I have been paddle boarding for nearly 10 years now. In fact, I remember the exact day I started as I was on my honeymoon with my beautiful wife in Barbados. Needless to say I was horrible and after struggling to stand on the board I ended up just trying to surf it proner-style. I wear an inflatable PFD belt when paddling outside the surf zone. The two I have been using this year is the ONYX M-16 and the MTI Fluid 2.0. The primary reason I wear a PFD is the fact I run a paddle boarding company that offers lessons and tours. And to be honest, I wear and require my clients to wear an inflatable PFD because it’s the law and for insurance purposes, not because I thought I would ever need it. Moreover, in the time I have been paddle boarding, I haven't even come up with a scenario where I thought I would need one.
As I speak with other paddlers I find similar views. This motivation or viewpoint for wearing a PFD and complying with the law is not ideal when your objective is wide scale compliance. It is well understood that using the stick (i.e., law) to enforce compliance only works when the stick is present. One of the keys to achieving more wide scale compliance is getting people to understand why wearing a PFD is important and to have them develop a personal motivation or reason to wear one. I have spent my career in the field of safety and when you achieve compliance this way it is what we call getting buy-in. There are a number of methods we use to get buy-in. Personal experience is the most effective as it is our greatest teacher. However, when the consequences are severe or permanent relying on personal experience is not the preferred method of learning or getting buy-in. In these situations, it is better to learn from the experiences (i.e., mistakes, near misses) of others. In the safety field we do this by sharing lessons learned. So today I am going to share the lessons I learned from a near miss I had recently. It helped reinforce the importance of wearing a PFD when I paddle board. I hope it does the same for you.
Me and a couple buddies were on a paddle boarding trip here in our back yard of Amelia Island. We planned to launch in a salt marsh, ride the tide out to the Atlantic Ocean and then paddle offshore to line up for a downwinder. This would take us back home to our exit point along the beach. The total trip was about 12 miles or so. We had a southeast wind near 20 mph and 3 to 5 foot seas. All in all, this was a pretty mellow trip for this group.
Long story short, we ended up spending more time on the water than planned albeit for good reason (riding some bumps). One of my friends got tired and was contemplating heading to shore. After we discussed a plan to come back and get him with the car, he headed for shore. We were probably about a mile and a half off shore at this time. Out of the blue (literally) I was hit by a good sized cross swell. The wave knocked me from my paddle board and I thought to myself as I fell, “where did that come from, but no big deal.” However, as I fell down into the water my right foot stayed on the board while at the same time the wave lifted the board up. At this angle my knee started to bend out sideways (a way it is not designed to bend) and I heard and felt a painful series of popping sounds. Once in the water I felt my board get pushed over my head by the wave and got a surprisingly strong tug on my leash. The good news, the pain in my knee was not significant relative to the popping I felt. I quickly looked around me and with the size of the swell I couldn’t see either of my friends. As I floated up onto the peak of the next swell I caught a glimpse of one of my friends and tried to yell to get his attention. With his back to me it was futile as the wind and waves muffled my attempt. Just as quickly I was out of sight as I floated into the trough of the next wave. At this point I figured I would try to stand back on my board hoping my knee would support me enough to get to shore. I stood up and to my surprise my knee hurt but was stable. I was in disbelief but thankful. In the end we made it home. I had a MCL strain which took an annoying 3 months or so to heal.
While this story ended happily ever after the lessons learned were poignant to me. There are a number of things that helped ensure things ended this way (e.g., buddies and boundaries system, water proof cellphone case, float plan, marine whistle, etc.). There were also a number of things I would have done differently from a safety standpoint. In fact, for the remainder of the day I found myself what-iffing the situation over and over in my mind. On this day I was wearing an inflatable PFD belt. I was also using a coiled SUP leash. The leash did its job. But what if I wasn’t wearing a leash or it had been broken by the impact/pull of the wave? When is the last time you inspected your SUP leash before heading out onto the water? What would have happened if my paddle board had gotten away from me? What if my knee was injured more seriously? Could I have made the swim a mile or so back to shore with a bum knee? While a lower priority it still crossed my mind, would I have had to ditch my carbon paddle to make the swim? Would my friends have been able to find me in these conditions with nothing more than my head bobbing above the surface? Remember one of my friends was tired and both were down wind of me at this point. They would have to paddle up wind to be of much value to me. The bottom line is that my PFD would have played a key role in ensuring my safety had things unfolded in just a slightly different way.
The lesson and reminder for me is that Mother Nature can and will humble you from time to time. Not only that, it happens fast. If you are not properly prepared the consequences can be severe and permanent. I don’t wear my inflatable PFD belt because it’s the law anymore. I wear it (along with a SUP leash) because I love stand up paddle boarding and want to continue doing so on into the future. Not to mention, I am married with a family who are counting on me to come home.