boards

What will it take?

Maybe it’s time the regulations are changed – make wearing PFDs a requirement – not just carrying them.  Maybe leashes need to be added to that requirement. And then those regulations need to be enforced thoroughly.

Certainly instructors and we in the paddle media have to continue to do what we can to encourage and educate – to explain what kind of leashes to use in what conditions, and how to properly fit PDFs.  But plenty of people are hitting the water without ever taking a class or reading a SUP magazine or web post.   What about those folks?  What about those folks who just believe that it will never happen to them, that they are good swimmers, that they won’t ever fall, or that the PFD is too hot, too uncomfortable or not fashionable? What about those who just think the leash is a nuisance? Or those who think their local lake is simply too calm for leashes and PDFs?

We might never be able to reach those folks. No amount of friendly conversation at the water’s edge or gentle (or not so gentle) admonition will get those folks to change their behavior.  Our words of education will continue to be met with stink eye or worse. Do we still talk to them? Do we still try to get them to at least use one if not both? How do we reach someone who doesn’t want to listen, or thinks they are being lectured?

100 percent compliance – no matter what we do as a paddle community or legislatively or regulatory – may not ever be a reality – people being people. Hopefully,  perhaps nothing will ever happen to the majority of those folks, or maybe there will be a near-miss that convinces some of them to put on the leash and PFD – one that only leaves them shaken, but not hurt, or worse.   And for the record, I will continue to suffer arrows of the stink-eye slinging paddlers who don’t want me butting in to suggest they use the safety gear…especially if it means there’s the possibility of one less post I have to share about a needless fatality that could have been prevented.

Leashes, PFDs and SUP Education