What we can learn when an epic downwinder turns into misunderstanding and fines

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Capital SUP

Downwinders in Maryland were pulled off the water when emergency services received a report of paddlers in distress.

Here is a quick summary of what happened:

  • Five experienced paddleboarders went on a downwind paddle in EPIC conditions during Winter Storm Riley on the Severn River
  • Someone from shore called in an emergency report that there were paddleboarders in distress and in need of help
  • The five paddlers were stopped by Maryland Natural Resources Police, taken off the water, taken by boat to a beach nowhere near their cars, and issued multiple expensive citations
  • Facebook vomited
  • There was only one law broken and that was the lack of a whistle
  • There were at least two incorrect and sensationalized local reports/articles claiming paddleboarders were missing, in distress and rescued
  • None of this is helping paddlers in the Annapolis area who are already in a public battle for water access rights.

Ok. Let’s set the stage. Winter Storm Riley brought 40-60 mph winds to the Severn River near Annapolis, Maryland. Wind and waves line up into an amazing downwind surf for 5 experienced and prepared paddlers. They have their equipment—dry suits and wetsuits to protect against cold wind and water, leashes and PFDs and a plan. AWESOME. Check check check.

And this part, I’m totally imagining, but sounds about right: Someone on shore looks out their window at the high winds during the storm, rubs their eyes, “WTF?” They grab their phone and dial 9-1-1. Someone is ON THE WATER! They must be in trouble. HELP! There’s more than one! Five people got swept out into the river! HELP!

Emergency services, specifically, Maryland Natural Resources Police gets the call and mutters the same, WTF, and head out into the froth to find and rescue paddlers who must be at best, incompetent or insane, and at worst, involved in some kind of group suicide attempt. They have NO IDEA what down winding is. They assume negligence, mal-intent. All they need to know is there are five people on the water and in trouble. Now it’s time for them to get them to safety. Only these five paddlers don’t want reaching. They claim not to be in distress at all, quite the contrary. They are having fun. This makes NO sense. But they can’t just leave them out there. There’s no precedence. There’s no benchmark. There’s no mental anchor to which they can chain this bizarre event.

The paddlers don’t resist, get into the boat, were respectful, tried to explain to no avail and in those conditions, with all that adrenaline, things just seemed to move along toward shore but not their cars.

After all five were picked up, by their accounts, they weren’t treated poorly, but definitely not like competent adults and more like petulant children. Authorities couldn’t tell them what they had done wrong and ended up citing them with unsafe boating and failure to have a whistle. They brought them to shore, nowhere near their cars and the paddlers in the end, holding tickets and losing heat on land, were fortunate enough to get someone to help them get back to their vehicles.

A post hits the news that 3 paddleboarders had been rescued and two were still lost on the water. This is replaced afterwards by a new and equally incorrect headline, “5 Paddleboarders Rescued On Severn River In Storm.”

I know. There are so many holes in this one. And now there are 5 people with $300-$400 in fines. Let’s just call it a $2000 day on the Severn. And they’re pissed, cold, poorer and what started as an amazing opportunity to experience Gorge-like conditions in Maryland turns into a crap day, shade from other local paddlers who are already trying to mellow out the boat-vs-paddler battle, and then comes the Facebook wrath. You know the one where terms like idiots are thrown out like crumbs to pigeons and there’s a frenzy. I f-ing hate facebook. We should all unfriend EVERYONE and then add people back because after years, we’re away from the 1 and 2 degrees of separation, crowded by trolls and fake accounts, and mired in reposts of other people’s words, fooled into believing we are separated by a chasm when we are only degrees apart in reality, and surrounded by strangers who don’t know us from a bot and spew vitriol by the gallon. But I digress. Where was I? Facebook sucks? No… The tickets. Now what?

One reaction is to fight like hell. I understand that. I would be angry if I was paddling on that day. Another reaction is to let it go, not cause any problems in an already tense situation in that area between boaters and paddlers.

But there is a third option the paddlers seem to be pursuing: Use this as an opportunity to educate.

Downwinding is an entirely new phenomena for emergency services in some areas. Calling 9-1-1 was a something that happens all the time by people who don’t know what they are seeing and once a call is made, emergency services have no choice but to respond.

