The basics of Paddle Board Safety
You cannot beat quality training and if you are able to get yourself on a course as either a paddle board beginner or a course on weather, wind & tides I would strongly recommend it.
Paddle Boarding is huge fun and is one of the fastest growing water sports in the world primarily because it is easier than a lot of water sports to master and often costs a lot less. You only need some basic kit and away you go and that's where a few people are getting themselves in all sorts of bother. For some SUP types they have come to it from a variety of other water sports so probably already have a knowledge of wind, weather and tides but many do not.
The rise in the sport has thrown together a huge number of people where paddle boarding is their first water sport and sadly all to often this means they get themselves into a spot of bother and that bother happens all to quickly for the inexperienced and the experienced water person alike.
Here's a just a few little reminders of what can and indeed does go wrong and how best to avoid them. It does not nor ever will replace quality training from a recognised person all school.
Whether you paddle on enclosed bodies of water like lakes, rivers or canals or you have taken to the open ocean most of these tips are aimed at the general paddle boarder and it's a given that you can swim - that's your first safety tip right there - be able to swim!
Paddle Boarding - what kit will I need?
Largely your kit depends on you so this list is a none exhaustive one encompassing just about everything you could possible use for a day on the water. Now, most people won't have it all and indeed most social paddles you wouldn't need it either so the list is broken down into FUN sessions and SERIOUS sessions. Fun is simply a paddle close to shore with mates where as serious is when you decide to go some distance or some way offshore.
Suggested kit for a fun session on the water
- Board leash: most new boards will come with a leash but if you don't have a leash it is advised you get one. A leash serves two purposes. Firstly if and when you take a dip your board is attached to you. This means it cannot be blown away or get taken by small waves or the tide. Factor in cold water shock and you'll be very happy to be attached to that big floaty thing. If you're getting into riding the waves a leash serves not only to keep your board with you when you wipe out but also prevents it shooting off and hitting another surfer which may or may not result in a punch up at the car park. If you are into Freestyle SUP you won't want a leash as it'll get in the way but then again most freestylers stay close to shore. Some occasions are safer than others not to wear one of course so largely wearing a leash is personal choice when the conditions are right but if you are new to the sport - leash up!
- Personal Flotation Device or PFD: These simply fit around the waste and you deploy them if you get into trouble. They are a personal choice because after all if you have a leash on you're attached to a rather large PFD so why wear one? Well there are a number of reasons why you should. Firstly leashes can break and inflatable SUPs can burst. Things happen at sea so a PFD covers both FUN and SERIOUS paddle sessions. If you are paddling any sort of distance offshore and you are not aware of the location or are not confident in the water then a PFD is highly recommended. They are like insurance. You drive for years thinking why do I pay for it then bang! You'll be so very glad you did! I have met a lot of SUP folk and some see a PFD as a slur on their ability! It really is not because drowned corpses really look ugly and even the professional wear them... even the very best water person can drown and the sea is a cruel mistress. There are reasons NOT to wear them for example in waves. If you are SUP surfing in waves be aware that bobbing about in large waves with a PFD on can be extremely dangerous as you will be at the mercy of the wave which is likely to toss you about like a rag doll if you cannot duck under it or through it.
- Mobile phone: Mainly for photos but also for help if you run into trouble. A quick 999 to the coastguard will save your life if you find yourself in deep water pardon the pun! There's a lot of waterproof bags out there and you can also take some great photos and selfies so a great investment. Be aware of location and obviously signal because your phone might not have a signal if you're somewhere far away.
- Suncream: Most people pack away the sun cream only for holidays but rest assured that the British sun can be vicious in the summer! Yes that one single day we get every year can roast a person alive in 30 seconds so pack some sun cream. Factor 50 for nose and ears and something equally protective for everywhere exposed. This is from experience - trust me! Pack that cream in your waterproof bag and do remember to get it off your hands before paddling because a slippy paddle is a real pain in the backside!
- A waterproof bag: As mentioned above... handy to pack everything you need in from your sun cream to sandwiches and more!
- Water: Paddling can be exhaustive and you will loose moisture. Having a supply of water with you is extremely important and highly recommended all year round not just summer. If you are doing a long paddle and you become dehydrated you can cramp up in cold water and that's not a good thing so water is recommended.
- A length of rope with carabiner: Purely optional but it can be quite handy. But why? Well, suppose the weather changes and you have to walk back - simply deflate if on an iSUP and use your piece of rope to wrap around the board. If someone is in trouble you can tow them back or they can you. A good bit of rope is handy!
- Water shoes or boots: This rather depends on terrain and what's under the water. You can use judgement here but if you find yourself having to walk any distance say - over coral - you may be glad you packed a set.
Suggested kit for a serious session
If you are considering a bit of an adventure or going some distance it would be an idea to look at these items.
- A waterproof VHF radio: Your phone may not always have signal or even battery or it gets a soaking in which case a VHF radio could be a great idea. There are courses on using VHF but just having it and being able to shout help as needed might just save your life.
- EPIRB: Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. OK we are serious now! Fire this baby up in the middle of the ocean and you'll hopefully get found pretty sharpish. To be honest we are in the realms of the serious paddler here who will undoubtable know all this already or at least should do.
After this we are entering the serious zone and the list isn't exhaustive. You could go emergency blanket, first aid kit, survival knife, rabbit snares and on but I think that's enough for now as far as kit which leads us to the most important thing above all else when it comes to paddle boarding - the conditions...
Wind, Weather & Tides!
If there's one thing that will make or break your session it is the weather! You do not need to have as much nautical learning as a trans Atlantic skipper but you will need some basic understanding of the conditions.
