Assisting others from a standup paddleboard

Probably the most common question I get about standup paddling is “Do you fall?” The answer of course is, “Yes.” We all fall. Your first time on a paddleboard is an exercise in not falling. Most people fall dozens of times before they get a hang of standing on a board. (I count myself in that category.) A paddleboard is easy to fall from. Falling is a part of the sport. You get used to it.

Ironically, the falling makes standup paddling safe. That’s right — you heard me. Falling is a safety feature. The thing is, once you’ve done it a few hundred times, they aren’t a big deal. I’m usually back on my feet within twenty seconds. It might take you a little longer or shorter, but so what? You get used to it. After a while, it’s not even worth mentioning. Now compare this to a kayak or canoe. Yes, they’re more stable, but a roll is serious. A kayaker can get trapped underneath their boat (rolling back is a special skill). Canoes will fill up after tipping over. There are some great strategies to recovering your kayak or canoe, but a standup paddler doesn’t need special skills after a fall. You just pull yourself back on!

A paddleboard is pretty much unsinkable. It’s not going down, even if it’s perforated. Remember, it’s filled with styrofoam! That makes a SUP a great platform to assist fellow paddlers, even those on other paddle craft. They may laugh when they see us hit the drink, but when those guys go over it’s a different story. I’ve had two rescue assists this year, and each one was in very different circumstances. What they had in common was neither paddler was on a SUP.

Two assists from a standup paddleboard

My first assist was in a calm, narrow river. I was paddling alone approaching a big family in kayaks. I could tell there was trouble because a man was lifting a kayak out of the water repeatedly. As I got closer, I saw a boy in the water. He had flipped his boat. His father was able to empty it, but every time the boy tried to climb back in, the kayak would tip over. I paddled over and offered help. The boy was pretty anxious, but he climbed on my board while the father drained the kayak again. When it was empty, the boy scrambled into his boat. Then he was on his way.

standup paddleboard, sup examiner

First it was like this.

The second assist was a bigger deal. I was paddling with two friends on the Hudson, one in a kayak and another in an ultralight canoe. When we set out, the water was almost glassy. Ten minutes later a front came in. Suddenly we were facing winds of 10–15 with good-sized chop. Even for an experienced paddler, these conditions can be dicey. This was also at a wide part of the river where chop can get heavy. I was doing fine, but my friend Aaron in the canoe was taking on water. He borrowed a pump which seemed to work, and we headed onwards.

After a few minutes I looked back at Aaron and saw something confusing. It was like part of his canoe was pointing out of the water, like the Titanic or something. I thought my eyes were playing a trick on me, but when I looked again I could tell that not only had Aaron swamped but the whole boat was at an angle. I signaled to James and headed over.

Aaron’s PFD was holding him up fine, but his boat was full. Not to mention the relentless wind chop. He wasn’t sure quite what to do, and I wasn’t either. First we needed to drain the boat. I got down on my knees and grabbed the canoe. Fortunately it was really light, and I was able to wrangle it up on my board and flip it over. Aaron climbed onto my board and then transferred over. A large cruise boat came to assist, but I’m happy to say we were on our way before they got to us. Then we cross the river back to our launch point in. Fortunately we made it back with no more incidents!

What I learned from these rescues are a couple of things. First, how the falling can be a safety feature. After falling about 86,000 times, it’s really no big deal. Most of your first time on the water will be dealing with falling. That’s a different story for most kayakers and canoeists. Tipping over is rare enough that most beginners don’t have a recovery procedure. I’ve fallen off my SUP in a group of kayakers and heard a collective gasp. “Oh my god, he went in!” and then got a second gasp when I was back on my feet within seconds. The unsinkability of a standup paddleboard makes it a great recovery platform. The tough part of getting back into a kayak/canoe is doing it without swamping it. Having someone in a SUP alongside lets you stabilize the boat while the paddler climbs in. The SUP also lets you climb aboard from a position above the surface of the water, which means the boat is much less likely to tip.

standup paddleboard, sup examiner

Then it turned into this!

Standup paddleboards also make great rescue craft for swimmers. They’ve become popular for safety at swim races. A SUP is a little bit slower and less stable than a kayak, but there are a couple of advantages. The first is that a standup paddler is at a higher position than a kayaker. They can see more, which is a big deal for safety. The second is that a standup paddleboard can be used to bring an incapacitated person to shore. A kayak rescue with a swimmer usually means the swimmer hangs off the nose and is paddled to a boat or shore. But what if the swimmer is truly exhausted? You can get an exhausted person onto your SUP with the flip rescue.

With so many standup paddlers on the water, who figured they could be great rescue platforms? Again, I don’t want to suggest that a SUP is so safe you don’t need safety equipment. Any time you go out on the water, in any craft, you need safety equipment. For  standup paddling, that means a leash and PFD. Once you’ve taken care of yourself, keep an eye out for our watery brethren, canoes, kayaks, and swimmers. They might need a little help every now and then.

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Ian Berger

Ian Berger grew up in love with the ocean, so discovering stand up paddling was a bit of revelation. Once he bought his first paddleboard, he realized this was the sport for him. Ian Berger lives in Peekskill, NY with his wife Kirsten and three children. He teaches middle school English and drama, and also has a passion for writing, which he shares with his students. Every morning Ian wakes up to write — sometimes science fiction or comic Young Adult novels, sometimes plays, but very often about stand up paddling. The Hudson River is his home turf, and you can usually find him there when the weather is good.