Paddling Awareness: Understand the Risks of Standup Paddling

Editor’s Note: It should be obvious that all of us at Paddle Monster LOVE paddling – we want everyone to love it! But if you have a bad experience on the water, especially one where your are injured or have a near miss, then you might never pick up a paddle again.

We don’t want that to happen. So that’s why we post a lot about safety and risk and the importance of knowing your limits and training to improve your on-water skills and fitness.

Understanding the risks of standup paddling

The sport is going through a resurgence in popularity, thanks in part to the pandemic. As a result there is a big, brand new crop of paddlers out there who are just discovering how wonderful paddling is, SUP paddling in particular.

Where’s the Awareness?

Judging from first hand observations, both on social media and on the water, there seems to be a lack of awareness of the risks that come with our favorite activity.

Unlike ski runs or mountain bike trails, our waterways are not coded for skill level. Coach Cain recently noted in a Paddle Monster team meeting that we don’t have the benefit of a ranking system for paddle spots where green means easy/beginner and black means difficult/advanced.

But also, advertising and marketing materials always show SUPS on calm, serene waters. Those images promote the idea that paddling is so easy, all the time, that anyone can do it, anywhere. Even when holding their paddles backward and not wearing safety gear, just like the models in the pictures.

New paddlers are also seeing amazing images of the pros crushing big waves or Class IV whitewater or long ocean crossings. Pictures like that don’t communicate the amount of time and work that went into those pentultimate accomplishments.

Inexpensive SUP and paddle packages are right next to the pool toys at the Big Box stores, too. No wonder it’s easy to overlook the inherent risks that come with this “new” water activity. And that can lead to some unrealistic and even dangerous expectations.

Two cases in point

A) I know downwind guides on Maui who get emails from novice paddlers with little to no open ocean paddling experience who want to do the Maliko Run on their sub-14 foot inflatable boards. They do not understand what makes Maliko different than the protected waters they paddle in. They’ve just heard about Maliko and it looks fun and they want to try it. Same with my friend who guides in the Columbia River Gorge, another very technical downwind Mecca.

These new paddlers have no clue that to downwind, they need  bigger, specially designed boards as well as strength, board handling skills and the ability to navigate.

Downwinding with the right gear in the Columbia River Gorge

B) When I teach beginning paddle classes, many of my students do not know how to swim. When they sign up,the thought never occurs to them that knowing how to swim AND being comfortable in the water should be prerequisites for the sport.

That gets back to the marketing. Prospective or new paddlers only see images of people actually on boards, never in the water. It just never dawns on them that they will, in all probability, have to swim.

They just don’t understand the risks.

So What are the Risks of SUP?

Any activity on water comes with inherent risks. Period.

Here’s a sup-specific risk list:

  • Falling off AND getting hurt.
  • Not being able to get back on your board (from fatigue, injury or lack of strength)
  • Getting separated from your board.
  • Losing your paddle.
  • Not being able to paddle back to shore (either because you lost your paddle or you physically can’t.)
  • Getting lost (ie not being able to find the place where you launched.)
  • Drowning.

Those risks could happen to any paddler at any time. Even a skilled, experienced paddler could take a fall that could result in injury, or have an injury like a muscle pull that could result in a fall, and prevent the paddler from remounting, or make it difficult to get to shore. Even the most experienced sup surfers can and do get fin cuts.

The key is knowing what to do in those situations and making sure you have the physical and mental fitness to handle them.

And knowing what steps and actions to take to mitigate those risks, like wearing a leash and a life jacket.

In just a matter of minutes, this calm water changed demeanor….
…and became so rough the paddlers in the picture above were blown out of view down the beach. They struggled to make it in.

Factors that can increase the risks of paddling:

  • Not knowing how to swim and/or not being comfortable in the water.
  • Getting caught in changeable weather.
  • Not bering prepared for hot or cold conditions.
  • Dehydration.
  • Hazards such as submerged obstructions like rocks and trees.
  • Direct encounters with other craft, especially motorized craft like boats and jet skis.
  • Indirect encounters with other craft – IE: boat wake
  • Other water users (swimmers, anglers, etc.)
  • The local environment – things like animals that you share the water with, water quality, etc.
  • Overinflated egos and unrealistic senses of skill level.

Before you just hop on a SUP, take some time to think about those risks and risk factors and how you would handle them.

Ask yourself:

  • Where’s my life jacket? Do I know how to wear it properly?
  • Do I always use a leash?
  • Where is the first aid kit?
  • What do I use for emergency communication?
  • How aware am I of my surroundings when I paddle?
  • Do I consider myself a good swimmer? Am I comfortable in the water?
  • Do I know how to fall so as to minimize injury?
  • Do I have the right equipment for the conditions?

Make sure you have good, solid answers to all those questions. Take classes, get help from a seasoned paddle friend, read – become an educated paddler!

Paddling Somewhere Unfamiliar

Going on a sup vacation or paddling some place new? Awesome! But before you go, learn about the area and the environment you’ll be visiting.

  • When is the wind likely to come up?
  • What happens to the waves and the shoreline when the tide is up? When it’s out?
  • If you get caught in strong winds, will you be able to get to shore or back to your car?
  • What kind of animals might live in the reef you are paddling over and how likely are you to encounter them?
  • Where is the calmest, safest place to paddle if you’re still new to the sport?
  • Should you enter that long distance race if you’ve never raced before and if so, how much training will I need?

How do you find the answers to these questions?

  • Do your research – Google is an amazing tool – sites like this one have a wealth of information. School yourself.
  • Ask locals- NOTHING replaces good, local knowledge.
  • Ask other, more experiences paddlers who have been where you are going.
  • Do the work to get in shape for whatever new paddle conditions might await you.

And when you are asking for help, check your ego.

If you are ready to challenge yourself as a paddler, take a class or enlist the help of a local guide. But be honest about your experience and skill level. That guide will respect you more. Go out in conditions or situations that test you, but know when to pull the plug and give yourself the permission to do so.

This all may sound like we are trying to harsh the sup vibe. No, we’re really not. SUP most definitely is fun. And just about anyone can do it. It is a great way to enjoy the water, to get fit and to challenge yourself. It can be easy. As long as you understand what you are getting into, are prepared, use common sense, and leave the assumptions at the door.

More reading:

Ocean paddling for the first time

Waves and Beach Launches


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