Recently there was an accident on Simpson Creek involving a paddle boarder who fell onto an oyster bed after a boat wake knocked her off her paddle board. Landing on the oyster beds she sustained several nasty lacerations. She had rented a paddle board from Kayak Amelia, a well-established local outfitter, and was paddling on Simpson Creek which is one of the most popular places for paddle boarding and kayaking in the Jacksonville area. Click here for more details about the accident. We wish her a speedy recovery.
As a SUP instructor and guide, when I hear about a paddle boarding accident I immediately begin thinking about how this could have been prevented. I am not here to be a Monday morning quarterback but to learn from this unfortunate accident. This accident is of particular importance because one of our guided paddle boarding tours is on Simpson Creek. SUP safety can be a bit complex depending on the type of paddling you are doing. That said, a few things stood out to me as I thought about this accident that may be helpful to the casual or recreational paddle boarder. One precaution I will discuss is something every paddle boarder, regardless of their skill level, must know.
Typically when we talk about the dangers of paddle boarding we focus on wind, waves, current, submerged hazards, etc. A hazard often over looked is other people. Yes as strange as it sounds other people can be a serious hazard, particularly boaters and jet skiers on a holiday weekend. Anyone that has been paddling for very long has experienced that boater who thought it was funny to try and knock them off their board by doing a high speed drive-by. Some areas are going to have more boat traffic than others. For example, Egans Creek is a no wake zone while the Amelia River is used by commercial and recreational boats. And, Lofton Creek has less boat traffic than the Nassau Sound. When crossing the inlet to Cumberland Island you are sure to encounter boat traffic. Before you go paddle boarding consider the location you are going and the potential for boat traffic including jet skiers. Choose a place to go within your skill level. If you are not confident in your abilities to handle boat wakes it is best to choose a location with minimal to no boat traffic.
We lead paddle boarding tours all over the area on marshes, in creeks and the shallows along the shoreline. Out in the natural environment, hazards are not marked especially those below the water's surface. Regardless of where you choose to paddle you will have some type of exposure to submerged hazards (e.g., the bottom can be considered a hazard especially in shallow waters). One precaution we take with beginner level paddlers is to schedule the paddle boarding tour around high tide. Paddling in deeper water reduces the chances of hitting (with your fins) or falling onto a submerged hazard. We also have the luxury of scouting out many of our tour routes at low tide to see what hazards exist. Knowing this isn't always feasible especially for a visiting paddle boarder so be sure to ask the local outfitters about the hazards in the area and the best time to schedule your paddle boarding trip.
The surface of the water can provide clues of a submerged hazard. Look for differences in the texture of the water. Variations in the texture can indicate many things such as areas where the current is stronger, submerged tree branches, rocks, and oyster beds to name a few. If you notice what appears to be water boiling up from below this often indicates there is an oyster bed, rock or tree stump beneath the surface. In the picture above you should clearly see a line in the water and a distinct change in texture caused by the submerged section of rock jetty coming in from the right of the picture. The yellow lines in the picture below mark this section of water. If you see this don't just paddle over it.
Submerged hazards less than 10 to 12 inches (i.e., less than the length of your fins) below the surface are the ones that can knock you off your board if you paddle over them. Keeping a careful eye on the water ahead may help you spot these clues in advance. This will enable you to adjust course and paddle around a hazard, warn others of the potential hazard or move from a standing position to your knees for more stability.
It cannot be stressed enough, one of the best ways to avoid getting knocked off your paddle board is to go down to your knees. When we teach SUP lessons and lead tours we repeatedly remind our paddlers that if at any time they get unsure, nervous or concerned about anything while paddling just go to your knees. It's their safe place. Being on your knees is much more stable than standing. Once on your knees you can also move to an even more stable position by going down on your hands (i.e., all fours).
Going to your knees can help you in rough waters, boat wakes, over oyster beds or other submerged objects. Being on your knees can also help you paddle into strong wind and through waves in the surf zone. Believe it or not paddling on your knees provides more leverage and thus power to your stroke. You can generate as much or more power in a kneeling position than standing. Don't let your ego keep you from going to your knees. If at anytime you become nervous, scared, or unsure about your stability simply go to your knees.
At this point we don't have all the details about what caused the accident to the paddle boarder on Simpson Creek. Either way, these SUP safety tips and suggestions can reduce the chances it happens to you. Being safe means you get to have more fun on the water!