A beginner’s guide to white water SUP #3 – safety considerations!

I thought I better dedicate an article to white water SUP. With some friends’ help, I started writing a beginner’s guide to white water SUP. Here’s the third of the four-part series..

By Del Read – https://delkayaks.co.uk
Photos: Jon Best, Tom Clare and Del Read

Having gotten into white water stand-up paddling boarding (SUP) last year, I decided to put together a series of white water SUP-focused articles. The articles are to help guide beginners in white water SUP and each article has a different focus and a different guest writer. My first article introduced the series and focused on the different boards you find in SUP. My second article looked at the moves on white water you can do on a SUP and how to achieve them.

This article will examine the safety considerations that should be made when taking a SUP on white water. Thank you to Barry Hughes for sharing his wisdom in this article.

For some reading this article, all the safety considerations mentioned below may seem common sense. There will be readers of this article, however, who are completely new to the sport and potentially new to white water. You cannot overdo it when it comes to staying safe and helping others to stay safe. Please comment on this article if there is anything that we have missed! White water SUP is a growing sport – let’s work together to support new paddlers.

Barry Hughes

Barry Hughes is an experienced white water SUP paddler with a passion for safety and sharing his love of SUP with others. Barry was one of the very first white water SUP paddlers in the UK and certainly the first person I ever knew who paddled a SUP on white water. He talks through some of the key safety considerations that should be considered when paddling a SUP on white water.

Gear and clothing for white water SUP

Leashes for white water SUP
Leashes are one of the most important things to consider when paddling white water. A safety leash to connect you to your board is a must, but it should fit correctly and suit the job. It must be a waist-mounted leash with a quick-release system. I use an HF waist belt which has a buckle at the front and will release at the back under tension. The buckle should have a toggle which is easy to pull, and the tail at the front should be no more than 5cm long. When using a leash, you should also always carry a river knife. Just in case you need to cut away from it.

Buoyancy aids for white water SUP
Wearing a buoyancy aid (BA) is essential on white water. The turbulent water needs more buoyancy to stay on the surface than you would on flat water. It also gives you good protection from rocks! Make sure it is a white water-specific buoyancy aid and fits correctly. It should be worn correctly, with all straps tightened.

Helmets for white water SUP
Helmets are another essential. I recommend having ear covering on most white water as this also protects your ears. Many paddlers opt for a full-face helmet if paddling extreme white water to give them an extra layer of protection. A helmet should fit easily and be comfortable for long periods.

Clothing for white water SUP
Suitable clothing is essential. You must wear appropriate clothing for the weather and assume you will go into the water. Clothing should be both warm and suitable for getting wet. Remember that clothing also gives you body armour to protect you from any rocks you may land on. Something like a wetsuit protects you from the rocks and the cold. Make sure you have a sturdy set of shoes that are either tight-fitting or lace-up to get a good feel of the board.

Wearing additional body armour should also be considered. For example, shin and knee pads, padded shorts, and elbow and forearm guards are body armour that I would regularly wear. This body armour, including your helmet, will give you the best protection possible. In white water SUP, you tend to swim a lot and, therefore, will most likely bash off rocks too. Also, learn how to use a throwline and the best way to fall, finishing in the defensive swimming position to avoid foot entrapment.

Lastly, if you use carabiners for anything, you should only use screw gate carabiners. This is because they will only lock when you want them to, and they won’t get caught up on things, which is a must when paddling on moving water!

Choosing where and when to paddle

Outside of attire, it is vital to consider water conditions and remember to paddle within your limits. What you can do in a kayak may not be possible on a paddleboard. Choose to paddle somewhere where you are in control and the environment is suitable. Grades of water in the UK go from 1-6. For most SUP trips, I recommend just using grades 1-2. That means flowing water with small rapids. As you progress, you can progress up the grades, but you should do your research.

It is important to note that you should not paddle on weirs. Weirs can look easier than they are, but they can be incredibly dangerous. They can be hard to paddle through and sometimes have debris or even spikes in the troughs.

Last but not least is communication. You need to be able to communicate on the river either by phone, radio or whistle. This should be kept on you, for example, a phone in a waterproof pouch in your BA pocket. Tell people in advance where you are, what rivers you are doing and where your likely escape routes are. You must do these things as SUP is a very impactful, intense sport. If you need assistance, you need a way to call them.

Thanks again to Barry for sharing his advice in this article and for going above and beyond to improve SUP safety in the UK.

Final thoughts
Del here again! When I started white water SUP, I had the advantage of already paddling white water, and I knew I needed a helmet, appropriate footwear, warm clothing and a BA. I knew how to plan a river trip safely and was aware of the hazards that can be present in a whitewater environment.

A safety course, such as whitewater safety and rescue, is an excellent option to build knowledge and skills if you are new or less experienced with whitewater. There are lots of courses available – do get in touch if you are unsure which one might be best for you.

Although I was experienced with white water, I was ignorant of some SUP-specific safety measures that needed to be taken. I was particularly ignorant about leashes, and it was only through having friends who had already paddled white water SUP sharing their wisdom with me that I became more knowledgeable. I would now only wear a waist leash with a SUP, regardless of what I was paddling. It is the safer and more sensible option. It is also the main point of safety that I would share with someone looking to take up white water SUP.

Get in touch with Barry or me if you have any more SUP safety-specific questions!

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