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US Coast Guard rules for stand up paddle boarding

Paddle boarding life jackets and inflatable life vest

Paddle boarding is awesome fun. We get to paddle out on our SUPs into the world and explore. You might be paddling on a deserted river, tropical island or inner city canal but the enjoyment is still the same. To be able to repeatedly enjoy great paddle sessions we need to stay safe. Leading by example for many nations around the world where stand up paddle boarding is booming, the United States Coast Guard, charged with protecting water users in and around the USA, have decided that a SUP, paddle board, etc when beyond the narrow limits of a “swimming, surfing or bathing area,” (what they call “navigating”) is a vessel and therefore the appropriate safety devices are necessary. That includes a PFD Type III life jacket, a whistle and a (flash)light.

View a PDF regarding the USCG’s handling of paddle boards: USCG Stand Up Paddle FAQ. The same has been decided by Transport Canada.

Initially this can seem like overkill when you are, and should always be, attached to your board by a leash, itself a floating device. However a leash is not 100% effective and a life jacket must be available to the user. I say available because it is good enough to have your PFD strapped onto the board. Common sense may not approve but the USCG deem this as acceptable.

Although, with advancements in technology and the introduction of inflatable life vests for big wave surfers, there has been a trickle down effect and fanny pack, waist belt inflatable life jackets are now available. If you’ve ever taken a commercial airline flight, you already know what I’m talking about. But in this case, the life jacket sits around your waist instead of under your seat! These life jackets are light weight, small, and stay out of the way. In an emergency, you just pull the tab and the jacket inflates. You lift it over your head and you’re ready to float.

The USCG rules in more detail:

Life jackets:

  • Each paddler 13 years of age or older must have a USCG approved Type I, II, III, or appropriate Type V life jacket available.
  • A child 12-years old or younger must wear their USCG-approved life jacket.
  • The jacket must be in “serviceable condition,” without rips, tears or deterioration that will diminish its performance.
  • The jacket must be of an appropriate size and fit for the wearer.
  • Belt pouch-type inflatable PFDs must be worn on the person to meet the life jacket regulation.
  • For all life jackets, be sure to read the label to know if special requirements are involved for that device.

Other gear:

  • A whistle or other sound producing device must be carried to warn other boaters.
  • If you’re on the water after sunset, you need to have a flashlight, or similar lighting device, to warn other boaters.

What you need to do:

  • As the vessel operator, you need to follow the Navigation Rules.
  • You are also required to report any boating accident or injury to the local reporting authority, either the USCG or other agency that has been delegated that authority.

So, be safe out there when you paddle board, and carry a life jacket, whistle, etc, and always be leashed to your board.

The US Coast Guard has created a handy table of paddle boarding state laws for life jackets here: USCG Boating.

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About the author: Julian Kidd
I have been an avid stand up paddle boarder since 2009. I retired from a decade of professional kiteboarding to focus on SUP. Green Water Sports grew from this love of all things SUP. As well as being a keen paddle boarder, I'm a football fan, closet petrol head, web tinkerer, husband and father.