Paddle boarding is an incredibly fun water sport that can be as relaxing and therapeutic as it is good for your physical health. Anything extraneous can have a potential for danger and mistakes can be made in the sport of paddle boarding which result in death. Understanding how to be a safe water enthusiast will mean you won’t fall victim to newbie mistakes that could hurt you or someone else.
There are dangers of paddle boarding such as not knowing how to swim adequately, standing while boarding, dangerous conditions and rocky environments, or even going paddling alone. This guide will walk you through the various risks taken when paddle boarding and how to avoid them.
Stand-up paddle boarding (SUP sporting as they abbreviate it), has gained massive popularity over the recent years as one of the biggest water sports in the world. With the rising popularity, many inexperienced paddlers will be on the water and you will want to educate yourself before this. Safety precautions are necessary to enjoying your time fully and not putting anyone in harm’s way, including yourself.
7 Dangers of Paddle Boarding:
Firstly, for those that are not clear on what paddle boarding is – google a picture! You’ve seen those people flying at the beach, riding by as they stand on a surfboard with an ore moving them forward. It’s basically kayaking while standing up.
Something important to consider in the safety regulations surrounding paddle boarding is that the Coast Guard specifies what is regulated based on if you’re handling a vessel.
The way the Guard defines a ‘vessel,’ is that the paddleboard is a vessel when you are swimming and surfing with it. However, if it is designated beyond the regular practices of, ‘swimming, surfing, or bathing area,’ then the Guard does not consider it a vessel.
What this means for you is that since you’re using it as a vessel to stand on and paddle yourself forward, you have to treat it with the same maritime rules of any traditional vessel – you have to wear a life jacket.
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#1 Not Wearing a Life Jacket:
This is the most important rule to paddle boarding, so it is dire that you don’t participate in water sports without a life jacket. This goes for the well-seasoned paddle boarders as well as the amateurs. They may be slightly uncomfortable, but they are the easiest preventative measure you can take to protect yourself on the water.
Going without the protection of a life jacket could mean the difference between life and death. Although this sounds dramatic, it’s absolutely true. And this isn’t to insult your swimming skills.
Like wearing a seat belt, it’s not a lot of trouble for the reward value. Statistics show from the United States Coast Guard’s annual report on recreational boating statistics that there were 658 deaths and 2629 injuries on the water in 2017 alone.
Just to throw another statistic at you – in America alone, there are 87 million Americans participating in water activities like kayaking, paddle boarding, boating, fishing, jet skiing and more just to name a few. The large majority of these do not wear a life jacket and the death toll/injury tally shows as much.
With the cause of death being known in these water sports, 76% of fatal injuries were from drowning and 85% of these victims were not wearing a life jacket.
I don’t mean to scare you by these figures, but this is real. If you are wanting to enjoy the water in the safest possible way, take care of yourself and this will ripple to others as well.
You could be the best swimmer in all of the western hemisphere but if you slip off the board, hit your head on a rock and go unconscious, you’ll just sink to the bottom. Doesn’t matter how well you can swim or how many trophies you earned at swim camp; you will drown.
Moving on to the easiest solution perhaps on this entire list –
How to Avoid this: Wear a life jacket!
Wearing the life jacket guarantees that you’ll stay above water whether conscious or unconscious. It’s slightly unfashionable but not really a huge issue or bother when we’re talking about your life being at stake.
So don’t be egotistical about your amazing swimming skills or think this is a personal dig at your talent level. We’re all human and not immortal although we forget this sometimes.
Life jackets are an easy precaution to enforce if we all do it together. Be smart and just do it.
#2 Not Understanding Weather Conditions Properly:
If you’re going to be a sporty paddle boarding king or queen, you need to be able to read the weather conditions outside or know if the water is safe that day.
Dangerous conditions are a big mistake to paddle out into and you should see this as what it is – a rookie mistake. Many paddleboarders will think they are skilled enough and comfortable with rocky waves or harsh conditions.
But it only takes one miscalculation to end up being crushed into the rocks and drowning in a vicious way. Mama nature is stronger than you and the first step you should take to becoming a safer paddleboarder is understanding that she is not merciful to your existence.
