Paddleboarding safety is a common theme in many of our blogposts. Even when you take precautions, the water can be fickle, and things can turn bad quickly. This isn’t to scare you, it’s just to make you aware, and to help you prepare for a bad situation should one arise.
We have talked a lot about safety equipment…leash, PFD, whistle, dressing for water temps, and being visible to boats. But what are some things you can actually DO to prepare yourself for an emergency while you are out? Practice.
That might sound strange, but one of the most important things you can do is practice falling off your board and getting back on. So often people will boast to us about never having fallen off of their boards, but it’s really nothing to boast about. If you have never fallen off of your paddleboard, then you have never had to get back on. Being able to get back on when things are calm and there’s no sense of urgency is an important precursor to being able to get back on when the stakes are higher. So practice in calm conditions until you are comfortable with the process, then practice in rougher conditions.
There are also different ways to fall. Typically you want to push your board away from you when you fall so you don’t hit yourself on it causing damage to you or your board. And usually you don’t want to hold on to your paddle when you fall because hitting yourself or your board with your paddle can cause damage to you, your board, or your paddle.
When you fall, it’s a good idea to fall spread out and lead with your butt. If you spread out, you will distribute the impact and not sink as deep. It’s always risky to fall straight down when you don’t know what is below you. If it is very shallow or if there are rocks you can get hurt. Practice this too
If you have a towline, know how to use it before you are in an emergency situation. A towline can serve many purposes. Obviously if someone gets hurt or exhausted and cannot paddle themselves, you can get them to shore by towing them. But it can also be useful to keep you from getting too far away from someone else in your party if they are lagging and you are at risk of getting too separated. It can even be used to tie you off to something if you need a rest and need to stay put. Practice different ways of attaching the line and towing from kneeling and standing positions. Kneeling is generally considered the safest method, but you can usually cover more “ground” if you are standing, getting you to safety more quickly. Once you are comfortable with the towline in calm waters, practice hooking up the towline and getting going in rougher conditions, it’s a very different experience. Chances are good you will not face these situations on calm, glassy days.
Learn how to do a simple flip rescue. Practice it in calm water. And then if you paddle in moving water, practice it there too when there is no emergency. This is another thing you don’t want to have to try to figure out on the fly. Know, and be comfortable with the process so that if you do need it, it’s second nature.
Kneeling and prone paddling
Practice paddling on your knees and lying prone. If you are separated from your paddle, you can lie down on your board and paddle with your arms like you are swimming to get back to it. If your paddle breaks you might be able to paddle on your knees (depending on where it breaks) or you might also have to lie down and paddle. If conditions are too rough, if it is too windy, if there is too much boat traffic to risk falling in, do not be afraid to paddle on your knees. These are safer positions for staying on your board. There are times when it is very undesirable to fall off of your board, and going to your knees or belly can help. Practice turning and paddling in both of those positions so that if the need arises, it’s second nature.
Read the water
Learn to read the water. You can spend a lifetime learning how, but you need to start somewhere. Before you head out, pay attention to the wind, the swell, the current, and the tide where applicable. Each of these elements can affect your paddling. And if you have to contend with them in one direction, you want it to be on your way out rather than on the way back when you are tired.
And to reiterate points that we have made before…don’t paddle alone if you can avoid it, file a float plan, constantly assess the conditions and if things change do not resist turning around if it’s the right thing to do. Know your area before you head out, and make sure you have all of the appropriate safety equipment and that it is in good working condition.
The most important thing in any emergency is remain calm…do not panic. Panicking uses precious energy that you cannot afford to waste in an emergency situation. Stay calm, take a couple of deep breaths, assess the situation, and prioritize what needs to happen first. Usually the first thing to do is get you (or someone else) back on the board. Your board is a flotation device and the safest place to be is on it! Then decide if it’s necessary to get to land. If so, determine the quickest place you can do that and get help if needed. Not many medical emergencies can be handled on the water, so if medical attention is necessary, you can call 911 and get to the closest land where they can get to you.
Pride has little place on the water. Especially when you are in open water, the water is a force much greater than you are. Respect it, be prepared, and learn something every time you go out.