Water Hazards to Look for Before Heading Out for Some SUP Fun

In Spotlight by Daniel

SUP is meant to be experienced in the wild. Part of the fun is being entrenched in the elements, letting them test you, and making it out on the other side. But when it comes to Mother Nature, you must also know your limits.

No matter how strong a paddler you may be, if you spend enough time on the water there is always one thing you can count on in nature - change. This can mean storms, wind patterns, equipment failure, and more. To counter this, you must also be willing to change your day and have a secondary plan in place to keep yourself and your fellow paddlers safe.

Without a backup, you have to either be highly skilled, flexible with your schedule (giving yourself permission to say not for me, I’ll try another day), very lucky, or you need to hire a local guide to provide guidance.

But that’s only one environment we need to be aware of. We also should consider the weather, the coastlines, and the wildlife that lives in the waters we are paddling.

As in any new situation, the best place to start is with education. By understanding what to look for before you head out, you’ll be better prepared to meet all challenges that lay ahead. 

Let’s begin our discovery of what hazards can challenge or ruin your SUP fun.

Water Hazards

To start, we will be focused on the environment where paddlers spend most of their time- on the water.

Water is truly one of the most dynamic environments to study and one that is highly susceptible to nature’s way of change. And that makes it one of the most dangerous environments we can find ourselves in.

To stay safe and embrace the challenge instead of finding yourself in a dangerous situation, be sure to check for these signs before heading out:

 

Moving Water
If you are planning to paddle in a river or on the ocean then be sure to check out the energy of the water before heading in.

On the river, ask a local or do a quick search to see what level of rapids the stretch you wish to paddle falls in.

Levels include: 

  1. Class I - Easy. ...
  2. Class II - Moderate. ...
  3. Class III - Moderately difficult. ...
  4. Class IV - Difficult. ...
  5. Class V - Extremely difficult. ...
  6. Class VI - Extraordinarily difficult

Most SUP river paddling takes place in the Class I to Class III range. Anything above that and you would have to have prior experience to get in and a local guide to help you along the way.

Of course, the best practice to take precautions is to contact a local pro in your area and ask them before planning your trip. And the easiest way to do that is to head to the search option on Perfect Paddles.

In the ocean, the best thing to do is an eye test. Do you feel comfortable paddling past the whitewater? Are there other paddlers out there? If so, how many? What does their skill-level look like? Are there white caps showing?

The ocean is one of the most challenging environments to paddle especially if you are new. It’s constantly moving which makes standing on the board very difficult. Beginners are encouraged to reach out to a local pro before evening attempting an ocean paddle to get a proper lesson and have proper supervision.

If at any time during your pre-paddling observation you don’t feel comfortable it might be better to hold off for another day or bring along an experienced paddler to help guide the way.

Whether in the ocean or a river, a quick self-assessment and an assessment of the environment is always necessary before heading out.

 

Waves
While paddling in the ocean is difficult for beginners, often the most difficult part of the process is paddling through the whitewater and waves to get past the breaks. This process can be long and full of frustration as you can be pummeled back to shore repeatedly. 

The best practice to take is to look at the surf report for the day and assess whether you feel comfortable paddling past waves of that size. There are a few great websites out there that track swell size and wind patterns, take advantage of these resources before deciding to go to the beach. The crew at Magic Seaweed is a fantastic resource for this. 

Once past the break, the main focus should be on keeping upright (obviously) and always have one eye on the horizon. Especially when waves are in the area. This discipline will keep you alert for any oncoming swell. And will train you to keep the nose of your board pointed straight into the oncoming wave. If you get hit with one on the rails, the chances of you going overboard are greatly enhanced. 

So, remember: keep your eye on the horizon, point your board right into the wave you want to paddle over. Soon, you’ll be comfortable enough to turn into the wave and ride it back into shore with confidence.

Rip Currents

A rip current is defined as a relatively strong, narrow current flowing outward from the beach through the surf zone and presenting a hazard to swimmers.

