SUP safety

Thank you for taking the time to read this I really hope I don’t come off as a grumpy old man sitting on his porch and yelling at kids to “GET OFF MY LAWN!”

My background is in water safety, it’s what I’m passionate about. Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in children and is easily prevented in most cases. SUP has a HUGE opportunity to impact the water safety of thousands (millions?) of people either in a positive way or a negative way. It is in everyone’s best interest that the industry chooses to be a positive force but this is just not happening.

Pick up any SUP magazine: the closest one to me at this moment is Stand-up Paddle Magazine Vol 5 # 6. There are 40 pictures of paddlers in advertisements: 5 are wearing lifejackets and two are wearing leases (in fairness some others might be wearing leashes however they are not seen in the photographs. In the articles there are 63 photos of people paddling (yes some are shown more than once) and two are wearing leashes and a single one is wearing a lifejacket (in rapids).

On the cover are two people paddling in sea caves with no safety equipment. Over a hundred paddlers and less than one in ten are wearing a minimum of safety equipment.

On the spread of pages 7-8 is a YOLO ad with four children paddling, none are wearing leashes and one is in a lifejacket. On page 64 is an article about paddling Norway in the winter without a single leash nor lifejacket. Again in fairness the coat the paddler is wearing maybe a ‘float coat’ but more than likely it is not. I picked up a random “Bicycling” magazine and 100% of the advertisements and 95%+ of the pictures had riders wearing helmets. Helmets are not a legal requirement, lifejackets are. I’ll also address the lifejacket law later.

Please take a look at your website, advertising, blogs, or facebook page: how many pictures are of paddlers wearing lifejackets? How many leashes? You are the face of SUP. You (WE!) are creating a culture that promotes unsafe and illegal behavior.

I’ve seen pictures of very young children on boards (Glide Keiki) with paddles way too long and NO safety equipment. The new advertisement for “National SUP Day” has two women and a child on 2 boards without any safety equipment.

When I paddle the Great Lakes region I consistently see children paddling ¼ to ½ mile offshore in 55’F water and no safety equipment. I have assisted many people caught unaware of offshore winds or unable to get back to shore due to balance issues caused by small waves. I know of many rental outfits that do not even offer lifejackets or leashes to renters.

There have been several fatal drownings of paddlers, these will no doubt increase unless we work together to create a culture of safe behavior.

Creating a culture of safety is morally AND financially the right thing to do. I’m my work with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project I get to deal with people affected by drowning. When a life is saved there is a high that lasts for weeks. When there is a fatality, there is an indescribable grief that cannot be measured and has no end. “Time heals all wounds” is a lie. Imagine for a second that the person you sold, rented or loaned a board to died. Imagine being at the beach as a child’s lifeless body is brought to shore after falling off a paddleboard; no leash, no lifejacket because they never realized that it was necessary. I know that sounds harsh but as the face of SUP what responsibilities do we have to our consumers?

If you are heartless and greedy, forget the above scenario and imagine every board that you sell will also result in the sale of a leash ($30?) and a lifejacket ($100?). It not only makes common sense, it makes money for all of the retailers in the industry.

Let me switch gears and offer some historical perspective. If you were involved in the windsurfing boom of the early 1980’s you no doubt remember the explosive growth and the safety concerns it generated. The industry joined forces to self-regulate and create the same culture of safety we have the opportunity to create with SUP. Copies of “Zen and the Art of Windsurfing” were passed out like candy and offered great safety information to the masses. Sailors were successful in repealing lifejacket laws across the country. I stand with those who believe a leash is more important than a lifejacket on a SUP. In a few minutes I’ll give you my vision for the future of SUP and how I hope you will give it serious consideration.

There are several other historical lessons that we can learn from: kayaking, bicycling and kite boarding all experienced phenomenal growth and a rise in safety issues. The industries resisted at first but finally realized that from a liability and moral standpoint, embracing safety is in everyone’s best interest. 20 plus years ago as plastic kayaks brought kayaking to the masses, none of the advertisers showed helmet or lifejacket use. Now everyone gets it, same with bicycle helmets and kite safety equipment.

How hard will it be? What steps would need to be taken? Who would benefit and who would be hurt? I presented a SUP session at the National Drowning Prevention Alliances 2013 symposium.

In the presentation I related that SUP could be the greatest boon to water safety of it could be its worst nightmare. Imagine if every paddleboarder has the knowledge of what drowning looks like and has been taught how to use their board to make a safe rescue!! Thousands of SUP lifesavers on our nation’s waterways! Municipalities will be clamoring for access and more paddlers. I’d love to see a “National SUP Patrol” patterned after the National Ski Patrol.

The flip side of this coin (and what we currently have) is a product that allows a marginal or non-swimmer to get into a life threatening situation that they have neither the knowledge nor equipment to extricate themselves from. We have seen fatalities and we will see more.

How can you best support the industry? Create a culture of safety.

Set voluntary guidelines like: Every advertisement of a paddler should have the proper safety equipment. I really don’t believe a model wearing an inflatable PFD is less attractive than one without one. In the surf show leashes, in rivers show releasable leashes and high volume lifejackets. Make a package deal of every entry level board include a leash and lifejacket (until we get the law changed :wink: Create a basic safety guide that can be distributed to all retailers, rental outfitters and the general public. Lobby the Coast Guard to classify SUP as a different ‘vessel’ and assist them in developing rules specific to our sport. Create “White Papers” that deal with the issues surrounding SUP. Have the industry experts create ‘policy’ for issues like ‘surf etiquette’, minimum standards for training, rental policy etc…Write articles that address safety concerns, and insist that publishers reject articles that portray the sport in an unsafe light.

Our sport is still growing at a phenomenal pace but we are still young and small enough to make a mid-course correction that would benefit EVERYONE for very little cost.

Thank you for listening, now GET OFF MY GRASS!!


Bob Pratt

Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project