Read Illinois Paddling Council’s Articles on Safety

By Greg Taylor

So, now that we are dealing with this lifestyle-changing pandemic virus lockdown, I’m hearing on the street and on the news that personal watercraft and bicycles are flying off the shelves. Go to any Walmart and try to buy a bike, or Menards for a kayak, or Dick’s for a canoe. These places are making a killing selling them. Tires and inner tubes for bikes are virtually non-existent. I know most of you who are reading this are highly interested in personal propulsion watercraft. So there is now definitely a fairly large new group of paddlers plying local streams, lakes, and rivers. We are now looking at a large potential group of people not following highly suggested guidance on safe paddlings, such as not drinking while enjoying their easy-going paddle down a wide beautiful river like the Fox in Illinois. I am not going to say it is not tempting, yes, it surely is, but two things should make you think twice: the first one is about as easy as the second one. First, I wouldn’t want to have to be forced into a decision-defining moment such as a strainer while inebriated. The second is just as easy. I am not driving home buzzed.

Newbies to our time-honored fabulous sport need a tremendous amount of training and time in the saddle to paddle safely. So while writing this article, I was unfortunately disturbed to open my Facebook feed and find a video of a man at Hammel Woods caught in a low-head dam. Commentators stated, “he just wanted to go fishing.” Later I opened up Facebook again, and a gentleman that I found I’ve met before at a PSC training session posted an article about a family of six that was rescued from the DuPage River near Channahon on Sunday. Their rafts became deflated, and they luckily found shelter on a tree in the water. Some of the individuals were found with personal floatation devices; others were not. Sorry to be such a downer during an even more depressing social disaster we are all having to live through, but potentially life-ending situations like this are absurd to be happening. I can only fear that they are only going to increase through the summer into late fall. The uninformed in our sport is also creating an unnecessary danger to themselves. I am thinking it is time to make it mandatory that people must pass a test and become certified before buying a canoe, kayak, standup paddle board, etc. You need a driver’s license before you can buy a car. You have to have a pilot’s license to fly a plane. You need a FOID card before you can buy a firearm in this state. Can anyone discharge a firearm as anyone can successfully paddle a boat? Although possible, not the wisest decision without the proper training.

Editor’s note: IPC has been working with the WSF to address the issue of newcomers to the sport by contacting the big box stores to give out safety information.

A small non-profit is making bold moves to reduce senseless paddlesports casualties

For more than five years, I’ve been trying to learn exactly how so many people perish while enjoying paddlesports. According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2019 Recreational Boating Statistics report, 613 Americans died while boating. Of them, 167 died while participating in canoeing, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, row-boating, and on inflatables. While overall boating deaths have declined for three straight years, paddlesports deaths have increased!

By comparison, paddlesports doesn’t involve high rates of speed, spinning propellers, dangerous carbon monoxide, or flammable fluids like its recreational powerboat cousin, yet horrifically, nearly one-out-of-every-three boating deaths are paddlers.

With the help of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Water Sports Foundation determined that, of paddlesports deaths, nearly 75% of paddlers had less than 100 hours of experience (when the level of experience was known), and the figure remains just below 45% for deaths where the paddler had less than 10 hours of experience.

This information supports the theory that the majority of paddlesports accidents and deaths occur with paddlers who have very little paddling experience. It makes sense, right? More experienced paddlers understand the inherent risks involved in paddlesports, and they mitigate them. It’s probably also true that, in general, more experienced paddlers visit paddlesports pro shops, are members of paddling clubs, and enjoy paddlesports media content.

But newcomers to the sport who have not yet joined a club or subscribed to paddlesports content are nearly impossible to reach. In fact, one recreational boating safety specialist refers to them as the “unreachables.”

Over the past ten years, paddlesports have seen explosive growth, especially in kayaking and standup paddleboarding. According to the Outdoor Foundation’s most recent Outdoor Participation Report, in 2018, 34.9 million Americans participated in paddlesports. This figure represents a 26.9% increase over 2010 participants, which were measured at 27.5 million.

Much of this growth has been fueled by relatively inexpensive kayaks and SUP’s being sold through the big discount box and club stores such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Tractor Supply, Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Costco, just to name a few.

Earlier in the decade, as manufacturers found ways to mass-produce kayaks at low price points, the big box and club stores saw an opportunity to cash in by selling them. It’s not absurd to think that many of these purchases were made on an impulse decision to buy, and no research was involved.

The problem is that millions of new paddlesports participants were fed onto our waterways each year with no instruction on safety, such as understanding the U.S. Coast Guard carriage requirements, including the need for an approved life jacket, the importance of taking a safe paddling course or, simply understanding the inherent risks of paddlesports.