As the definition lays out, rip currents are a great hazard to swimmers because they get pushed out away from shore and have to tread water for the duration of time they are left out there. This can cause cramping and greatly increases the chances of drowning.

But they can also be a danger for paddlers as well. Much like a swimmer, the rip current will have the same effect. This means you can also be pushed out towards the ocean away from shore with no ability to fight against the current, making you tired, with a possibility of dehydration.

Unlike a swimmer though, paddlers are attached to a flotation device that will help them retain their energy and keep them safe. So, make sure your leash is in good working order before heading into the ocean. And if you do get caught in a rip current, the first thing you must do is relax. Let the current take you where it may, there is no point in fighting it. You will waste energy that way.

The best thing to do is paddle along the shore to find a new place of entry away from the rip current. Or if you have the time and energy, relax until the rip current dissipates and then make your way back in.

To know if there is a rip current at the time you want to SUP, be sure to check with a local lifeguard on the beach or consult with a local paddling pro by contacting them through Perfect Paddles.

 

Tides
On any given day there are three tides paddlers must be aware of. 

One is high tide. 

This is when you will see the most amount of water in a marina. Or at the beach, it is when the waves break at their farthest point up the sand.

The second is a low tide which is the exact opposite. This is when the water is at its lowest point in a marina or at the beach when the water is breaking farther out towards the horizon.

And in between these tides is a slack tide which occurs one hour on either side of high or low tide, where the water barely moves.

The thing to take note of when it comes to tide is the direction of the water flow. On a strong outgoing or incoming tide, it can be difficult to paddle against the current. You want to make sure you are prepared to paddle back to your starting point with ease and not be stuck looking for a rescue boat to take you back in.

Another point of importance also happens to be on a low tide. If the water recedes drastically on a low tide there might not be enough to float your board without scraping the bottom with your fin. Take this into account the next time you decide to head out on a low tide as well to keep yourself happily paddling and your board undamaged.

Cold Water
One of the most challenging and potentially dangerous aspects of paddling happens to be the temperature of the water.

Coldwater significantly impacts the paddler especially if they capsize during a fall or winter month. Through a process called hypothermia, when a paddler is exposed to cold temperatures, their body begins to lose heat faster than it's produced. Lengthy exposures will eventually use up their body's stored energy, which will lead to a lowered body temperature and severe health consequences.

What to do if you still want to paddle during those winter months?

Wear proper clothing. A full wetsuit with booties, gloves, and hood will keep you warm even if you happen to fall into the water. Or you can opt for a drysuit to layer up underneath while still maintaining flexibility for paddling. Either way, make sure you are prepared for the cold before entering the water!

For more information on what to wear during the cold months head HERE.



Dirty Water

Dirty water is often the result of different seasonal changes in tropical or subtropical areas as well as runoff and dumping. It can lead to numerous health problems including infection of any open wounds or prolonged sickness.

The easiest way to combat the presence of dirty water? Know before you go! By asking a local paddling Pro their opinion on the best times to SUP. With this local information, you will never be caught in a situation you don’t want to find yourself in! 


Weather Hazards

Often water hazards are direct results of weather changes. Things like big waves, cold and dirty water and other hazards are produced by the season and the weather that is most common during these times. So, as it is important to always consider what the water is doing before heading out, make sure you also check the weather forecast to see if there are any surprises that might happen once you are out there!


High Wind

High wind will present a paddler with all types of challenges. But it can also be used for fun. If you have the proper plan in place we highly recommend participating in a downwind run where you set the wind to your back and let it propel you and your board through the water. It’s a great time! Of course, always contact a professional in your area who is experienced and knows how to set one up before going.

Besides the fun it can bring, if you are not prepared for high winds and have to paddle into them, it can make for a difficult time. Make sure you know which way the wind is blowing by taking note of the wind lines on the water. If you don’t take this into account you may be struggling upwind and to continuously struggle against a high wind puts paddlers in a serious place of danger. Your energy levels will drop and the chances of getting to where you need to diminish greatly.

