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The recent loss of a beloved member of the SUP race community has brought much needed attention to the safety in our sport. The topic of safety has never been more prominent than it is now, and it would be a lost opportunity if we did not immediately take more initiative to improve SUP safety for both recreational paddlers and SUP racers.

While basic SUP safety information is widely distributed, almost zero resources are available for SUP race safety.

Many SUP events lack sufficient emergency response plans, safety vessel support and leash requirements, among other safety issues.

This is not an attack on SUP race organizers. This is a call for action with the support and resources to help make changes. The SUPAA rulebook and race official certification course were designed to give race directors the tools and knowledge to put on the safest event possible. Encourage your local SUP race organizers to implement the tips below or adopt the entire SUPAA rulebook. Both have been provided to make a race director’s life easier and improve SUP race safety.

Please send your ideas and feedback to help ensure SUP racing continues positive and safe growth.


SUP race safety


(In no particular order because they are all important!)

1. Ensure there are water safety vessels present at all areas of a race course.

SUPAA requires one safety vessel for every 40 paddlers in a race. If the course is a beach race in waves of one meter or greater, we recommend one safety vessel or lifeguard for every 20 paddlers in a race.

Another important note on safety vessels is to make sure there are at least two people in each vessel. It is very hard, and unsafe, for one person to steer a boat and attempt to rescue a paddler at the same time. If vessel operators carry a safety/first-aid certification this is good to have as well.

IMPORTANT: Make sure the safety vessels do not alter the outcome of a race by throwing a wake toward paddlers.

2. Form a safety plan and share it with the race team.

What do you do if there is a sudden thunderstorm? Where do you extract competitors from the race course who are injured? These are just a few questions to consider when planning a race. Form a plan, and more importantly, communicate the plan with your race team and competitors.

3. Hold a racers meeting.

Competitors can be the greatest safety assets at an event. The head race director should inform racers on the safety protocol and what to do if they themselves, or a paddler nearby, are in distress. We recommend informing paddlers to sit on their board and wave their hands or paddle in a back-and-forth motion to signal for help.

Inform competitors if the weather may change or if there are any particular course features to be aware of. For example, if the wind is forecast to pick up to 20 knots, let the competitors know at the race meeting.

4. Provide detailed race course information and forecasts.

The more information a competitor knows, the better they can form a successful race plan. Competitors need to know if a race course has strong current and the potential for challenging water conditions. Local knowledge will inform paddlers who are not ready to safely paddle in rough conditions and help them avoid putting themselves in danger.

Sometimes experienced paddlers can take for granted our knowledge and comfort on the water. Many paddlers are participating in SUP as their first water sport. The more information you provide, the more comfortable they will be. For an example of the specific information we recommend providing use our race day conditions checklist.

5. Wear a leash.

Many local law enforcement agencies require paddlers to have a PFD on their board. First and foremost paddlers must obey local marine laws. We believe that a leash can be a more valuable safety feature than an un-inflated PFD. SUPAA requires all SUPAA distance event competitors to wear leashes. Exceptions are made in rivers or other conditions where wearing a leash can sometimes be more dangerous.

Maintaining a solid connection to the biggest flotation object available to a paddler seems like a safer bet than relying on a salt-encrusted CO2 cartridge to inflate your five-year-old PFD. We are not saying PFD’s cannot be a valuable tool for safety. We recommend them at all races. However, we believe in the security of attaching yourself to 14’ feet of floating foam.

Universal leash requirements have been one of the biggest rallying points surrounding the recent safety debate and one that can be easily implemented. At SUPAA’s first unofficial meeting in the fall of 2013, twenty eight of the world’s top athletes unanimously voted to make leashes mandatory for all SUPAA distance races. This requirement was the start of our commitment to safety and setting a positive example in the sport.

IMPORTANT: Never wear a leash in rivers or fast moving water that does not have a functioning quick release mechanism. Also, never attach a leash to your ankle in these conditions. You must be able to easily access and release your leash in the event of an emergency.