The ocean has killed millions of humans and creatures in its lifetime, harbouring infinite amounts of secrets and sunken ships. It has no problem taking you under too.
Paddling out to get away from people or catch the more ‘radical waves,’ currents, and winds can be putting yourself in unnecessary risk.
Be realistic with yourself about the weather conditions that day and if it’s simply too dangerous to go out. There will be calmer days which will make for a more enjoyable ride anyways.
Windy.com is a brilliant website for paddle boarders to get the latest forecasts of winds, Swells, sea temperature and it will even tell you if rain is predicted.
How to Avoid this: If you’re trying to paddle away from the crowds, don’t go too far. It is a common characteristic of anyone that is new at something to not understand where the safest limits actually lie.
Especially as a beginner, take it slow. Don’t go out on windy days or in the rain. Take time to realize where your boundaries lie and don’t put yourself in a life-threatening situation you’re not properly prepared to handle.
Watch the news and stay attuned to what the weather is like before you paddle out.
If you live in an area with lots of rocks beneath the ocean, you’ll need to keep this in mind and try to paddle away from these things.
A bonus tip to rocky terrain is to give yourself more practice at mountain climbing and adjusting your muscles to reacting against the rock.
For example, when you canyon through the mountains of Ajaccio in Corsica France, which I luckily had the pleasure of doing, you fall down waterfalls and slide from canyon pool to canyon pool. It’s a stunning experience but much more bumpy and scary than one would imagine at first. The leader taught us to bend our knees and not lock them fully straight or you could risk breaking your knees at the end of the fall.
You’d jump into the rocks but keep your muscles relaxed and ready to bend. Falling in a locked position can cause even more severe injuries and just to reiterate – you should always be wearing a life jacket. Also, consider a helmet to keep your head protected if paddling near rocky areas feels it warrants it.
Use your head and you won’t put yourself or others in dangerous weather conditions. Let your intuition be your guide. Unless your intuition is poor in which case perhaps you should check with a trusted friend.
#3 Not Having Properly Fitted Equipment:
This is an important issue that may not seem very consequential. However, having equipment that fits properly can make all the difference in your coordination and a successful paddle boarding adventure.
If you don’t have the proper equipment or it’s not suited to your height and body, you won’t have as good nor as easy of a time as you could have.
To find the right board, you’ll want to think about your personal use for it and how you want it to handle in water.
You’ll want to consider the hull type if you want a solid or inflatable board, weight of the board, length for your height and how thick you’d like the board, and overall feel you’re hoping to have. Many women prefer lighter and inflatable while men want something that feels more dense and stable.
It may simply take some trial and error to see what board type works for you. A tip here is to experiment on a few paddle boarding trips with a group before investing in your own board. Then you can see how different sizes feel with your body type and which offers the best ride with the greatest ease.
It is a common issue that people think paddle boarding is more difficult than it actually is based on being ill-fit with the proper size (read about paddle board weight limits)
How to Avoid this: Talk to a professional when you’re taking a first course and get fitted properly. The instructor can help you find what board and paddle size work for you
Important tips about the length of your board that will be worth considering are:
Short boards (under 10 feet) will be great for kids and women. They are easier to manipulate and manoeuvre. They’re also lighter and work great for surfing.
Medium boards (between 10 feet and 13 feet) are ideal for those who are great at SUP boarding and other paddle boarding activities like SUP Yoga where you actually do yoga poses while balancing on the water. This is the normal size and very standard.
Large Boards (Over 13 feet) are used for professionals and those looking to go fast! The longer the board, the more traction it can get on the water and the faster it will go. It’s great for long-distance paddlers and those who use it as a real sport and not just a hobby.
Read “Determining the size paddleboard you need by weight” for more.
#4 Not Holding the Paddle Correctly:
This seems silly to say but will make all the difference in you having a ride without pain. Are you sure you’re holding you’re the paddle properly? This is another newbie mistake but very easy to harm your shoulder or hurt your spine if done incorrectly.
You’ll feel it if you’ve been incorrectly handling the paddle/ore as you will have more pain than necessary post-boarding session. If it feels uncomfortable to board, you may be doing something improperly
This is the mistake that every beginner needs to correct to have any chance at all of sticking to the sport without pain. Proper holding of the paddle will feel balanced and natural creating a smoother stroke in the water and easier gliding atop the water’s surface.
