A new water sport is taking Montana by storm. Stand up paddleboarding, or SUP, is an age-old form of surfing with Hawaiian origins that has become the latest surface-water sport. Recreators can use paddleboards almost anywhere on the water, including inland bays, lakes, reservoirs and rivers.
Surfers sometimes use paddleboards as a tool to teach people how to surf when the tide is down. Gradually the stand up paddleboard has spread in popularity from one recreational hot spot to another—including Montana.
That is the recreational side of the sport. On the safety side of things, the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of Montana both classify the stand up paddleboard as a vessel. That means that a PFD is required whenever paddling navigable water—a controversial decision among some paddleboarders.
"Stand up paddleboarding is easy to get into with a minimal financial commitment, but that takes a great deal of physical effort and stamina," said Dan Shipman, U.S. Coast Guard Regional Boating Safety Coordinator.
Shipman said there have been four paddleboard–related fatalities in the past three years, three in Oregon and one in Washington.
Physical exertion and an inability to remount the board, even though tethered to it, accounted for two of the accidents, Shipman said. In one fatality there were no witnesses and the victim was not wearing a lifejacket.
In another case, the paddleboard tether caught on a submerged tree limb and the current pulled the paddleboarder under. In three of the four fatalities there were no life jackets. The victim that wore a lifejacket wore an inflatable one and did not know how to inflate it.
"Montana law states that every motorboat or vessel must carry one life jacket for each person on board," said Ron Jendro, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks recreational boating safety administrator. "That includes stand up paddleboards because Montana law defines a 'vessel' very broadly. The only exclusions are seaplanes, float tubes and sailboards without mechanical propulsion."
According to the Coast Guard Compass, official blog of the USCG, a paddleboard is a vessel when used "beyond the narrow limits of swimming, surfing or bathing areas."
The law aside, safety is the main concern of FWP wardens who patrol the state's waters.
"It would be very easy for a person to get separated from a paddleboard after falling in the water, especially since many boarders choose not to use the tether," said Chris Crane, Montana game warden in Whitefish. "Even though the temperature outside is 80 degrees, the water temperature can be a dangerous 45 degrees in Montana."
The American Canoe Association also offers useful instruction on paddleboarding. The ACA emphasizes safety, enjoyment and skill acquisition to paddleboarders. In addition to a properly fitted personal floatation device, or lifejacket, the ACA recommends a helmet, elbow and knee pads, paddle, and appropriate clothing for the weather.
The USCG makes these recommendations to paddleboarders: