Safety First – A Primer on How to Get Back to Paddling Safely

How to Get Back To Paddling Safely

It’s that time of year -many of us are returning to our favorite paddle spots, so it’s time for a refresher on how to get back to paddling safely.  Last year during the onset of the pandemic, lots of folks purchased stand up paddle boards as a way to exercise outside or keep themselves and the family sane.  In the excitment of the warmer weather, there have already been some near misses – or worse – so here’s a primer for how to start your 2021 paddling season safely.

A Recent Scenario

Two novice inflatable sup paddlers went out on my local North Carolina lake recently in challenging conditions. They had just purchased their second board and were excited to get back out there.  Winds were blowing at 15 mph with gust between 20-25 mph – a cold front was starting to pass through.  It was overcast.  Neither wore leashes, neither had lifejackets.  Both were wearing cotton clothing.

The contour of the lake and the wind direction made things look calmer than they were at the launch point.  Once they paddled around the lee of the cove, there was chop heavy enough for me to enjoy “surfing” in my Epic V8 surf ski. By contrast,  I was wearing cold weather neoprene paddle pants, a cold weather top and my vest PFD. To me, the conditions were perfect for training for what will be my seventh Chattajack 31 race later this year.

I saw both paddlers fall and enter the water, which was about  67 degrees.  Air temp was in the low 60s and dropping as that cold front moved in.  I decided to check on them when I saw one of the boards start to “tumbleweed” away from the paddler.  When I reached her,  she had recovered the board.  However, the wind was pushing her into the dam and towards its spillway – a dangerous situation, especially for a tired, cold and scared paddler.  

I suggested that they hug the shoreline and stay in its lee to get back to the beach.  She thanked me and made her way over.  Her partner, meanwhile, was trying to stand up, in the middle of the lake, wearing himself out by attempting to paddle directly into the wind and the significant chop.  I made the same suggestion and he looked at me as if I was crazy or perhaps he just didn’t understand what I meant by “hug the shoreline.”  Fortunately, there were two open water swimmers doing just that, so I told him to follow the swimmers.  

In the ski, there wasn’t much more I could do, so I paddled on.

I was moments away from calling the park rangers when finally, I saw them on knees, rounding the point and coming into calmer, protected water.  They were cold and very tired.

“We bit off more than we could chew,” the woman admitted.  

Several things are going on in this scenario – let’s start with the obvious. 

No Leash

Why wear a leash, even on a “calm” lake?  

  • A leash is going to keep you connected your board – which is a great big personal floatation device.  
  • Weather happens.  Weather changes.  It’s surprising how fast a board can get away from you. When you fall, the board will move in the opposite direction, giving it a head start.  A light board, like an inflatable, in a bit of wind and the next thing you know, there’s a good bit of distance between you and your ride.

What kind of leash to wear:

  • Coiled: flatwater
  • Straight: surfing
  • Quick Release: Rivers

No Life Jacket

  • Most federal and state regulations require paddlers to have but not wear a life jacket.  But if you are not wearing it, it cannot help you.  The Coast Guard is said to be considering changing that rule soon.
  • It is nearly impossible to put a life jacket on once you are in the water and need it.
  • It will also greatly help you assist someone in the event of a rescue. Do not waste precious time struggling to get the life jacket out from underneath your bungees and on when someone needs your help.  You will greatly appreciate the extra buouyancy when helping someone else in water.
  • In colder water and air temps, the life jacket also helps keep you warm and conserve energy in an emergency. Helpful regardless of how great a swimmer you may be.

One note: a life jacket is not a great idea if sup surfing as it prevents you from being able to dive under waves in the surf zone.

Even though USCG regulations only require the PDF be on the board, it cannot help you if you don’t wear it.

Now for the rest of the checklist. At the bottom, be sure to check out the links for additional resources!

Know the conditions

Check the weather.  Before you launch, check the radar for thunderstorms and wind, as well as the heat index in the summer. Are you prepared?  Are you paddling the right board or water craft for the conditions? Are you experienced enough to handle it?  Do you have a plan if things worsen? Are you paddling alone or with buddies who are more or less experienced gthan you are?


  • Do not go out if you see lightning or hear thunder.
  • The rule of thumb is to wait 30 minutes before going out after you hear thunder. Get off the water and wait if you are already paddling.
  • If, during that 30-minute waiting period, you hear thunder again, start the clock over.
  • Use a weather app that can show you the direction of moving storms. 
  • When in doubt, don’t go out.


