If you consider taking up SUP, you’re probably wondering whether stand-up paddleboarding is dangerous. The short answer is:
Stand-up paddling is a rather safe sport. It’s safer than other sports and activities, however, you should be aware of the risks and take a few safety precautions. If you do so, chances are good that SUP will improve your health and fitness rather than putting it at risk.
In this article, we will discuss some statistics, make you aware of the most common risks, and share some tips on how to safely stand-up paddling.
- Statistics about SUP Safety
- Other Risks
- SUP Safety Tips for Beginners
Statistics about SUP Safety
You might have read or heard of SUP accidents in the media or the Internet. Although it is undeniable that accidents happen, statistics prove that stand-up paddling is one of the safest types of watersports.
According to the US Coast Guard’s 2018 statistics, there were only 14 accidents related to SUP in 2018 (5 of which fatal), compared to 144 accidents (84 deaths) involving kayaks.
However, the outdoor foundation’s 2019 report on paddling shows that about 11 million people in the US engage in recreational kayaking and 3.5 million do stand-up paddleboarding.
Breaking down these numbers, 1.31 accidents happened per 100,000 kayakers with 0.76 being fatal. On the other hand, per 100,000 stand-up paddlers, only 0.76 accidents and 0.14 deaths were recorded in 2018.
To better understand the order of magnitude, here’s another real-life reference: the number of fatalities in US traffic in 2018 amounted to 11.18 per 100,000 population (source).
So, is SUP safe? It’s up to you how you interpret these numbers but it is a fact that, according to public statistics, accident and fatality rates of stand-up paddling are lower than those of other watersports and even lower than those of common day-to-day activities such as driving.
Reasons for Accidents
To avoid accidents, it is worth looking at the reasons for SUP accidents though. The abovementioned US coast guard report lists the following contribution factors:
- Alcohol use,
- Excessive speed,
- Hazardous water,
- Inadequate navigation lights,
- Operator inattention,
- Operator inexperience,
- Restricted vision, and
- Sudden medical condition.
While all types of watersports come with the risk of being exposed to sudden weather or water changes, most of these factors are partly or fully in the hand of the SUPer. There’s absolutely no reason why someone should do SUP under influence or engaging in watersports with an increased risk of sudden medical conditions, for instance.
Not all risks might be avoidable though – sudden and unpredictable waves, wakes or gusts can occur when you are on a stand-up paddleboard. For such cases, protecting yourself for the unpredictable risks is key.
Note that all 5 SUP fatalities in 2018 were caused by drowning. While every death is lamentable, the real tragedy is that 4 of them didn’t wear life jackets which might have helped save their lives.
What we can learn from this is that wearing PFDs (personal floating devices) does safe lives!
The official statistics do not cover the use of leashes in SUP. But there are good reasons why leashes are good practice in surfing. In SUP, getting a leash is a quick and inexpensive win for safety that isn’t inconvenient and doesn’t impact the SUP experience at all.
Let’s take a closer look at the other risks and threats in stand-up paddleboarding and how to minimize them for a safe and enjoyable experience.
Besides the risks and pitfalls mentioned before, there are a few other risks you should be aware of:
Overstretching and sore muscles
These are probably the most common yet usually minor problems SUP beginners encounter. While stiff muscles after the first couple of sessions, overstretching of arms/shoulders or sore muscles tend to occur after taking on too much of a challenge.
Reasons could be a bad posture, inappropriate techniques, or overestimating their own capabilities.
Most beginners tend to pull the paddle through the water rather than using their core to move forward. Some are using too short, too long, too heavy, or low-quality paddles. Some want to turn their very first SUP experience into a 3-miles race or go into heavy currents.
Understanding the technique, using proper material and taking a few SUP lessons can help prevent serious injuries
Buying low-quality equipment or crashing into rocks is another source of risk. Although breaking material is seldom and usually doesn’t make it into official statistics, it can happen.
Weather changes or changing water conditions
Not checking the weather forecast or taking on too much risk can have an unpleasant ending. So, always check the weather and water conditions when you’re out for a tour.
Crashes with other SUPers, surfers and boats
Crashes on the water happen given that paddlers, surfers, swimmers, and boats are sharing the same element. Being considerate and prudent is imperative to prevent accidents and ensure your own and others’ safety.
Protection against sun, heat or cold
When you’re on the water on a sunny day, you’re exposed to a lot of UV radiation. Proper sun protection and wearing a t-shirt and a cap can help avoid skin damages.
When it’s cold, make sure that you wear proper clothes. You should also bring some water, in particular when it’s hot, to avoid dehydration.
You’re never alone when you’re out on the water. Most fish and water animals are harmless. However, you could fall into jellyfish or bump into a shark. While this is extremely rare – according to Ben Marcus’ book “The Art of Stand-up Paddling”, SUPers are much less prone to shark attacks than surfers, for instance – you can prevent unintended encounters by understanding the dangers of the waters. For instance, don’t paddle in waters known for dangerous species and don’t get off your board when you’ve already seen jellyfish in your area.
As there’s always the possibility that you fall into the water, you don’t want to paddle in waters where you wouldn’t go for a swim, in particular as a beginner. So make sure you check the water quality in advance.
In waters with currents, it is not a bad idea to stay in shallow waters as the current tends to be less strong there.
However, if the water level is too low, you risk injuries when you’re falling from your board and hit the ground. You might also be damaging your fin or board if you hit stones and rocks under the water surface.
SUP Safety Tips for Beginners
As mentioned before, SUP is a rather safe sport despite these risks. However, you should be familiar with the safety ground rules before you go on a board.
Here are a few tips to avoid risks to your health and your equipment.
- Start SUP at a time when you feel fit and in an overall good condition.
- Choose a location that is suitable for beginners (still waters, stable weather conditions, enough space, staying close to the shoreline, other stand-up paddlers around you).
- Familiarize yourself with the equipment and the basic stroke/paddle techniques (ideally with a trainer). Make sure you are using the right type of board and a good paddle with the right length.
- Learn how to stand up, get on your knees, how to fall into the water safely, and how to get back on your board.
- Know and respect your limits.
- Be aware of the abovementioned risks and familiar with the safety tips.
- Use protective equipment such as a life vest and a leash.
For advanced paddlers, inflatable PFDs can be a good compromise of convenience and safety.
- Don’t go stand-up paddling on your own (at least in the beginning). Ideally, get a trainer (find SUP schools in our directory) until you are familiar with the sports and your equipment.
If you wish to learn more about SUP safety (which I highly recommend), the SUP industry association’s website is a good source of further information. This is one of their videos, introducing some aspects of SUP safety:
Coming back to the initial question of whether SUP is dangerous, the answer is in the eye of the beholder. Any activity comes with a risk and this is also true for stand-up paddling. Changing environmental conditions, operator mistakes, and missing or dysfunctional equipment can cause accidents and, in very rare cases, even fatalities.
However, official statistics show that SUP is a comparatively safe watersport with accident and death rates far below those of other sports and day-to-day activities. Proper equipment (+ a PFD and a leash for additional safety), awareness of the risks, adhering to the safety ground rules, and common sense prevent accidents and injuries.
My personal answer is that SUP, from my perspective, is a very safe sport as long as we don’t let our guards down. My takeaway is: If you follow all the rules and your common sense, you can enjoy SUP as one of the safest activities in the water!
Visit our “How to SUP” section to learn more about stand-up paddling.