Tony Bain SUP Knowledge – Pretty Darn Funny (PFD use in SUP)

Words and pics: Tony Bain

I’m an instructor of SUP. I don’t really have a choice: I have to lead by example. That is what I have been taught to teach. To put in front of others information so that they may soak it up correctly, assimilate it, take it on board and add it to their own knowledge and fit it to their own technique.

As I prepare to take my groups for SUP instruction I always ask people if they can swim. Why? So I know if they can’t. I need to know this as a precaution so I can identify those who might have problems if they end up in the water. This is, after all, a watersport.

It is a standard requirement of the learning session that my insurance company asks me to limit the risk of drowning by providing PFDs for my activity participants. Usually there is someone in the group that asks: “What does PDF stand for?” I typically reply: “Pretty Darn Fun” and smile. “Did you mean to say PFD?” I guess it is my sense of humour (the abbreviation stands for Personal Floatation Device – just to clarify!).

Tony Bain SUP Knowledge

Whenever I take a group out for a lesson I give my students a Personal Floatation Device. Yep, a float coat, buoyancy aid or whatever else you want to call it. A lot of paddle boarders don’t wear them, don’t like them and won’t wear them. Some say they can’t get back on their board with one on while others think they look uncool.

Most SUP paddlers think they are on surfboards and they don’t need extra float. There are real reasons why surfers and SUP surfers don’t wear PFDs in waves (not being able to dive beneath swell for instance). When it comes to flat water paddling, general safety comes into play. Better to be safe than sorry and all that. When you get in a car everyone buckles up with seat belts – same deal in an aeroplane. Why’s that? Maybe you’re going to be sucked out a window or thrown from your seat in turbulence. You don’t have a choice on a plane, it’s the airline’s policy so we all comply.

What I’m getting at, is that in main facets of our day to day lives, safety is built in. We’re required to do something limiting harm that may come to us. Seat belts in cars, on planes, some trains and buses. Traffic and pedestrian lights on roads telling us when it’s safe to proceed is another example. Why is it then when we go SUP paddling on our local canal, river or lake and we ignore common sense by not wearing a PFD?

The lake where I operate from is part of a national park and they have in place a risk assessment and to limit the number of water incidents that may occur. This risk assessment requires a PFD is to be worn while on or near the water. They have signs on all the public access beaches to tell people of this requirement. This is a common trend across the country; all centres that offer water activities require participants wear a PFD. Most major water estate managers and owners insist. Not just to protect themselves from any legal action, but also to show duty of care towards their customers.

Tony Bain SUP Knowledge

So why do we really wear PFDs? All anyone wants is for you to stay afloat, enjoy your experience at each location and ensure you want to come back again to do the same thing next time. A PFD stops your head from going under water.
Some people use the term BA (Buoyancy Aid). Technically this is correct. Other people use the term life jacket. However, a life jacket won’t save your life. It will help you float, aid your buoyancy and is a device that improves floatation, but it will not save your life.

So why do people question wearing a PFD when they go on the water? That’s an interesting one. We see amazing pictures of people on boards in the middle of an ocean or a mountain lake at gorgeous water locations around the world. The various brands are trying to promote a world of wellness, fitness, freedom and a healthier lifestyle. I’m up for that for sure. But at what cost?

As the numbers of people grow that are trying out SUP and other water activities so the number of opportunities arises of educated people getting into trouble. It doesn’t happen to everyone, and it may never to some. A lot of people are taking lessons with an instructor and then given a Ready to Ride certificate. Some SUP Schools say you can get your certificate in two hours and you’re good to go. Many don’t even bother with a school; they just go online and buy a board after seeing an advertisement for SUP in a magazine.

Thinking that’s it’s just so cool, standing on a board in the middle of a lake in a gorgeous location – that’s got to be a great way of tapping into a healthier lifestyle? Guys in boardshorts and cute ladies in bikinis. It’s a sunny day and the water is crystal clear – so clear you can see the fish and gorgeous white sandy bottom a few metres below – you all know the type of image I’m speaking of.

Tony Bain SUP Knowledge

Our online purchaser lives in the UK, his paddle locations aren’t as warm or sunny. Deep, cold lakes with murky water, where seeing the bottom is a real treat. Shallow rocky, cold, mountain fed rivers and windswept coastlines. (We all experience sublime days paddling but there are plenty of SUP sessions with less than idyllic conditions). He picks up his paddle and board and heads for the lake. No leash, no PFD and no adequate protection for when the weather turns – basically no idea.

I’m not sure why people want to tell me of their near misses that have occurred but they do – most completely avoidable. SUP isn’t a classified craft or vessel in the UK (yet), however, the USA, NZ and a few other countries have already done this. This law and local bylaws requires an approved personal buoyancy aid or PFD is either attached to the vessel/craft or worn by the operator of the vessel/craft.

Your board is not a personal floatation device. It is a floatation device but as it’s not attached to your personal body it therefore won’t keep your head and body above the water. It can’t help you float if you were to fall into the water and become separated from it.

What a PFD does do is keep you floating on or near the surface, so that someone else can see you, move in to help and remove you from a life threatening situation as quickly and efficiently as possible. Food for thought…

Tony Bain is owner and operator of Green Dragon Activities. A qualified SUP instructor Tony is also the Fastest Local Bog snorkeller (20 secs off the world record) and the holder of the World Bathtubbing record for 100 metres in a time of 1 min 26.41 secs. Find out more at

Huge thanks to our advertisers

Leave a Reply