A great cartoon by describing the Beaufort Scale
  • Generally, winds above 10-15 miles per hour can pose significant risk for the novice     paddler on any body of water. Learn about the Beaufort scale.
  • Winds above 15 mph may or may not pose challenges for the more experienced paddler depending on location, the type of paddling being being done in what craft, and how fit the paddler is.  Just know your limitations.  Be realistic.  If you haven’t paddled since last March, then you might not be ready for heavier water even though you sailed through your last Chattajack in hellacious conditions with a personal best.
  • If possible, start your paddle going into the wind, so that on the return trip, it will be behind you, giving you an easier paddle back. In theory, and in places where there are reliable prevailing winds, that strategy works well.  In other places, where wind is prone to change, or where contours of the lake or river cause wind shifts, it may not.  
  • Learn how to read conditions based on wind direction and shorelines.
  • If the wind is too much, then kneel down.  Choke down on the paddle and make sure your paddle strokes are close to the board and that the paddle is vertical. Holding the paddle by the t-grip handle when on your knees will cause you to do a sweep or turning stroke, and you will be fighting to keep the board going straight, while you’re already fighting the wind.  


  • Always check both air and water temps before going out in the spring or fall.  A dip in 68 degree water might feel refreshing and safe on 75 or 80 degree day.  However, it will quickly feel miserable when the air is colder and the wind chill is adding to the scenario. 
  • You can usually find water temps for your local water body via a simple internet search, ie: “water temperature on Falls Lake.” River temperatures may be harder to find.
  • Always dress for the water temperature, not  the air temp.  This can be tricky in these shoulder seasons, but thermal protection- neoprene, insulated long sleeve, technical shirts and a vest style PFD will make things a lot more comfortable as well as safer should you end up in the water.
  • Pay attention to the heat index in the summer and be sure to stay hydrated. Drink before, during and after your paddle session.
  • NEVER, EVER WEAR COTTON.  Cotton does not wick moisture, therefore it gets sodden when submerged.  That means it is HEAVY in the water.   When wet it will not keep you warm.  The paddlers in the above scenario were at great risk of hypothermia on their paddle back to the beach because of their wet cotton clothes and the dropping temperature and the wind. 

Tides and Current

  • Learn how tides can effect local coastal areas when applicable. 
  • Learn how to read the water.  In some places, your direction might be determined by whether the tide is coming in or going out. In some tidal conditions, hugging the docks or shore is best, in others, being in the middle of the channel is more efficient.  Check the tide charts before you paddle. Know how to read them.


River paddling is special – and when it comes to smaller rivers with rapids, it requires a special skill set. Here are some general safety tips.

  • In all rivers, regardless of size, watch for hazards in the water such as submerged trees, structures and other debris.
  • Be aware of current speed and flow and set up a shuttle to and from launch and take out points if it’s strong. Don’t assume you can paddle upstream.
  • On larger rivers, know what kind of boat traffic you are likely to encounter – will there be commerical traffic like large barges, will there be recreational power boats? Know what to do should you encounter them and where to go to stay safe.
  • On smaller rivers, be careful around steep river banks where the shoreline might be undercut, presenting a hazard.
  • It’s best to research the river first, get local knowlege and paddle out with an experienced buddy. Know whether or not there is a dam that will require a portage and know where that portage is.
  • Know the water level – learn how to read the river gauges and always check before going out when appropriate – ie smaller rivers.  Never go out when water levels are rising. Make sure there is enough water in the river to clear rocks and not too much to create conditions above your skill level. Local river guidebooks and websites will generally indicate optimal water levels.
  • If your river includes rapids that are Class II or above, take a white water sup course!!
  • Wear protective gear in rocky, loggy and or rapid-prone areas including helmet, pads and a vest-style life jacket.  There is debate on whether to use a leash or not on smaller rivers.  If you decide to use one, make sure it is a quick release leash that attaches to your pdf and can be disconnected quickly should you become entangle.

Float Plan

PaddleLogger’s PaddleLive feature texts your designated contacts when you start and finish a session.
  • Let someone know where you are paddling, where you launch, where you will finish, and how long you expect to be out. Using an app like Paddle Logger can help with that.
  • Be sure to let your contact know when you are done and safely back on shore. Paddle Logger will do that automatically for you when you stop recording your session, if you have a premium subscription.
  • It is also helpful for your emergency contact to know what kind of paddle craft you are on, as well as its color and the color of your paddle clothes.
  • Take your phone with you!
  •  Think about where you can get to shore and take shelter if the weather gets bad.
  • Listen to that little voice.  If you feel unsure about paddling, then give yourself permission to opt out this time.  
  • Don’t abandoned all common sense in your excitement or desire to paddle. Be observant, don’t be complacent.

Not Harshing The Vibe!

None of this is meant to throw a big bucket of ice cold water on anyone’s paddling enthusiasm. Or make it harder or more complicated to paddle out.  It is meant to help all of us stay safe so we can enjoy the wonderful sport of paddling for many years to come. The more you paddle, the more you will learn and the more all of this will become second nature. Just like putting on a seat belt or a bike helmet. 

If you are still pretty new to paddling, take a class with a local paddle shop or instructor who can help you learn about your specific, local paddle environment.  When you travel to new paddle destinations, soak up as a much knowledge from the locals as possible. Conditions on North Carolina Coast are not going to be the same as in Florida, California or Hawaii. Knowlege is safety!

Resources to check out: