As the sport gains popularity, drownings involving stand-up paddleboarders are increasing. Usually, it’s because the victim wasn’t wearing a life jacket.
In 2017, according to Coast Guard figures, there were 11 total paddleboard fatalities in the entire country, 10 from drowning. Ten years earlier, when the sport was new, there were none.
This year, there already have been three in Washington. All involved people who drowned while not wearing life vests.
That’s a fraction of the fatalities involving people in canoes and open motorboat accidents, but the trend is there.
Back when Kmarts were ubiquitous around the country, the term “Kmart kayaker” was used in the paddle-sport industry to describe novices.
The term could be equally applied to newcomers to stand-up paddleboarding, says Jim Emmons, outreach director for the Water Sports Foundation, based in Orlando, Florida.
“People come into the big-box stores, the club stores like Costco, in what we call a ‘no service environment.’ They’ve got a party next weekend, they don’t know anything about boating, don’t know anything about paddling,” he says.
At such places, he says, there won’t be any signs warning customers that having a life jacket when on a stand-up paddleboard is required under Coast Guard regulations.
This summer, Emmons says, he’s sending letters to the executives of these major outlets to ask them to put some kind of warning out for the novices.
“It could something as simple as putting on the bottom of the receipt about using a life jacket,” he says.
It’s easy to understand why stand-up paddleboarding — shortened to SUP — has become so popular.
You can drive to a nearby lagoon, stand up on a paddleboard and use a long paddle to propel yourself forward. That’s it.
Modern stand-up paddleboarding traces its origins to Hawaii.
“In the 1940s, surf instructors in Waikiki like Duke Kahanamoku and Leroy and Bobby AhChoy would take paddles and stand on their boards to get a better view of the surfers in the water and incoming swells, and from time to time they would surf the waves in themselves using the paddle to steer the board,” according to SUP World mag.
“Injured in a car accident that restricted him from swimming or kneeling, Bobby would stand up, cigarettes lashed to his arm, camera about his neck, and paddle into the surf zone shouting hints to others. His brother Leroy and father John would also stand up from time to time. And so Beach Boy Surfing was born.”
By 2015, just under 3 million people had tried paddleboarding “into literally all of our nation’s waterways,” according to Small Craft Advisory, a website for boating-law administrators.
In 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard issued regulations on stand-up paddleboards.
It said that from then on, paddleboards would be considered “vessels.”
That meant paddleboarders had to have a life jacket, although they didn’t have to wear them as long as it was attached to the board. Some paddleboarders wear a belt pack that can be inflated when a string is pulled or it is activated when submerged under water. Paddleboarders 13 years of age or older must have a Coast Guard-approved life jacket with them. Younger paddleboarders also must wear a life jacket.
They also must carry a whistle or sound device to make noise in case of an emergency.
And if paddling at night, they need to carry a flashlight to warn boaters.
“People are shocked that it’s a requirement. They think that the paddleboards are toys. We do the education,” says Sgt. Kevin Haistings, of the Seattle Police Department’s Harbor Patrol.
He says that not wearing a life jacket and believing you can quickly put it on, or pull a string, is taking a chance.
What about, he says, “If you hit your head, if you’re unconscious, or have cold water shock and are panicking?”
In all three Washington cases this year involving paddleboarders who drowned — an Auburn man who died in Lake Cle Elum; a man who died in Spanaway Lake; and a third who died in Lake Washington — police said that none was wearing life jackets.
“Life-jacket lottery: Most adults take their chances on the water, study finds ‘Uncomfortable’ vests, alcohol on board and ‘expert’ swimming ability all contribute to low use,” concluded a 2014 study done by the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
One of the researchers said, “There were people that we interviewed with a beer in their hand — and no life jacket.”
Not obeying the Coast Guard life-jacket regulations doesn’t exactly carry stiff penalties.
First time, says a Coast Guard spokesman, it’s a warning.
Second time, it could be a citation, with an $87 fine.