How to Avoid this: Ask a professional to evaluate your technique and see if they can offer you any pointers to make the ride easier and more fulfilling.
The method to properly hold your ore will be to angle it so that the blade is facing away from you and fluidly going through the water. There needs to be enough pressure to propel you forward while not feeling strenuous on the muscles. It will be angled so that if you drew a 90° angle from the shaft of the paddle to the blade of the paddle it would make a triangle.
Once you’ve mastered the basics of holding the paddle, wearing your life jacket, and scouting out the ideal weather conditions, we’ll want to circle back towards a basic that seems too obvious to lead with but also too important to leave out.
If you are wanting to learn to paddle board but are not completely comfortable in the water or have some kind of fears/trepidations, be sure you’re completely comfortable with falling in, treading water, and swimming, before learning to paddleboard.
Even a professional SUP paddle boarder is quoted as saying, “”Getting the basics right straight out of the gate will save you months of frustration.” – Annabel Anderson, Lahui Kai and Sup Think Tank team athlete.
#5 Not Knowing How to Swim:
This is very essential to being out on the water at all and therefore dire in paddle boarding. You need to have a basic understanding and skill level to be on the water and comfort swimming.
Being a competent swimmer could mean the difference between life and death for you in serious sporting. This will help you in what they call, “Self-rescue,” where you can tread water long enough to stay afloat in case of being knocked off your board or falling in.
How to Avoid this: This one is pretty direct. Learn to swim and feel comfortable at your skill level before approaching any kind of water sports. Although it is fun and games, it’s serious as well. You want to have your fun and feel confident that you can protect yourself from the elements.
Having a comfortability with water can come at a young age if parents get them in lessons early. Even babies can have water floating lessons where they’re not necessarily swimming, just learning to feel comfortable in the water and how to stay afloat. It will help it be bred into their instincts incredibly early on and avoid any worry about this danger.
One important tip for learning to swim is that you should not train yourself or your child with floaties. A life jacket will be important when you’re in real open water conditions. However, for the training and learning to swim part which will take place in a pool with trained professionals and lifeguards around – try to learn without the floaties.
This goes for infants learning to float as well and although it may sound counter-intuitive – this part is very important.
This is because if you do wear or grasp to some kind of floating mechanism – your body will not learn to float for itself. You will have a false sense of confidence which can later result in someone drowning because they thought they were competent swimmers but in fact, they were dependent upon the floaties to keep them above water.
You do not want to mentally trick your body into thinking you have a false sense of floating protection because on the open waters – you do not. Don’t let your body even get comfortable with the dependence of a floatation device while learning. It will make all the difference later.
Once out on the high seas, wear your life jacket for precaution but you will not be dependent on it to stay above water. Your bodies instincts will have solidified and you’ll be a safer more competent swimmer/Paddle Boarder.
#6 Not Paddle Boarding with a Group:
Something you do not want to do is attempt any water sporting on your own. You may see it as a fun solo adventure to go out on the water at night and explore on your paddle board, but this is how most incidents happen and a tragic amount of deaths due to people exploring alone instead of with a companion or group.
Unfortunately, it is a reality than many stories with unhappy endings like people getting lost, injured, or drowning are all thins that can be avoided if you’re a careful athlete.
In the beginning, especially, you never want to paddleboard unattended just as you wouldn’t want to be in a pool or in a swimming lesson without a professional who knows CPR or a lifeguard.
Doing any kind of adventure even in the complete opposite direction like mountain climbing can be incredibly dangerous and this is how people go missing.
How to avoid this: Always go with a buddy or group. They will keep you company on your adventures and if anything should happen to one of you, you always have someone there to help.
Even if you are trapped somehow, perhaps they can go get help. Or if your foot is trapped or your starting to go unconscious, they can help you and pull you above water.
Going with a team or large group is always fun but be careful you’re not overcrowding yourself. This is the opposite way of causing more accidents because you don’t have enough space to manoeuvre your own paddle board. This can cause more unnecessary accidents so be sure everyone has enough room to function and move swiftly.
