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Paddleboard Safety Week raises awareness of risks involved

A paddleboard on Bellingham's Lake Padden. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)

People doing paddle sports — going out on lakes, rivers, and the Puget Sound in kayaks and paddleboards — make up half the boating fatalities in Washington.

That’s why Governor Inslee declared this week “Paddleboard Safety Week.”

The state is aiming to raise awareness of a seemingly risk-free and calm sport that can get dangerous if precautions are not taken.

With the pandemic forcing people outside, Washington is seeing record paddleboard sales this year. But because it is relatively easy and affordable to buy a kayak or paddleboard, the majority of people get out on the water without doing any training to learn the safety basics.

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“The cost barrier has come way down — I mean, you can go to Costco and get a stand-up paddleboard and that afternoon be out on the water,” said Rob Sendak, Boating Programs manager for the Washington State Parks Commission.

The King County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit told KIRO Radio earlier this month that one of their most common rescue scenarios is paddleboarders who get too far out into a lake or river without having the experience to get out of a tough situation.

Unlike larger vessels, state law does not require you to get a boater education card before using a kayak or paddleboard; a bill to include paddle sports in this requirement failed in the Legislature this year. Sendak said that fewer than a quarter of paddleboarders take a safety course.

Sendak recommends that instead of going straight for Lake Washington or the Puget Sound, beginning paddleboarders start out in a small body of water, such as a pond or a lake where motorboats are not allowed and where there will therefore not be a wake to potentially tip you over.

He also suggests that before getting out on the water, people take the free paddle sport exams available on the Washington State Parks’ boating site.

“You don’t get in a car and start driving without learning what the rules are, right?” he said. “It’s the same kind of thing when you’re paddling.”

The most common mistake — and also the most dangerous one — that paddleboarders make is not wearing a life vest.

“In almost 80% of all recreational boating fatalities, all of those victims are not wearing lifejackets,” Sendak said.

Failing to have a lifejacket with you on a paddleboard is not just a hazard, but also illegal, according to state law. If marine patrol units catch you, you could be ticketed.

“It’s law that you have to have it on your vessel, whether it’s a stand-up paddleboard or a kayak — those are considered vessels,” Sendak said.

He said that you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars to get a quality lifejacket, but you should try to buy it in person so that you can make sure it fits tightly. A lifejacket that slides up over your head will do you no good in the water.

Another law that people often forget to follow is that a sounding device, such as a whistle or horn, must be kept onboard at all times. If a person runs into trouble on the water, the whistle can enable someone on the other side of the lake or on the shore to hear them and get help. You can also carry a phone onboard if you have a waterproof case.

Finally, it is always best to go float with a buddy, and to let someone ashore know where you’ll be and when to expect you home, just in case something goes wrong.

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