Friday, May 25, 2018

Paddleboarders should take boating safety precautions

Those who knew him said was as good as they get.

"He was a very strong paddler," said Darry Jackson, who sells stand-up paddleboards out of his shop, Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park. "He was in great shape."

But when Comer, a 50-year-old from Tampa did not return from a stand-up paddleboard trip near Egmont Key last weekend, his friends were left to only guess what happened.

This much is certain: The avid waterman had gone out for a paddle near Egmont Key on Saturday. His paddleboard, along with his wallet and car keys, was found near the north entrance of the Manatee River late that evening. His vehicle was found at Fort De Soto County Park, and Tampa police checked his residence.

"The weather was pretty nice, but later that afternoon a storm came blowing through," Jackson said. "It was probably pretty rough out there."

The U.S. Coast Guard scoured local waters for two days, covering an area roughly the size of Pinellas County, before abandoning its search Monday evening. Comer's body has still not been found.

Inexpensive lifesaver

Even experienced paddlers can fall off their board when the seas get rough. And once you are in the water up to your chin, it is often difficult to see above the waves.

"And when you do fall, you tend to push the board away from you," Jackson said. "And when the waves are big, it can be hard to find the board again."

Stand-up paddleboarding is one of the nation's fastest growing water sports. Paddlers stand atop a board that is similar to a surfboard and propel themselves across the surface with a long paddle. Bill Jackson's sold three times as many paddleboards last month as it did the same time period one year ago.

Unfortunately, many of those who are new to the sport don't think much about safety.

A board leash, which keeps the board attached to the paddler at the ankle, is relatively inexpensive, but it can be a true lifesaver, especially in open water.

"We don't know if Jeff had a leash or not," Jackson said. "But I do know that if I planned to paddle across the mouth of Tampa Bay, I would definitely be using one."

Board leashes cost between $12 and $35. If the water is flat calm, the leash can be coiled up on the deck of the board, where it is out of the way. "But if you are going to paddle open water, you need a leash," Jackson cautioned.

PFDs for SUPs

Many paddlers don't know whether the regulations regarding personal flotation devices apply to paddleboards.

Should a stand-up paddleboard be treated like a surfboard, no PFD required? Or are the oversized paddleboards more like kayaks and canoes, a mode of transportation, and therefore subject to applicable U.S. Coast Guard regulations?

After much discussion, Michael Schenker, a local paddling instructor, put the question to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"Stand-up paddleboards are classified by the U.S. Coast Guard as a vessel," wrote Brian Rehwinkel, the FWC's boating and safety awareness coordinator. "The only exception would be if these paddleboards were used in a swimming, surfing or bathing area."

As a result, basic boating safety equipment requirements apply, which means one U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket "onboard" for each passenger on the paddleboard. In Florida waters, any child under 6 years of age would have to wear a life jacket while the vessel is under way.

Lisa Novak, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Coast Guard in Washington, concurred: "The Coast Guard has determined that beyond the narrow limits of a swimming, surfing or bathing area, a paddleboard is a vessel, and therefore subject to applicable regulations."

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