Take these two incidents that happened in North Carolina:

The first was in approximately 2009, when police EMS and fire responded to a report that a plane had crashed in a lake in Raleigh by the RDU airport. My friend who was paddling on that lake was getting off the water after a short workout to an army of fire, police and EMS. The ran to the edge of the lake and asked him if he’d seen a plane crash in the lake. They told him they had received a report the survivor was standing on the submerged plane’s wing. He said he hadn’t seen a plane crash and that he would have noticed if one did. They looked at him on his board and asked him what’s that? He responded “a Standup paddleboard.” They all shrugged, shook their heads and left.

The second was one I was personally involved in when Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue was notified by 5 different people that paddleboarders were stranded offshore in the wind, had lost their paddles and couldn’t get in. They said, no, those are prone paddleboards out there training and one of them is head of Ocean Rescue. They’re fine.

Authorities need to understand these padders were adequately prepared for the conditions, experienced enough to know how to enjoy those conditions safely, or at very least, within their abilities. They have to realize that we’re not talking about a bunch of skateboarding 15 year olds skipping school and trying to willy grind the Lincoln Memorial while flipping off security. These are adults, business owners, responsible members of society in 30s and 40s with highly technical gear and years of experience at the highest level in the sport. Respect-worthy, non-hooligans. If they can see how these downwind excursions are planned and executed with considerable preparation, their respect for it will grow.

Once authorities know what is going on, they’ll know how to react. The last thing anyone wants is to make enemies and polarize paddling and the waterways. We have too much of that in other political areas.

If there’s a way to let the people who are on the water to protect us know what’s going on, do it. They are the experts. When things like this come up, there’s so much going on that they have to frame it into something they know. Don’t take that chance.

Someone on Facebook asked, BUT WHAT IF THEY DIED OUT THERE?

If they were separated from their boards and couldn’t get to shore, they would have been in trouble. In this case they had leashes tethering to their boards along with the dry suits to keep them warm and afloat. These conditions were strong, but not out of the realm of what experienced paddlers seek as far as conditions go. These were prepared and experienced paddlers.

If they had died, that would have been tragic, no doubt. These are great people. I know them. Even if they weren’t great people, it’d be tragic. But it would not have been DNRs fault. It would have been the paddlers’ faults. The very adults who chose to go out. As with any sport, accidents will happen. We’ve seen some really horrible accidents. No doubt. But personal responsibility has to prevail at some point. And liberty to pursue your passions in a responsible way also has to be protected and respected. When you understand this sport, how well they were prepared and in control, you’ll see it more as a calculated risk any person takes when they go out mountain biking, cycling on suburban streets, trail running, surfing, swimming, etc. They knew what they were doing, were prepared and in control. They did not call for help. We don’t need to babysit everyone, all the time. And when accidents happen, we can see what caused it and learn, but the blame game has to be out of the conversation when you are talking about adults making personal and educated choices.

We hope things work out because the waters around Annapolis Maryland are rich in history and liberty, with generations of word-class water people.

It seems like it was a bad day and surely, that experience sucked and was expensive. Fight the ticket. For sure. But see where you can connect with them, make sure they (and you) don’t get in this situation again. Also, as more paddlers learn about this, they can also learn about the importance of wearing a leash, dry suits in cold conditions, a plan, and how to effectively interact with authorities.

Is it possible that this will spark the practice of filing of some kind of tour/activity/route plan, like when you hike or camp or even fly? You file it with emergency services just in case there is a report. You carry some type of communicator like a garmin radio, and if there are questions, they can approach you and you can signal you are ok by tapping your head or talk on the radio channel. It might be a case where that would alleviate a lot of false alarms. They would have to report the safe completion also. It’s just an idea in an area not accustomed to this activity. When you have a good relationship with law enforcement, you can give them the heads up.

I know it’s been exhausting for all of you who went through this. I sure hope you all had some good glides before the boats arrived and that this experience can make future downwinders safe, unimpeded, and ticketless for everyone.

See you on the water,

John Beausang
Distressed Mullet

Article in Chesapeak Bay Magazine: https://www.chesapeakebaymagazine.com/baybulletin/2018/3/5/five-paddleboarders-rescued-on-severn-river-during-noreaster

First-Hand Account from the paddlers:https://capitalsup.com/noreaster-downwinder-what-really-happened/

Here is another good perspective on what happened written by Maryland SUP:http://www.marylandsup.com/downwinders/

Discussion on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/ChesapeakeBayMagazine/posts/10155374579688061?comment_id=10155379527913061&notif_id=1520597295318432&notif_t=feedback_reaction_generic&ref=notif

Photo stolen from Capital SUP and the Paddle Bros