Going kayaking or standup paddleboarding this summer? You won’t be alone. A record 37.9 million participants engaged in paddlesports such as kayaking, standup paddle boarding, and canoeing during the pandemic, according to the latest data (2020) from the Outdoor Foundation. This pandemic surge brought an estimated 2.5 million new paddlers to American waterways, which means water safety training is a must.
“People are drawn to paddlesports,” says Robin Pope, Ph.D., PA-C, chairman of the board of directors of the American Canoe Association. “And why not? It’s fun, accessible, and inexpensive. It’s easy to get your craft to the water, no license required, no marina fees, no fuel to buy, and plenty of great exercise.”
While Pope supports greater participation, he’s also concerned that many newcomers to the sport simply don’t recognize the hazards. The surge in participation also increased the number of incidents to 331 and fatalities to a record high 202, accounting for more than 26 percent of all U.S. boating fatalities in 2020.
“Data tells us most accidents happen in flatwater due to falling overboard or capsizing,” said Pope. “Untrained paddlers usually don’t know how to get back in once they’ve fallen out, aren’t wearing a life jacket, and aren’t prepared for cold water exposure. It’s imperative that we help more paddlecraft purchasers take advantage of the many free and inexpensive safety education resources available to them.”
Despite the risk, Water Sports Foundation (WSF) executive director Jim Emmons says boating in general is still one of the safest forms of recreation. Despite the tragedies, Emmons says the vast majority of incidents and fatalities are preventable. Data from 2020, the most recent year for which complete data is available, indicates most paddlesports deaths occurred due to lack of safety training and experience.
“We know from analyzing U.S. Coast Guard data that in 2020, nearly three-quarters (74.6 percent) of people who died in paddling accidents had less than 100 hours experience in the activity,” Emmons says, “And over one-third (38.8 percent) had less than 10 hours of experience.”
It begs the question, how are so many inexperienced and untrained paddlers getting out on the water? Emmons and Pope agree that one of the reasons could be sales associates rarely provide guidance or safety training, especially at stores selling entry-level paddle craft. And most states don’t require the purchaser to take a boating safety course, as some states do for motorized vessels.
Walt Taylor, a recreational boating specialist for the U.S. Coast Guard’s First District headquartered in Boston, believes a change in mindset would increase the number of paddlers receiving safety training while decreasing incidents and deaths.
“Many paddlers do not consider themselves ‘boaters’ and therefore don’t realize they’re required by law to obey navigation rules and carry the required safety equipment for their size and type of vessel,” says Taylor. “By taking a recognized paddle safety course, paddlers will learn the basics about navigation rules, aids to navigation, risk management, and required and recommended safety gear.”
Taylor says that in 2016, paddle craft fatalities in the First Coast Guard District, which includes Northern New Jersey, Eastern New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine jumped to 29—53 percent of the district’s recreational boating fatalities for the year. Drowning after falling overboard or capsizing accounted for 27 of the 29 deaths, and 24 drowning victims were recovered not wearing a life jacket.
In response, Taylor said the First Coast Guard District intensified its focus on paddlecraft safety through public safety outreach, paddling education courses and vessel safety checks, along with greater enforcement of federal requirements on paddle craft. These efforts contributed to a 34 percent decrease in paddle craft fatalities from 2016 to 2017 (19 paddling fatalities, down from 29), demonstrating the life-saving importance of paddling instruction.
Emmons says Taylor’s success in reducing incidents and fatalities is an excellent example of what can happen when communities focus on simple safety rules that, for newbies to the sport, may seem less intuitive. He recommends the following safety tips to help paddlers reduce risks:
1. Seek Safety Training
See the following free or inexpensive safety resources:
- American Canoe Association’s resource library
- WSF’s Increasing Awareness of Paddle Sports Safety Program
- Paddling.com’s paddling safety series
2. Wear a U.S. Coast Guard-Approved Life Jacket
U.S. Coast Guard data shows 85 percent of all paddlesports drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket.
3. Be Prepared to Get Wet
Dress appropriately for the conditions including the possibility of cold-water exposure. Compared to other types of boating, in paddlesports you’re far more likely to end up in the water. Or as paddlers say, “We’re all between swims.”
4. Check Conditions and Weather Forecast
Always check current weather conditions and the forecast before each paddle trip. Avoid conditions that exceed your experience and skill level. Water current and local winds could make it easy to get out and difficult to get back in.
5. File a Float Plan
Share a simple float plan with friends and family that includes your anticipated departure and return times and locations. Ask them to alert authorities if you are not back on time.
6. Always Paddle Sober
U.S. Coast Guard data shows alcohol has long been the leading known contributing factor in fatal boating accidents. Safe paddling requires clear thinking and good decision-making. Don’t drink and paddle.
“Whatever your chosen paddlesport—kayaking, standup paddleboarding or canoeing—invest in yourself by seeking safety training. Using what you learn can dramatically improve your chances for incident free fun this summer and for years to come,” Emmons said.
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