Take a glance at a paddleboarding advertisement in a store, on a website, or in a magazine and this is what you’ll often see…
Clearly, SUP is touted as the SEXY SUMMER SPORT. Who wouldn’t want to look like these models and do the cool things that they are doing?!?!
The problem is that the image of SUP that we are all now accustomed to masks a serious safety concern! Many paddlers simply neglect to wear a PFD while paddling a SUP. I’ve been teaching Stand-Up Paddleboarding classes for the past three summers and I’ve made it my personal mission to educate my students on why it’s critically important to WEAR A PDF while SUPing. I call this part of my class my “Public Service Announcement”…
Attention All SUPers, WEAR YOUR PFD!”
Why should you wear a PFD while SUPing? The simple answer is: Gravity. When you are standing on a SUP your head is anywhere from 5’ to 7’ above the board (depending on how tall you are). A fall from your own height is enough to knock you unconscious if your head comes in contact with a hard surface in the right (or wrong) way. I’ve messed around enough on my paddleboard to appreciate that it’s a hard surface! Everyone takes a fall from time to time and sometimes you will hit the board on the way down. In my mind, this simple fact makes wearing a PFD while SUPing an absolute requirement. A PFD could literally save your life in the event of an “ugly” fall!
What type of PFD should I wear while SUPing? This is a great question and one that I’m often asked during my classes. I always coach my students to wear a full-foam, Type III PFD like one that you’d wear kayaking, canoeing or even sailing. However, you’ll likely run into a group of paddlers (and shop owners) who will recommend a belt-pack-style, inflatable life jacket for SUPing. I would not trust my life to these increasingly popular PFD alternatives. Here’s why:
1) Belt-pack models must be manually deployed by the user and require a secondary donning in order to function as a PFD. One could imagine the potential challenges associated with deploying the PFD, getting it over one’s head, and securing the necessary straps while in the water after a disorienting fall. If not, then I would suggest trying to don a PFD while in the calm waters of a pool or pond. It’s a challenging thing to do on a good day!
2) Belt-pack models have multiple failure points that may prevent them from inflating in the event of an emergency. The most critical of these is the inflation mechanism which usually consists of a CO2 cartridge that is designed to inflate the vest when the “pull to inflate” handle is triggered. Manufacturers usually recommend that this cartridge be inspected prior to each use of the PFD to ensure that it’s properly seated and that there is no corrosion. Belt-pack models are required to have a manual inflation backup; usually a red tube that you can blow into to inflate the vest. However, inflating the vest manually adds yet another step to an already complicated process that could prove over whelming in an emergency.
3) Belt-pack models are bulky and clumsy when deployed. Have you ever tried to swim in one of those older, “horse collar” PFDs that are popular at summer camps? These PFDs place most of the added floatation on your chest which causes you to float slightly on your back. Both of these traits make swimming and re-mounting your board more difficult. I’ve seen a number of my participants struggle to remount their boards from the water while wearing only an inch-thick foam PFD. Add another few inches with one of these bulky inflatables and they might just be out of luck…
Is it a law that I must wear my PFD while SUPing? This is the type of question that really gets under my skin because it’s so neglectful of the singular reason why you SHOULD wear a PFD: for safety’s sake. I digress. Technically, yes, it’s a law in Massachusetts that one must have a PFD on board their SUP during the summer months and that one must wear a PFD on their person the rest of the year. Recently, SUPs have been classified as “vessels” by the USCG because they are capable of carrying a passenger on navigable waters. Therefore, SUPers are held to the same rules and regulations in the eyes of the USCG as any other vessel. It’s my experience that local harbor masters are taking these regulations seriously. Some are handing out fines while others are requesting that non-compliant SUPers return to shore to obtain a PFD before proceeding. If you’re concerned about the rules in your area then I would suggest contacting your local harbormaster or USCG auxillary group for more information.
The bottom line is that wearing any PFD while SUPing is better than not wearing one or having it tucked under the bungees in a fool-hearty attempt to “be in compliance” with local PFD regulations. However, I must stress that full foam PFDs have many advantages including that they’re already “fully deployed” when worn appropriately, lack failure points, and are less bulky than their belt-pack counterparts! If you’re looking for an excellent, full-foam PFD for SUPing then look no further than the Astral YTV. This vest is super light-weight and highly ergonomic to the point that you’ll honestly forget that you’re even wearing it after a few minutes!
Happy and Safe Paddling!