6. Maintain communication between the race team.

Communication is important to consider both before and during an event. Ensuring everyone is on the same page before race day will help a race director execute the safety plan in case of an emergency. On race day it is key that there is communication systems between race officials on the beach and in the water. The head race director needs to know what is going on around the event at all times.

7. Notify local law enforcement and marine safety authorities.

Many governments will require you to do this in order to hold an event. In any case, notifying the local authorities can instantly give a race director access to some of the most advanced water safety teams available. In the United States, the Coast Guard and other marine safety units have made their services available at SUP events. Race organizers should take advantage of the men and women who are trained at the highest level of water rescue. These emergency responders can add a great deal of professional safety and peace of mind at a SUP event.

8. Organize professional medical staff.

Medical staff can be hired to provide services onsite the day of an event. If an event is on a tight budget, it costs nothing to call the local hospital, fire station or clinic to notify them about your event. Medical staff may provide free support or a race organizer can get creative and trade medical services for a SUP lesson!

9. Use best judgment.

If race day comes and the weather gods are not cooperating, a race organizer does not need to force the issue. The safety of the competitors should always be the number one priority of a race director. There will be paddlers who complain if a race is called off. Who cares. Complaints are easier to deal with than trying to explain to a family member why a competitor went missing in a thunderstorm during a race. Lightning, high winds, high seas, extreme heat/cold are all external factors beyond the control of an organizer. The head race director has the ultimate authority to postpone or cancel a race. Use best judgement and always put the safety of the competitors first.

10. Set the race up for success.

A turn buoy placed in pounding shore break for a recreational race will not set a race up for success. Race organizers should limit the opportunity for competitors to get injured by setting the course in a safe manner.

Sufficient room to start and finish is important for both safety and fairness at SUP races. Read this article on SUP race starts to see why they are so important. Place the buoys in areas that are safe for paddlers to round based on their abilities.

Do not use boats for buoys! There is no greater danger for propeller-dismemberment or anchor-impalement than using a boat as a turn buoy. Perhaps a boat can be used for a buoy if conditions are completely glassy and calm. However, SUPAA promotes boats for safety and buoys for marking the course. Don’t mix them up.

What Would You Add?

This is only a quick list of 10 important factors to consider in order to put on a safe SUP race. Much more goes into planning and executing a SUP event then what is listed here. We strive to include as much valuable information as possible for SUP race directors and athletes in our rulebook, on our website and during our race official courses.  However, we know there is always more to cover and ways to improve.

Send your ideas to info@SUPathletes.com and use the SUPAA rulebook to help ensure SUP events are as safe and fair as possible.

Safety For Recreational Paddling

A majority of stand up paddlers will never compete in a SUP race. Comprehensive safety education for recreational paddlers is critical to positive SUP growth. This education starts with the SUP retailers and instructors who are usually the first point of contact for many people getting into SUP. These individuals should provide detailed explanations on the use of safety equipment and safe paddling practices.

If you are a shop owner or SUP instructor, make sure you are providing this important safety information. There are many certifications and online resources that explain the most important fundamental safety protocols for stand up paddling. We will be releasing a comprehensive resource on safety for recreational paddlers very soon. For now, use the basic outline below as a checklist for recreational paddler safety.

1. Ask if the paddler can swim.

You would be surprised to find that there are new paddlers who cannot swim or are very poor swimmers. These individuals should always wear a solid PFD and be accompanied by a trained instructor.

2. Require the use of a leash and PFD.

It is important to note that only quick release leashes should be used in fast moving water or rivers. Inexperienced paddlers should never paddle on rivers without professional guidance. Never attach a leash to your ankle in river conditions.

3. Set yourself up for success.

If wind conditions are 12 mph or greater then it is probably not the best idea to send a beginner paddler out onto rough water. Be aware of changes in weather conditions as well. A nice calm day on the water can quickly become dangerous with fast moving storms or frontal systems. Always check the radar and weather report before paddling or sending paddlers out on the water.

4. Learn to self rescue.

Make sure a paddler understands how to get back onto the board when they fall off.