With a plan in place, using high winds can be one of the best times a paddler can have on a board. But without a plan and experience, it can be dangerous. Know which category you fall into and plan accordingly!


Thunder and Lightning

Before you ever see lightning or hear thunder, paddlers should always be aware of the ever-changing skies. If you are on the water and happen to see dark clouds approaching, head to the nearest shore and try to wait it out. Especially if you are far from your vehicle or launch spot.

It goes without saying, but you are standing atop the water in a vulnerable position so every precaution must be taken into account. And in the presence of thunder and lightning, you should never be on the water.

Always check the weather before planning an outing and note any storm cells you may see on the radar, no matter how small they may appear!

Hot Sun
Summertime is truly the best time to paddle. The weather is pleasant, the water is warm, and the sun stays up for longer portions of the day. But it can also cause serious side effects if you spend too much time in it: sunburn and dehydration.

Wearing a proper amount of sunscreen and carrying a large amount of water (or enough to last the duration of your trip) will negate the negative effects of prolonged sun exposure and ensure your time on the water is spent with a smile on your face.


(Maybe a bit excessive, but you get the point!)

Land Hazards

Part of being an experienced SUP expert is being aware of land hazards as well as water hazards. Most of the time these hazards are obvious enough, but in certain instances, they can create a dangerous situation for any paddler. Local knowledge is always the gold standard but a keen eye will also help you keep yourself and your fellow paddlers safe.


Rocky Shore Lines

One of the best places to paddle can be along the shore, checking out the magnificent cliff hangings and caves. But what lies underneath the water is sometimes impossible to see. Always be sure that you don’t paddle too close to shore where your board might hit a hazard or where the current from the ocean might propel you into the rock face. Take into account the depth of the water by peering straight down, maybe with some polarized glasses (Become a member to take advantage of discounts on great gear including RHEOS sunglasses!) and the strength of the current from the ocean before you get too close. 

You can still enjoy the view, even from a safe distance.


Reef and Rocks
Reefs and rocks can be a challenge and hazard for any paddler. But for the SUP surfer, their location and depth are paramount. 

As any experienced surfer knows, some of the best places to hit the waves are over a rock or reef break. But knowing the tide, and the location of the reef and rocks is critical to enjoying the time on the water without getting cut up or leaving with broken bones.

As always, ask a local professional before heading out. Or, if you are an experienced surfer, you can watch where the other surfers are staying, and look for bubbles in the water to see the location of hazardous rocks. Any reef or rock location that is close to the surface of the water will create a bubbling effect whenever the water recedes. Keep an eye out for this obvious tell!

The more knowledge you can obtain before heading out will only increase your chances of having a fun and safe time, so we always advocate checking with a professional first.



Animals Hazards

In and Out of the Water
The last hazard every paddler should look out for is the local animal population in and out of the water.

Of course, when we talk about the water, the biggest fear is the shark. But truth be told, they are usually not the most dangerous. Nor are they the most frequent animal paddlers and surfers encounter.

Most paddlers have to watch out for seals and in the case of some tropical areas...gators. The trait to note with these animals is they are territorial. Their initial reaction to anyone entering their space is to attack. Avoid at all costs.

Other animals to keep an eye out for include jellyfish, turtles, horses, and sometimes even whales.

You can still marvel at their presence, and to see them is one of the best perks of SUP, but to interact with them is a whole different thing.

As a general guideline, always avoid contact with any wild animal in or out of the water. Remember, these animals are wild and will act unpredictably to any outside invader into their domain.



Conclusion

The sport of SUP has opened many new doors for us in terms of community, fun, and exploration. But it can also be dangerous if you are a beginner or find yourself in a new environment.

That is why the team at Perfect Paddles always advocates for experienced travelers and newbies alike to first reach out to a local paddling Pro to get the details about the area you want to paddle in before you go.

And with our interactive map showing multiple locations with the subsequent paddling pro in the area, finding someone to reach out to has never been easier! 

The more information you know, the safer you will feel, and consequently, the more fun you will have.