Paddle Safety: Follow The Rules To Ensure An Awesome Adventure

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: Coast Guard , Boating , Tourism , Chatham , Harwich , Pleasant Bay , Sports , Beaches , Waterways

Kayakers pull up to the beach at Stage Harbor Light during an excursion. The Coast Guard encourages paddlers to have life jackets, a distress light, and a whistle while paddling in areas such as Pleasant Bay and Stage Harbor, and flares when venturing into open water. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

This past weekend US Coast Guard officials spent more than four hours scouring the waters off Plymouth looking for a possible person in the water after finding an adrift kayak. While the search was eventually suspended and no missing persons reports filed, indicating that the vessel likely floated free of its mooring, the situation is a powerful reminder that even paddle sports such as kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding come with rules. The problem is that not enough people know them.

“When paddleboards came out people saw them as oversized surfboards,” said Corbin Ross, BMCS, Officer in Charge, Coast Guard Station Chatham.

But after watching users progress from simple paddles around small swim areas to taking full-out tours of local waterways, Ross and his fellow Coast Guard officers knew there was more to the boards than met the eye.

“This is much more than a water toy,” he said, adding that the USCG decided there definitely needed to be some safety requirements for paddle craft.

That said, the rules are somewhat complex and still evolving along with the sport, which continues to increase in popularity each year along with kayaking. Both have strong followings on the Cape as evidenced by the uptick in vessel ownership and the ubiquity of rental shops.

“As far as the rules go, you've got to have your life jacket on, a distress light, and a whistle,” said Ross, adding that life jackets are not required to be worn by adults 18 and older, but must be on board during excursions not on coastal waterways (such as outside Pleasant Bay or beyond beach swim areas), and that anyone under 18 must wear a life jacket at all times. Inflatable life jackets are only allowed for those 18 and older.

Distress lights are required when paddling or kayaking in the twilight hour(s) around sunrise and sunset, and at any hour when paddling on coastal waters. If a vessel is longer than 16 feet, flares must also be carried.

Ross encourages people, especially new paddleboarders and kayakers, to contact the local Coast Guard or Coast Guard Auxiliary for the full rules, but advised people to err on the side of caution, especially with regard to the constantly changing winds and tides on Cape Cod, as well as marked channels frequented by boaters.

“Realizing that the marked channels, that's where you're going to encounter boats, and boats make the wakes,” Ross said. “Paddleboarding is a lot harder than it looks. It takes a little bit of skill to stay on a paddleboard in a wake. Paddleboarding in a channel isn't a very good idea. Paddleboarding on the outskirts is a much safer area to be as you're transiting from one location to the other.”

Both Ross and Justin Labdon, president of Cape Cod Beach Chair Company, Inc. in East Harwich, which includes Adventure Chatham paddleboard sales and rentals, urge people to check the tides and the wind repeatedly.

“Regarding paddleboarding and kayaking, especially paddleboarding, watch out for the wind,” said Labdon. “When you're on a paddleboard your body acts like a sail almost. You need to be cognizant of the weather, daily hourly forecast, and really know where you're going before you get yourself into trouble. If you do encounter the wind or the current, it's recommended to get down on your knees and paddle as close to shore as possible.”

Tides are also a huge factor, especially in areas where the tidal flow causes significant currents.

“Pay particular attention to the tides,” said Ross. “It is very difficult to paddle against the tides.”

Ross encourages people to have a float plan whenever they venture out.

“Make sure somebody knows where you're going, when you're leaving, when you're going to be back. It really helps,” he said. “There's nothing wrong with calling a Coast Guard station and giving them that information if you don't have somebody local to call.”

Labdon also emphasizes the need for people buying paddleboards to also purchase a leg leash, which has one end that attaches to the board and the other, typically a Velcro strap, that wraps around the ankle.

“We always recommend that they buy an ankle leash that tethers you to the board in case you fall off,” Labdon said. “And be careful paddling with the seals. You know what they say: with the seals, there are sharks around.”

Labdon said he typically sends folks out on Pleasant Bay, advising them to paddle along the shore, or consider any one of the local lakes or ponds.

“Everyone overlooks the ponds but the water's warm, they're sheltered and there's no current,” he said.

Along with personal safety, Ross said one of the most important things they can do is attach a Coast Guard-issued sticker that allows someone's paddle or kayak to be identified. The “If Found” stickers are bright orange and reflective and have ample space for adding a name and phone number. Though it seems like a no-brainer, the stickers can mean the difference between a full-scale search when a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard is found drifting, and a simple phone call to confirm that the vessel simply drifted away from its mooring.

“We have stacks of them here,” said Ross. :”We're trying to get them out to all of the harbormasters, sales and rental places. Please put them on your craft so that we don't spend hours searching for no reason. If you know that your kayak/board drifted away from where you keep it, call us. No big deal. There is no repercussion. We just want to know that you're OK and if we have your kayak we'll give it back to you.”

Because the Coast Guard is required to search when an adrift kayak or paddleboard is found, the stickers make it easier for the agency to learn whether someone's vessel got loose in bad weather or if there is a real emergency. Unnecessary searches come with a high price tag, often totaling thousands of dollars.

“We all need to pay attention,” said Ross. “Everybody has the same responsibility to keep an eye out and be prudent.”