5. Always paddle on knees when entering or exiting the water.

Beginner paddlers should never step directly onto or off of a board. The risk for injury is greatly increased as paddlers approach solid ground, docks or other objects in the water. Instruct paddlers to start paddling from their knees at least 20 feet before approaching solid ground. This will prevent unnecessary risk from a paddler falling off of their board and hitting a hard object.


  1. John September 3, 2015 at 7:18 am #

    I was there, it was blowing hard that day, very sad to realize Pombo died doing what he loved. Filming the river from Sat on realizing we might stumble on his body was awful. The Gorge is unique I’ve windsurfed it for 10 years and it can kill you.

    My solution is act like the backcountry ski protocol. Skiers die if they don’t follow it, doesn’t matter how cool you are, if you don’t bring and practice with the rescue gear, you eventually get seriously hurt or die and endanger others. I’ve broken leases surfing constantly, its a pain to wear a leash in the surf with a giant sup surfboard, but I do it so as not to hurt others. A PFD makes sense unless you’re in a controlled race environment where almost everyone is on top of each other. I’ve filmed the BOP and with hundreds of racers, someone could go down fast, and in the excitement of racing buoys not be rescued in time, which is just part of the risk factor.

    The kayak industry long ago talked safety, time for the sup industry to step up and offer a package with each board. We’re dealing with newbies, non surfers, and you can’t spend your beach day imploring rookies to not learn the hard way.

    Thanks for starting to talk about safety..

  2. Anne Murray September 3, 2015 at 7:51 am #

    I have taken a course on river rafting at University of Oregon. They recommended wearing helmets while on a river. There could be branches extending out from the bank or if you fall in the rapids and your head could bang on the rocks. Protect the head. Pfds should be worn on a river, once you fall into the cold river there could be a shock from the water. You might not be able to reach for the pfd on the board.
    Before a race or being on a river someone should do a trial run before the race, the conditions change everyday.
    Before anyone gets on a river they should know the various conditions throughout the river. If not get off your board and study the waters before you paddle them, you design strategies to paddle it.
    Overall, every water condition is unique and paddlers have to listen to the locals who are familiar with the environment and weather.

  3. Jeff September 3, 2015 at 3:02 pm #

    Sorry, but a PFD is much more valuable then some 5 year old encrusted leash that breaks the first time you need it. Come on, PFD insures the safest situation by far. Folks should use both and so called associations should preach this, not a half ass recommendation of a PFD.
    Do you think this SUP paddler would have passed away if he had PFD similar to what Surfski paddlers wear?
    Be responsible and push safety above what some folks think is inconvenient.

  4. John Alexiou September 5, 2015 at 6:33 pm #

    Spot on recommendations. A few suggestions to include / pass on that I’ve learned through some years of ocean lifeguarding and racing –

    The PFD (most likely an inflatable waist belt) is not always for you, the wearer. Racers should switch and change their philosophy / way of thinking: “wear it for yourself, but most likely wear it for others” who are racing. One encounter with a stroke patient in the water who was racing and YOU will want all the flotation available either for yourself or the patient. A little bit of thought and training how to use a PFD for this type of emergency at a race briefing can go a long way with protecting someone’s airway int the water.


    During a distance race briefing, organizers and promoters should / must advise participants who to contact if they DNF and pull out prior to the finish line. Save the angst at the finish line when you don’t have everyone who entered cross the finish line and have to guess they are ok. Launching a Coast Guard helo sucks when the racer bailed on part way through on the course and came in early prior to the finish at their hotel room. Good on you for launching the search, bad on you for not passing on a plan to everyone during the pre-race briefing to call in or contact a specific agency / person if, for whatever reason, you DNF.

    John Alexiou

  5. Cindy Scherrer September 6, 2015 at 1:20 pm #

    The American Canoe Association has a free app called “Paddle Ready” that includes several disciplines including SUP. When you make your choices as to environment and vessel it brings up tips and a safety checklist.You can file a float plan, find instruction and explore other options. It would be a free and easy safety perk to promote with clients/customers.

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