How to stay safe on your stand up paddleboard

Up until fairly recently, the answer to this question would have been straightforward and unanimous; the leash, every time. Pretty much the entire SUP industry has been united behind the ‘leashes save lives’ campaign. Losing your board = very bad. It offers vastly more flotation than even the biggest buoyancy aid, and it’s always better to be out of the water than in it, particularly in cold water conditions. So, number one goal in SUP safety: don’t get separated from your board! If you’re a weak or non swimmer or suffer any medical conditions or impairments which might make it hard to get back onto your board if you fall in then you should of course wear a buoyancy aid as well.  No arguments there. But even in these scenarios it’s just as important – indeed arguably even more so – not to lose your board.

However, over the last few years, the anti-leash movement has gained momentum. I’m going to resist the temptation to compare them to anti-vaxxers, but you can definitely see some similarities. Thanks to a few high profile freak instances of someone getting their leash caught on something in fast flowing water, with tragic results,  there is an increasingly widespread view that leashes are therefore dangerous. This has led to a large-scale migration over the last few years from ankle leashes – which have been doing a generally fantastic job in preventing people from losing their boards other than in those few tragic instances – to the use of quick-release waist leashes. Which, while undoubtedly a better option if you are unlucky enough to get your leash caught on something while in fast flowing water,  have their own issues and complications, as we explain in great detail in Book 1 of the SUP Safety series. Unfortunately, now that the potential problems with QR-waist leashes have been recognised by certain authorities, leashes have been now been banned altogether for organised white water training activities.   Not general paddling, just specific courses and training activities in white water (by definition very fast flowing), so this wasn’t intended to be a statement about the general all-round suitability of QR waist leashes,  but too late – the damage has been done. The rug has now been pulled from under the feet of the ‘everyone-must-wear-a-waist-leash-or-they’re-going-to-die’ brigade to be found on any SUP social media page, and the anti-any-leash campaigners have gained more momentum. 

To illustrate the reality of this, here’s a social media thread that I was involved in fairly recently. It started with this post:

I have absolutely no idea what the obsession is with leashes. In my view they are dangerous. I think a pfd is 100% needed but I’ll never tether myself to a board as I just don’t see any benefit and only downside.

To which many people disagreed, including myself, and you can see my response below in the screenshot. However, the original poster was having none of it, and doubled down with his second comment, which I’ll reprint here: 

Whilst I do agree that leashes can be helpful in certain situations I do not think there blanket use across all conditions is necessary. If I’m paddling in benign conditions with little to no wind there is only downside to being attached in my view. If you take the aquapaddle 5ks in the UK you have to wear a leash but don’t have to wear a pfd which means the leash is viewed as a more important life saving device than a pfd which is frankly bizarre.

And that, dear readers, is the scary bit right there. For this person it is bizarre that the leash is viewed as a more important life-saving device than the PFD (personal flotation device, in case you’re not famiiar with that abbreviation). And this is a classic example of reverse thinking.  Essentially what it is saying is “I don’t mind taking the risk of getting into trouble because my PFD will save me.”  In my initial reply I’d mentioned the fence at the top of the cliff scenario. So, continuing with that analogy, the logic here is that it’s preferable to have an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff rather than the fence at the top.  And that most certainly is bizarre! 

Even in little to no wind, one awkward wipeout can flick the board 20m away, easy. Check out this vid, of a test we carried out a while back.  

As you can see, in the wipeout without the leash, our paddler had to swim (hard) the full length of a 25m pool in order to catch up with his board when he wasn’t wearing a leash. And that’s in zero wind conditions.  Ironically, in this situation, because wearing the PFD makes it even harder to swim fast, you’re actually even more likely to get separated from your board if you’re wearing a PFD!

Don’t get me wrong, PFDs absolutely have their place. But it’s important to understand their actual role. Realistically, a PFD is only ever going to be a second line of defence for the freak instance where you’ve lost your board (assuming of course that you’re smart enough to wear a leash, which is your first line of defence),  or you’ve suffered some freak medical situation. It is always going to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff; there to pick up the pieces when something else has gone wrong. As already discussed, for weak/non swimmers or people who struggle to get back onto their board, a PFD is of course essential and should always be worn, but otherwise, in what scenario is a PFD going to be the primary item of safety equipment for a competent paddler and swimmer if they have their board to hand? ( The ‘in case I get cold water shock‘ defence often comes out at this point, but if cold water is an issue you should dress appropriately, not rely on your PFD to save you. And likewise, the ‘in case I get knocked out‘ play isn’t valid either, as no PFD suitable for paddleboarding will save you in that situation. )

To repeat, this is not in any way downplaying the importance of a PFD. The best options will always be to have the fence at the top of the cliff AND the ambulance at the bottom!  (And remember, a PFD a legal requirement in most countries anyway). . But it can most certainly be argued that the PFD is not the most important piece of life saving equipment for stand up paddleboarding. If you’ve done your planning and preparation properly (see book 3 of the SUP SAFETY series), and your other safety equipment is up to scratch (see book 1 of the SUP SAFETY series), then you may never actually need your PFD in your entire paddleboarding career. 

A vital requirement with any item of safety equipment that you are trusting your life to is that you actually understand the role of the item. What is it actually for? Why are you wearing/using/carrying it? And the role of the PFD is there to pick up the pieces. It is not there to prevent things going wrong. Whereas the leash is there to prevent things going wrong. Which is why it ranks higher than the PFD in the safety priority list. It is always better not to have a problem in the first place. 

Of course, there is always context. If you’re paddling down a river and never more than a few metres from the nearest shore then losing your board is unlikely to be life threatening. In a white water paddling scenario then absolutely the PFD does indeed trump the leash in terms of importance. However, if you’re paddling on open water then WEAR A LEASH. It IS the most important piece of safety equipment. 

As for the ankle leash vs waist leash controversy, again it’s actually missing the point. It doesn’t actually matter what type of leash you wear, what matters is having the right KNOWLEDGE. Understand the limitations and potential pitfalls of that type of leash, and knowing what to do if you find yourself in an environment where it could pose a hazard. This wasn’t meant to be quite such a strong plug for the books but this isn’t stuff that is easily covered in just a few hundred words, so you’re definitely better off reading the relevant chapters in book one of the SUP SAFETY series.  For sure I’ll be covering it in future blogs though.   There is still a whole lot more to say on this subject!

Follow these comments
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x