When paddleboarding, safety has to be your main priority. Part of paddleboarding safely is knowing how to navigate the waterways. Aside from understanding the body of water you are paddling in, how currents and tides affect you there, and where you can get shelter depending on wind direction, you have to understand how boat traffic moves about within it.
There is a lot to keep track of if you are paddling in marinas and in, and around, boating channels. When you are in marinas you need to pay attention to the boats that are moving and the boats that are moored. You can keep an eye on the masts of the boats to see if any of them are in motion. It’s not always easy to tell if the boat is just moving with the wind, or if there are people on board taking the boat for a ride. So look for crews and boats in motion that may not have made it to the channel yet.
Even though we have the right of way over some other vessels in certain situations, common sense needs to prevail. We need to yield to bigger boats. Basically stay out of their way. If you do find yourself in their way, get out of it, quickly. The speed a boat is travelling can be tough to predict. So err on the side of caution and unless it is way off in the distance, cross behind it rather than trying to beat it by paddling across its path.
Think of the boating channels as highways. Highways are no place for pedestrians (paddleboards are pedestrians in this analogy). So we should stay off of the highway as much as possible. Like on highways, traffic patterns can be a little confusing where there are ramps, merging traffic, and exits. Before you head to a marina you should learn about the traffic patterns for that area.
It is helpful to go paddling with someone who knows the area. But if that’s not possible, at least do a little research on the area where you will paddle. You may want to talk to a local shop or the harbormaster to get a handle on how things work and where you should be paddling. You don’t want to interrupt the flow of traffic in a busy harbor. But we have seen people stop and do yoga right in the middle of a channel. Don’t be that person. You put yourself and others in danger by not understanding the rules.
Nautical charts are wonderful tools for this. They provide an abundance of information and are definitely worth learning to read. In addition to seeing where marinas are located, you can also see buoy locations, low tide water depths, the location of rocks, areas where the current is strong, distances, and much more.
There is a common phrase to remember when talking about the navigation rules for sup- Red, Right, Return. When you are in the channel, the red buoys will be on your right as you are heading into port. Learning to read the buoys and know where the main channels are vs the secondary channels can be useful if you find yourself disoriented.
If you find yourself on a collision course with a boat, make a deliberate and obvious change of course so the boat will have no doubt where you are going. You can also signal with your whistle (the Coast Guard requires you to carry a whistle or other signaling device). There is a series of whistle signals to make your intentions known to other vessels. Here they are for your reference
Since paddleboards don’t need as much water depth as boats to travel, we can usually proceed just fine outside of the channel. If you need to proceed in the channel for some reason, stay as far to the side as possible (think sidewalk).
If you need to cross the channel and you are with other paddlers, gather your group at one of the buoys if practical. If not, try to line yourself up with the edge of the channel.. When the coast is clear- proceed as a group, picking the shortest distance across, and paddling quickly to get across it. Wearing bright colors and staying together as a group will help you be more visible to boats. If there is a danger of falling because of wake, chop, etc, kneel down. You do not want to waste extra time in the channel having to get back on your board. You are also less visible to boats when you are in the water.
If you are going to be the channel for an extended period of time, a VHF radio can be used to alert other vessels that you will be in there. Use buoy numbers where you are crossing as a reference and other boats will know where to keep an eye out for you.
The most important tool you can bring with you on the water is common sense. We can’t stress that enough.
Be aware of your surroundings
Always pay attention
Constantly assess conditions, traffic, weather, etc. Things can change very quickly
Stay out of the highway unless absolutely necessary
Yield to bigger boats
Don’t forget your PFD and conditions-appropriate leash
Keeping these things in mind should help you navigate your paddleboard safely through marinas and boat traffic. Be careful and have fun.