CAPT. JAMES FREY
Headquarters, Army Materiel Command
Redstone Arsenal, Alabama
Stand-up paddleboarding is a waterborne leisure activity that combines the paddling dynamic of kayaking with the standing position of surfing. The combination results in a relaxed atmosphere and engaging full-body workout with the ability to enjoy the scenery out on the water. Like all aquatic activities, safely using a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) requires a bit of practice and preparation, with the right equipment making the difference between a minor inconvenience and major incident. I learned that lesson on a recent SUP trip to the Florida Gulf Coast.
I was in the midst of an extended temporary duty assignment and had packed an inflatable SUP as my board of choice because it gave me more flexibility in choosing a launching point. After making the drive south to the coast, I reached my destination at an Air Force-owned beach park and started assembling my equipment. As this was my first time paddling at this location, and only my second time out on the ocean, I made a point to attach my SUP’s leash to my ankle to keep me from getting separated from my gear in case I was knocked into the water.
Unfortunately, my choice of launching points worked to my disadvantage. My intention was to start off on the seaward side of a barrier island and travel parallel to the shore until I could make my way into a nearby channel and into a protected bay. Starting seaward meant I had to push my way through mildly choppy waters before I got to my desired paddling location in the channel, increasing fatigue and eating up valuable time before some anticipated afternoon showers. The waves were bad enough that I had to carry my board over an artificial sand and rock break protecting the bay entrance to avoid potential collisions (and punctures in my inflatable SUP).
The channel was glassy smooth by comparison, and I took advantage of the relative calm to finally enjoy the pleasant weather. Since I had spent so much time making it to the channel, I made the fateful decision to paddle the 500 meters across to the adjacent barrier instead of pushing into the bay proper. Although this meant crossing a lane of boat traffic, I was able to make reasonable progress across but failed to notice the current flowing out from the bay and assisting me as I paddled. When I finally landed and took a break, it was with a sense of accomplishment.
When I reentered the water, it was time to make my way back to my initial launching point before the beach park rangers closed the vehicle gates for the evening. The predicted afternoon storm started gathering and brought with it some mild wind gusts blowing south into the open ocean. A combination of fatigue and the difference in traveling direction made the current flowing out almost immediately apparent. As I made my way back across the channel, I had to fight to maintain the direction of my board. Despite repeated attempts to push forward, I found myself being driven toward the landward side of the channel break. A passing family in a pontoon boat offered some assistance, but my pride wouldn’t allow me to accept, so I pressed on.
Ultimately, I was unable to make my way back into the channel along my target barrier island and had to ditch onto the rock break. My protective equipment proved to be critical in getting back to my return crossing point, as I was able to drag myself via a combination swimming and crawling laterally across the break, buoyed by my personal flotation device and dragging my board by the leash. I eventually made it back to my launching site to start the walk back to the beach park, humbled by the experience and with a new-found appreciation for my SUP safety gear.
Did You Know?
Stand-up paddleboarding has burst onto the beach scene in recent years and is the fastest-growing water sport in the world. With the rise in popularity, many paddleboarders often forget that being on a paddleboard requires the same safety precautions and vigilance as any other activity on the water. Now is a perfect time to brush up on some paddleboarding tips and, most importantly, water safety practices.
The first thing to know about stand-up paddleboarding is that the U.S. Coast Guard has classified paddleboards as vessels when used “beyond the narrow limits of a swimming, surfing or bathing area.” So what does this mean for you? When using a paddleboard beyond the limits of the swimming, surfing or bathing area, you need to be as prepared as you would be when using what is considered a traditional vessel, which includes wearing a life jacket.
Whether you are a seasoned paddleboarder or new to the activity, here are some other tips when it comes to using stand-up paddleboards.
- Wear a life jacket and carry a whistle.
- Be a competent swimmer.
- Know how to self-rescue.
- Know how to tow another board.
- Know the local regulations and navigation rules.
- Understand the elements and hazards such as winds, tidal ranges, current and terrain.
- Know when to wear a leash.
- Be defensive — don’t go where you aren’t supposed to and avoid other swimmers, boaters and paddleboarders.
- Use the proper blade angle to be the most efficient paddleboarder.
- Take a safety course.
Source: U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary
The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary recommends this stand-up paddleboard gear checklist:
- Whistle or other noise-making device
- Paddleboard leash attached to ankle
- Drinking water
- Lip balm
- Cellphone in protective bag
- Multifunction watch
- Spare fin