On August 21, 2015, 29-year-old paddleboard racer Andres Pombo drowned while training for the Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge. According to local news services, Pombo went out to paddle the course a day before the race, fell in the river and drowned. His body was found six days later. He reportedly was not wearing a leash or PFD.
The death of an experienced paddler so close to a high-profile race has re-ignited debate about the need for more awareness and use of safety gear on paddleboards, as well as debate about which equipment is best.
A day before Pombo’s body was recovered, Warren Currie, owner of Easy Rider board shop in Edmonton, Alberta, and Dave Kalama of paddle manufacturer Quickblade, penned an open letter to the paddleboard community demanding manufacturers, retailers and pro paddlers promote safety equipment in stores, online and in advertising.
“The bicycle and wakeboard industries both went through similar circumstances with helmet use,” says Currie. “In both cases it took a high-profile tragedy for their respective industries to band together and implement campaigns for helmet use. Now you can’t see an image put out by either industry without a helmet in use.”
Lifejackets: It’s the law
According to Transport Canada and U.S. Coast Guard regulations, a PFD must be carried on your paddleboard at all times except in a surf zone or designated swimming or bathing area. However, it only takes a glance at the svelte silhouettes on local waterways to confirm that PFD use on paddleboards is low. A 2012 American Canoe Association (ACA) survey of members found that only 25 percent always wear a PFD when paddleboarding, a number that is estimated to be lower in the general—and sometimes less safety conscious—public.
Perhaps this is not surprising, considering that paddleboarding advertising images often feature safety-essential-free paddlers whose beautiful beach bodies would be marred by cumbersome safety equipment—bulky foam flotation isn’t exactly sexy.
“It’s really cool that so many people are excited about paddleboarding, but some have jumped into it half-cocked and aren’t aware of the dangers,” says Wade Blackwood, executive director of the ACA, America’s largest educational organization for paddlesports.
“It has been hard to combat the no-PFD look of the traditional surfing community, and hard to say to paddlers that it doesn’t matter what you look like, you have to wear it. That’s why inflatable belt packs have been so great,” adds Blackwood.
Chair of Paddle Canada’s SUP program, Tony Palmer, agrees. “The waist worn inflatables are great, they are low profile, they don’t get in the way in the surf zone or on a hot day—all excuses evaporate with it. They don’t even wreck your tan line,” he says.
Palmer believes that if industry pros were seen wearing visible safety equipment others would pick up on it. “If the big shots—the people winning the races, the people on the magazines, with their own blogs and thousands of followers on Twitter—if those people started wearing PFDs it would trickle down,” adds Palmer.
Leash versus life jacket
Whether PFDs are even the best piece of safety gear for paddleboarders is hotly debated in the community. While neither Canada nor the U.S. require leashes by law, some industry professionals believe it’s the safest option.
“If you are wearing a leash, you are attached to a PFD and you are in the safest position possible,” says Dave Meyler, CEO of Boga Paddleboards based in San Clemente, California. “If you are separated from the board you’re in bad shape, even if you are an experienced paddler. If you are even just one mile off the coast, that is a long way to come in. If you are in waves and wind, it’s hard to swim.” He adds that an exception to his leash-wearing rule is in whitewater.
Easy Rider’s Currie agrees, adding that regulations requiring paddlers to have a PFD on board without the requirement to wear it creates a false sense of security. Many paddlers remember the tragic story in 2013 of a 42-year-old man who drowned in Lake Tahoe with both a leash and PFD attched to his board, but not his body.
“The leash is by far the best option for a person’s safety on a SUP,” argues Currie. “It tethers you to an unsinkable object. If you do wear a lifejacket and no leash, and become separated from your board, you are then immersed in the water, which will likely lead to hypothermia.”
In 2012, Transport Canada stated that it “supports leash use, but not as an alternative to a lifejacket or personal flotation device.”
“At the ACA we advocate that you need a PFD out there, outside of the surf zone,” says Blackwood. “You’re that much safer.”
Following Pombo’s death on the Hood River, the Stand Up Paddle Industry Association (SUPIA), a trade rep organization, released a statement further committing itself to safety of its participants and businesses, and advising the paddleboard community to expect new safety precedents to be rolled out in the next six months.
For Blackwood and the ACA, more public education, discussion and promotion of safety equipment from all sectors of the industry is a good thing. “There are inherent dangers on the water and it takes just seconds for things to go wrong,” he says. “The overall debate reminds me of driving school— wear a seatbelt, don’t be dumb. It’s the same. Using a PFD and leash [where appropriate] can help prevent tragedies.”
Nicola Johnston Beaudoin is a freelancer writer and owner of Sea To Sky, a SUP, yoga and fitness company based in Vancouver, British Columbia.