According to the latest data (2020) from the Outdoor Foundation, over 37 million participants have engaged in paddling sports such as kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddling during the pandemic. This pandemic wave brought an estimated 2.5 million new paddlers onto American waterways. However, the number of accidents rose to 331 and the number of fatalities to a record high of 202 – accounting for more than 26% of all boating fatalities in the same year.
Jim Emmons, executive director of the Water Sports Foundation (WSF), said boating in general is still one of the safest forms of recreation, but data from 2020, the latest year for which complete data is available, suggests that most deaths in the sport of paddling are due to a lack of safety training and experience.
“We know from analysis of US Coast Guard data that in 2020, nearly three-quarters (74.6%) of people who died in paddling accidents had less than 100 hours of paddle boarding experience,” said Emmons, “and over a third (38.8%) had less than 10 hours of experience.”
“People are drawn to the sport of paddling,” said Robin Pope, Ph.D., PA-C, Fellow, Academy of Wilderness Medicine and Executive Chairman of the American Canoe Association. “And why not? It’s fun, accessible and easy to get your boat on the water, no license required, no marina fees, no fuel to buy and lots of great exercise.”
While Pope supports greater participation, he’s also concerned that many newcomers to the sport simply don’t see the dangers.
“Data tells us that most accidents in shallow water happen because of overboard or capsizing,” Pope said. “Untrained paddlers typically don’t know how to get back in after a fall, don’t wear a life jacket and are unprepared for exposure to cold water. It is imperative that we help more paddle boat buyers take advantage of the many free and inexpensive safety education resources available to them.”
According to Emmons and Pope, sales associates rarely offer instruction or safety training, particularly at stores that sell entry-level paddle boats. And most states do not require the buyer to take a boat safety course like some states do for power boats.
Walt Taylor, the US Coast Guard’s Recreational Boat Specialist for the First District, headquartered in Boston, believes a mindset change would improve safety training while reducing incidents and fatalities. “Many paddlers don’t consider themselves ‘boaters’ and as such are unaware that they have a legal obligation to follow the rules of navigation and carry the necessary safety gear for their size and type of vessel,” Taylor said. “By attending an accredited paddling safety course, paddlers will learn the basics of navigation rules, navigational aids, risk management, and required and recommended safety equipment.”
Taylor said that in 2016, the paddle boat death toll in the First Coast Guard District, which includes northern New Jersey, eastern New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, dropped to 29, or 53% of the Districts has increased recreational boating fatalities for the year. Of the 29 fatalities, 27 were drownings after falling overboard or capsizing, and 24 drowning victims were recovered without wearing a life jacket.
In response, Taylor said the First Coast Guard District has increased its focus on paddle boat safety through outreach, paddle training courses and vessel safety inspections, as well as greater enforcement of federal paddle boat requirements. These efforts contributed to a 34% decrease in paddle boat fatalities between 2016 and 2017 (19 paddling fatalities versus 29), demonstrating the life-saving importance of paddling lessons.
Emmons recommended the following safety tips to help paddlers reduce risk:
- Wear a life jacket – Data from the US Coast Guard shows that 85 percent of all paddling drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket.
- Be prepared to get wet – dress appropriately for the conditions, including the possibility of being exposed to cold water. Compared to other types of boating, you are much more likely to end up in the water when you paddle. Or as paddlers say, “We’re all between swims.”
- Check conditions and weather forecast – Always check the current weather conditions and forecast before each paddling tour. Avoid conditions beyond your experience and ability. Water currents and local winds can make disembarking easier and more difficult to get back on.
- Submit a float plan – Share a simple float plan with friends and family that includes your estimated departure and return times and locations. Ask them to notify the authorities if you are not back on time.
- Always paddle sober – US Coast Guard data shows alcohol has long been the leading known factor in fatal boating accidents. Safe paddling requires clear thinking and good decisions. Don’t drink and paddle.