If you hate large crowds, avoid things like meetups where hundreds of paddleboarders go out together at sunset and adventure. Can be such a beautiful time for an enthusiast but you may have less room to paddle and move around. If this bothers you, sit those out and opt for more intimate adventures with smaller groups so you can get the most out of it.
If you absolutely insist on paddle boarding alone because this is your rejuvenation alone time that is so sacred to you – I get it! Trust me! But here’s what you need to do – let a friend, family member, neighbour or anyone know where you’re going and when you go.
If it’s on a regular basis, be sure they know the exact location and times you go. Unless they have your schedule, you should not feel safe paddle boarding alone.
This emergency contact is a nice backup to have if you get trapped somewhere and go missing. They will know exactly where to look for you and better safe than sorry. Even professional SUP athlete advises, “always paddle with a friend.” Wise words Chuck.
Your float plan could make all the difference and you’ll feel more secure and able to enjoy your ride knowing that you’re accounted for and someone else knows your intended route.
If you can let that person know each time that you’re off the water and safely home as well, that is a good follow-up plan. If you cannot be reached, let them know they have permission to call the police and have someone check that designated water route.
Time is of the essence in emergency situations so don’t take this step lightly either. Be sure your emergency contact knows the seriousness and is reliable for this responsibility.
#7 Not Being Ready to Paddle in Shallow Waters:
This is a scary one because there are many dangers in shallow waters you could fall into like coral reefs, sea life, rocks, or even an oyster bed.
If you’re paddle boarding in an area that doesn’t have deep waters, you’ll need to be extra careful that you’re taking precautions to paddle safely. Even if that means paddling slowly.
There was a case of a man who dropped his paddle board and fell into an oyster bed resulting in painful injuries. There is a risk involved and falling into a coral reef can slice your body faster than shark teeth.
How to avoid this: Have a solid understanding of your surrounds area and what is in the water. If you’re paddle boarding on a manmade lake with low variants of fish and only sand at the base, this doesn’t apply to you. But if you’re paddling in the ocean, along the gulf, in the Caribbean or anywhere else – it is important to know where you are and what lies beneath the surface.
Even if the water looks crystal clear and safe, you need to be prepared for anything including a stingray popping up from beneath the sand or any other creature that could be lurking. Don’t paddle in shallow spots and avoid rocky or coral reef-filled areas near the coastline.
Flat water is not always better than wavy water and some flat spots are too shallow to safely paddle in.
The ideal depth will be about half of your body’s height or more. Anything less than this could be dangerous to proceed through. You will get the most enjoyment out of your trip and it will be under more ideal conditions this way too.
Be sure you won’t scrape a fin or damage your board. If your fin can be damaged by rocks or coral, it’s far too shallow for you to be boarding through. Be extra careful when using a board which is inflatable as you could fall in over sharp coral, rocks, or any other danger.
If you plan to be boarding through shallow waters, be sure your fin and board are appropriate for the area.
Another way to tackle not falling off your board as much is by working on your balance. Having better balance and better upper body strength will result in an easier ride without feeling nervous. You won’t be rocking around on the board or falling off as much if you work on your body’s equilibrium and posture.
This can be achieved by focusing on yoga and stretching daily. Switch poses on each leg to build up the strength in each leg then both feet together. Add weights to build muscle and mimic the friction from the water pushing back against the paddle.
Paddle boarding is a radically fun way to spend an afternoon on the lake or ocean, surrounded by friends and enjoying the best nature has to offer. Understanding the mistakes that beginners make and how to avoid them is for those smart enough to educate themselves.
If you’re still learning how to handle your board and equipment, just focus on being safe and taking your time. If you go to crowded places this may only heighten your chances of causing injury to not just you but others as well. Start out small and you’ll go to bigger places. You’ve read the tortoise and the hare!
I hope this guide has been useful for you to be a safer paddle boarder and water sports enthusiast. It could make all the difference between injuring yourself or coming out fine because you know the steps to take and how to react under pressure.
Lastly, remember – Always keep a whistle on your life jacket, always keep a smile on your face and always keep the sun to your back! Wishing you all the happiest memories and happy boarding y’all!