Stand-up paddleboards (SUP) are now no different than vessels in the eyes of the U.S. Coast Guard.
This new classification means that SUP users –when outside surf or swim zones or bathing areas — are required to carry a lifejacket, or Personal Floatation Device (PFD), a whistle and, if out after dark, a flashlight to give fair warning to other boaters that they’re in the area.
Paul Newman, the Recreational Boating Safety Program Manager for the 11th Coast Guard District (which encompasses California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah) explains. “The Coast Guard was responding to a query from the Director of the Oregon Marine Board about the status of ‘paddleboards.’ Apparently, there’s been a huge influx of SUPs on Oregon’s rivers and inland waterways. This was causing a safety concern because of the mix of boats on the water. Oregon law enforcement officers wanted to know whether SUPs were subject to boating regulations. The current determination does not apply to racing paddleboards like Jaime Mitchell might use in the Molokai race. Those paddleboards are hand-paddled in a kneeling or prone position.
“If you operate on flat water, outside a swimming or bathing area you become just like a kayak. That means the operator has to carry a Coast Guard approved lifejacket and a whistle or other sound-producing device to warn other boaters of his or her presence. You’re also required to follow the navigation rules. If you’re on a SUP after sunset you also need a flashlight to warn other boaters. I was in Channel Islands Harbor last week after sunset and there were several SUPs paddling around. You could hardly see them from our boat.
“The Coast Guard waived the usual requirement for a manufacturer to put a Hull ID Number (HIN) on the ‘vessel,’ so no new requirements for manufacturers.”
Nate Burgoyne, editor of Stand-up Paddle Surfing magazine, thinks, surprisingly, that the SUP community should thank the U.S. Coast Guard for its recent measure.
“Although the sport has extensive history, the explosive growth has taken place for about a year now,” Burgoyne said. “For the Coast Guard to already recognize Stand-up Paddling and take action toward defining the rules is definitely a credit to them. We need to remember that they’re on our side doing their best to create a safe and clean maritime environment.”
The most problematic aspect of this new classification for surfers is that there is a perceived gray area where the surf zone ends and Coast Guard enforcement of regulation on SUPs begins.
Moving forward, Burgoyne says the SUP community needs to help refine the mandates placed on SUP users. “The Coast Guard currently doesn’t require PFDs for windsurfers but it was a long process to get to that point,” Burgoyne said. “Discussion on about the regulation began in the 1970s and continued until the early 1990s when they were federally exempted, with the decision-making left up to each state according to local climate and conditions.”
Clay Feeter, publisher of Standup Surf & Sail Journal, says he hopes that in the future, SUP participants will be seen in the same light as windsurfers. “Windsurfers are not required to wear PFDs because years ago the Coast Guard determined when the windsurf sail drops, the board or rig becomes a sea anchor,” Feeter said. “So the hope is that we can wear a leash to get around the ruling.”
Burgoyne’s vision, at least regarding PFDs, is similar. “A foam core paddleboard should qualify as a PFD,” Burgoyne said. “Almost all SUPs are built with closed cell foam and are extremely durable. Hey, if a seat cushion on a boat or airplane can qualify, why not a stand up paddleboard? Maybe they could just require a leash or tether for those paddling a half-mile off shore.”
Obviously the new regulations for SUPs are centered squarely around issues of safety. “The sport has exploded and you not only have lots of SUPs on the water but you have rental agencies in places far removed from the ocean renting to people who might have no boating experience,” Newman said. “That’s a dangerous situation whether it’s a SUP or any watercraft.”
And that’s why a PFD, the major sticking point in SUP circles regarding this new classification (and a possible deterrent for prospective SUP users) is now required. Though it’s only required to be carried, not worn. Newman points out that if you’re over 16 years old, an inflatable lifejacket might be a better performance-based alternative than the bulkier versions worn by tow surfers and wakeboarders. “They come in suspender style or belt-pack style,” Newman said. “The belt-pack is no bigger than a fanny pack, worn around your waist. When you need it you just pull a short lanyard and it inflates, just like on an airplane; pull it over your head and you’re done. I’d recommend these for hot climates. It also solves the ‘Where to put it?’ question. Just wear it.”
Because the vessel classification extends only to a SUP outside surf, swim or bathing areas, and SUPs are used primarily for surfing in coastal regions, the most problematic aspect of this new classification for surfers is that there is a perceived gray area where the surf zone ends and Coast Guard enforcement of regulation on SUPs begins. “Regarding how far offshore, there is no single measurement of distance here,” said Newman, a surfer since 1966 and former San Diego County Lifeguard. “It’s either outside the surf line, whatever that might be in your area, or outside a locally designated surfing, swimming or bathing area. Certainly if you’re paddling to Catalina or Molokai you’re going to be offshore. I saw a guy fishing off a SUP outside at Swami’s in the kelp beds. He was there among other commercial fishing boats. That would require a PFD and whistle.”
Newman stresses that the Coast Guard will not push for any bans of SUPs in surf or swim zones or bathing areas, though he points out that states, counties and cities can pursue more restrictive initiatives should they so choose. “If a local agency wants to separate SUPs and surfers, they have the authority to do that,” Newman said. With anti-SUP sentiment coming to a head in lineups in places like Los Angeles County, the exclusion of SUPs from surfing areas may be an increasingly more realistic option.
Clay Feeter acknowledges that this threat could eventually become a reality in any number of local lineups. “Many municipalities view anything with a paddle as something that should not be allowed in a swim or even, in some cases, a surf zone,” Feeter said. “So the question that needs to be answered is, ‘Is this a surfboard or is this a kayak-type craft?’ Unfortunately the paddles may bust us. The other reason may be because of the occasional SUP guy or woman who doesn’t know the rules or simply does not share the aloha spirit in the lineup.”
Any proposed ban on SUPs in surf zones, however, is entirely unrelated to the U.S. Coast Guard’s new vessel classification of SUPs. The Coast Guard has made one point crystal clear: SUPs in surf zones will not be affected by this new classification. In other words: in surf zones, nothing has changed. And for surfers, whether pro- or anti-SUP, that’s the one piece of information that actually matters.