Paddleboarding safety

Paddleboarders, flotation devices in place, head out at Ridgway State Park. (Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

It seems so simple from the shoreline. What could go possibly wrong on a fine sunny day as you skim across the water?

That is what you might be tempted to believe, at least, from your perch along the shoreline. 

“You think you’re going to understand it,” said Ridgway State Park Manager Kirstin Copeland, of the temptation to underestimate the dangers of stand-up paddleboarding. Start with the brightly colored, buoyant devices themselves. 

“They look like toys,” Copeland observed. “I see them on sale at places like Walmart. I want to run up to people and say, ‘Be careful!’”

Copeland has worked at the state park for over 20 years. There are dangers looming in the mesas overlooking the water that everyone can understand: black bears and mountain lions. “People get that” predators reside in this park, Copeland said. “But I would not put them at the top of the list. The animals “do not represent the singlemost ever-present risk of serious injury or death here.”

What does, is water. Specifically, water as encountered by kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders — call them paddle-crafters — who underestimate the risks of wind, weather and water and may not even bother bringing a flotation device along, or donning one when they need it most.

“Really hot weekend days are prime time” for paddleboard accidents, Copeland said. So much can go wrong so quickly. “Storms can come in so fast from the southwest here. You leave and head out into the water, and suddenly it’s storming. People think they can jump off their craft and start swimming back to shoreline, and all of a sudden they’re exhausted,” and possibly drowning. 

“Someone drowned in a paddle-craft accident earlier this week at Carter Lake,” in Larimer County, Copeland pointed out. “The boater’s dog was wearing a lifejacket, and survived.” 

The kayaker, presumably, was not: presumed to be a 31-year-old male from Loveland, his body has not been found.

The experience of suddenly being separated from your board — whether accidentally or on purpose (if you think you can swim for it) — is harrowing and exhausting.

“The effects of cold water creeps up on you,” Copeland said. “Our water gets into the 70s, at most, in summer, which is still 20 degrees lower than human-body temperature.” 

“It’s amazing how quickly people get tapped out” fighting big winds, and swelling waves Copeland said. “People think they’re safer in a boat that isn’t motorized, because the motor itself is somehow hazardous.”

The irony is, you’re far less visible to others (and therefore much more difficult to rescue) if you abandon ship. 

“The bottom line,” Copeland said, “is that you want a personal flotation device with you at all times. If the weather changes at all, put the thing on. Just put it on. You can always take it off” when the sun comes back out and the storm passes. (Even easier, and safer still: always wear your PFD.)

A personal flotation device serves two purposes. 

“It’s insulation, and will keep you warmer.” It also buoys you along, which will save you energy.

Two years ago, a pair of paddlers took off from the Dallas Creek shoreline, at the park’s south entrance, and quickly encountered treacherous conditions. (Over the past couple of years, four paddlers have had to be rescued at Ridgway, and so did kids who were wearing ill-fitting life jackets.)

Luckily, this couple lived to tell the story. A few days after the event, a stranger appeared in Copeland’s office. 

“It was one of the paddleboarders,” Copeland said. “I just wanted to say, it’s not until you get separated from your board, and you’re fighting for your life” in big winds and water “that you understand the dangers,” the woman said to Copeland. “I hope you’ll share my experience with others. I get it now.”

Learn more, or take an online class, at the Boating Safety page on Colorado State Park’s website.