SUP in the wind
There aren't many SUP types that love the wind - it's our enemy! Stood on your board you are in effect a big sail and that spells possible danger! Before going out make sure you are aware of the wind direction and speed plus also be aware that conditions can and do change. If the forecast gives 3 mph east at 11 am and 45 mph south east at 1 pm - DO NOT GO OUT!
A variation of 7 or 8 mph is handleable but a larger variation means trouble and best avoided. As SUP types we don't want to put too much effort in so beginners ought to stick to < perhaps 6 or 8 mph wind. More experienced paddlers perhaps a little higher but to really enjoy it - the less wind is much better.
Of course if you are paddling in enclosed water such as canals or rivers than the wind will have less danger and more of a pain in the backside but at sea it is critical!
Off-shore wind is deadly! Remember - you are a big sail and the wind can blow you offshore faster than you can paddle. Avoid offshore breezes of any strength unless you really do know what you are doing!
Most seafront beaches in the UK have larger buildings fronting them. Offshore winds might well be very light close to shore but a few yards offshore the winds will have gotten over those buildings and start blasting so be very aware that if the wind is offshore you may not feel it close to the beach in which case STAY close to the beach because if you venture too far out and the wind has a chance to gather itself after being ramped over those buildings it may be very annoyed and decide to whip up and you do NOT want to be part of it's party!
Be aware of wind directions in your location. For example which way is north and where is the wind coming from?
Grab yourself a weather App for you device if you have one or check out quality weather forecasting online. I personally recommend DARK SKY as a weather App as it is updated in a lot of local areas and changes by the minute.
If caught out by the wind present a lesser profile to it by kneeling down and paddling or if all else fails lay on your paddle and use your arms to paddle back.
There are books written on the weather and as Michael Fish proudly stated in 1987 "Don't worry, there's no storm coming". Lessons learnt: our weather is extremely unpredictable at best! As a paddle boarder you will live by the weather. When you plan a day out not only will you decide on the weather conditions being right for you but also who you are with and their ability so check that forecast.
There's no need to totally understand synoptic charts, fronts etc but a basic understanding will certainly help you. For example - are there any storm fronts predicted, what's the outlook, will it rain. All these things are available in a quality weather app but do be aware it is subject to change and be armed with a quality forecast before you set out.
The tides and currents
If you are paddling in open sea you cannot avoid the tides and they are everywhere to a greater or lesser degree. In the Mediterranean there's not much tide. In Falmouth UK there's lots of it.
First of all what is it? Well the Earth spins around and the Moon spins around that. The moon is a giant magnate which pulls the sea to it causing a bulge of water that travels around the globe. In simple terms depending on the size of the moon, it's proximity to Earth and the time of day depends on how big or how small the tidal shift is.
Basically it goes in and out, fast or slow...
- Where there's a big body of water and a narrow gap leading to the open sea expect a very strong tidal current. Avoid these areas. There's a narrow window of SUP opportunity for local experienced paddlers but for most it is best avoided because when you have a trillion gallons of sea water being dragged through a gap 100 metres wide it ain't pretty so avoid these zones and if in doubt seek out a local!
- Where you can and cannot paddle at certain tidal states is largely dependent on you. Some areas completely dry at low tide some don't. Some dry only on certain tides and some don't. It's a science all to itself so it is highly recommended doing a sea safety course to get the basics nailed.
- Depth of water isn't really and issue. If there's none you just can't paddle! Speed of water is another matter however. Water moves and it is a lot more powerful than you. The best time to paddle is still water or just before and just after in areas where there's likely to be a strong tidal flow such as in an estuary. Know your tide times for that area. A good App to use is "My tide pro".
- Always be aware of tides and currents! If caught out paddle or swim across the flow of water never against it or with it. It may take time to get back to shore and even put you some way away but dry land is better than nothing!
- Local knowledge is everything. Water does not simply go in and out linear style. There are sand banks, canyons, rifts, rocks, pebble banks and all sorts of things that cause very localised water flow to be aware of. Knowing these and how to avoid or even use them is key to a great day out. It's all local knowledge and best bet is to learn from the locals.
- In areas of high tidal flow or if you are crossing areas of possible high flow then do wear a leash! The water will move you away from your board much faster than you can swim so leash up!
- If you are at a surf location and sometimes in flat beach locations there may be RIP currents about! These on a paddle board aren't too much of an issue. Look them up and how to spot them on YouTube. Surfers use them like escalators to propel them behind the break save paddling too hard. In that there's a clue - if caught they will take you behind the waves so either ride it out else paddle across it like the tide to exit. Never try fight it!
In all cases!
No matter what the situation - it is panic that costs lives. Deal with situations calmly and with forethought. Panic at sea is dangerous. Never put to sea unprepared for the worst case and always ensure you know what the weather is likely to do. Weather can and does change so when you check out the weather be prepared for change. 99.9% of the time the change will be negligible but on the odd occasion it might not be.
Booking a course
It is not my intention to turn you into Vasco da Gama but rather to keep you alive and enjoy your day out on your paddle board. There are some fantastic courses you can book on locally that will furnish you with some very valuable local knowledge you can transfer to any location and it is highly recommended to undertake one.
Local course can be found through any water sport shop or by joining the many brilliant Facebook groups dedicated to our sport.
If you live in Exmouth have a look at our group: Exmouth SUP & Paddle group.
The bottom line
All the above is good but your biggest weapon in your safety armoury is pure common sense! Listen to it and use intuition. Quite often intuition alerts you to a possible problem. Listen to it and live to fight another day.
Every day is a learning day and we will never truly be experts in the weather conditions or the sea but we can stock ourselves with knowledge enough to assume a higher level of safety and hence a more enjoyable day!
A word on shark repellent
Only exists in Batman! Paddling in the UK there's nothing will want to harm you aside from the weather. Do not fear pointy teeth critters - fear the conditions more!