Paddleboarding is getting a leg up
As the summer boating season bears down on Florida, a different type of vessel is becoming more common on the seascape, vying for water space along with hundreds of thousands of motorboats and water scooters.
Stand-up paddlers are easy to spot, though their vessels aren't.
Perched on oversize, buoyant surfboards, paddleboarders ply the waters while standing, making their quiet way along riverbanks and bay shorelines, through mangrove tunnels and on inland lakes. There are more of them this year than ever, silently slicing through Sunshine State waters alongside the 870,000 registered recreational motorboats.
Stand-up paddlers say they enjoy the exercise and a better view than that afforded paddlers on canoes or kayaks.
“You do get a bird's-eye view, and you see a lot more,” said Aimee Conlee who along with her husband, Michael, runs Urban Kai, a paddleboard instruction, rental and sales business on the Hillsborough River just north of downtown Tampa. “When you're out there, you see dolphins and lots of other things that come up. Sea life is all around you. It's really engaging.”
The sport is not without its risks, though, a reality the Coast Guard and others are reinforcing as the busy Memorial Day boating weekend approaches.
“The problem is that a lot of things can happen out on the water, regardless of what type of vessel you have,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Gary Morse. “Adherence to the rules of the road and equipment requirements are a necessity in order to ensure a safe, fun trip.”
Though they might not look like it, paddleboards technically are considered vessels when in use outside typical swimming, surfing or bathing areas.
When paddleboards go beyond those areas, the paddlers must have a Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person and a sound-producing instrument such as a whistle or air horn that can be heard half a nautical mile away.
Sunset paddling is popular, but paddlers after dark are required to have a flashlight or lantern that produces a white light bright enough to alert other vessels.
Paddleboarders who are offshore or on certain coastal waters at night are required to have visual distress signals, the Coast Guard says. That would include flares or SOS distress lights.
Conlee says weather and motorboats pose the biggest safety threats to stand-up paddlers. Paddlers can stay off the water in inclement weather, but they have to share the water with bigger boats — and just about every boat is big by comparison.
“We have a policy,” Conlee said. “We don't let kids go out on weekends from this location because of the increased boat traffic.”
Big boat wake can be trouble.
“A wake can throw you off the board,” she said. “We tell everybody to go to their knees when a boat comes by.”
A life vest can be worn or strapped to the board, she said, but the most important piece of equipment is the leash. “It connects you to the board, and the board is a huge flotation device.”
The Coast Guard said stand-up paddlers in 2012 accounted for just a fraction of boating accidents and fatalities nationwide. The Coast Guard recorded four accidents involving stand-up paddlers in which three paddlers died.
That's a small number considering the Coast Guard last year counted 4,515 recreational-boating accidents in the United States that claimed the lives of 651 people, injured 3,000 and caused $38 million in damage.
To stem the number of injuries and deaths on the water, the Coast Guard will be out this summer checking vessels, including paddleboards, for safety equipment
“Yes, we do check them,” said Coast Guard Cmdr. Scott Calhoun. Though a lot of people don't think paddleboards rise to the level of a recreational boat, he said, “the Coast Guard has made the determination that they are vessels and they are required to have the minimum safety gear onboard.”
He's aware of the growing popularity of the sport.
“It's a growing kind of phenomenon,” he said, “not just here in Florida, but all across the country.”
Enthusiasts are aware of the safety concerns.
For the most part, if you stay out of the paths of large, fast-moving vessels, stand-up paddling can be safe, comfortable and great exercise, said Tessa Blosser, who runs WhatSUP, a South Tampa paddleboard instruction business that offers tours as well. She stresses safety and being aware of other vessels.
“As a paddleboarder, you have no right of way,” she said. “You are the smallest thing out there.”