There is a book called How to Avoid Huge Ships. It seems ridiculous, and the reviews are hilarious. But it brings up a good point when you are paddleboarding in boat traffic. How do you make yourself visible to boats? How do you know who has the right of way? And exactly what does one on a paddleboard do to avoid large (or even small) boats?
The US Coast Guard has something to say on this matter. You are required to have a whistle (or other audible sounding device) and if you are out from ½ hour before dusk to ½ hour after dawn, or in foggy (or other visibility compromising conditions) you need to have a light with you. I might add to that you need to know how to properly signal with these devices. Having them on board is great, but knowing how to appropriately use them is really essential. And the nautical rules of the road outline who has the right of way when.
According to the nautical rules of the road as a vessel not under power, we actually have the right of way over some bigger boats that are motorized. However, use your common sense. Size matters! It’s a lot easier to redirect a paddleboard than a large boat. So be prepared to make the adjustment yourself most of the time. But here’s where it can get tricky. If you are on a course to potentially collide with a boat, you should make a deliberate change of direction so that it is obvious which new course you are going to take to avoid the collision. But if a boat cannot see you, they may not be able to see your new course either. (see below the paragraph about brightly colored clothing.)
When paddleboarding in boat traffic, stay out of boating channels whenever possible. The last thing you want to do is spend more time in a busy channel than absolutely necessary. If you played Frogger as a kid, you have a definite advantage here. If you are crossing a channel, you usually want to pick the shortest distance. Going straight across it is typically preferable to following the channel from within the buoys. Look at crossing a boating lane or channel the same way you would crossing the street. Pick a spot where you are most visible. Stop, look both ways, and let any traffic go by. And then paddle like hell straight across till you are out of the lane.Paddleboards can travel in much less water than large boats, so generally you will have plenty of water following alongside the channel without actually travelling within it. There are times when that’s not possible. Again… whip out that common sense.
But what other measures should we, as paddleboarders, take to avoid boats and make the waters safer for everyone? Wear visible colors. While a bright yellow rash guard may not be your favorite choice on the rack, it will certainly be easier to spot on the water than the navy blue one which will tend to blend with the color of the water. A brightly colored hat can be helpful too. Think about hiking during hunting season…in many areas you are required to have at least 100 square inches of safety orange gear on. If you think of the boats as the hunters, you will do yourself a favor by making yourself visible to them. Lots of boards will not show up dramatically on the water either, but with your board being closer to the water and probably disappearing behind swells and wakes periodically, it is typically more beneficial to have the bright colors on your person.
Check out this article for more general sup safety tips. As with most things in life, if you engage your powers of common sense (we know you have them) you should do well. It’s really not the job of boats to have to avoid you…it’s more the job of us as paddleboarders having to stay out of their way, because at the end of the day- size matters, and most boat vs paddleboarder collisions will result in a decisive victory for the boat.