How to Safely Paddle in a Harbor on a SUP
The flat water confines of a harbor or marina are often where many first time stand up paddlers receive their introduction to the sport. These areas are typically self-contained by a breakwall which ensures paddlers will not unintentionally drift out to a larger body of water where wind, waves and currents can present formidable challenges for beginning paddlers. Harbors are not without dangers of their own, however, by keeping a few safety guidelines in mind you will enjoy your paddling experience and not pose a hazard to yourself or others while out there on the water.
Paddling in a Harbor Channel
Harbors are comprised of boat channels and depending on their size, there may be more than one. The direction of traffic on the water follows the same convention as it does on a North American road, which means you should stay to the right (starboard side) when paddling in a boat channel. There can be exceptions to this rule, e.g. if the channel is particularly large it may be acceptable for small paddle craft to predominantly use one side. The main channel in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles is an example of where this convention comes into play.
Wear a Leash
Wearing a leash greatly contributes to your safety on the water. Not only does it ensure you remain connected to your board, it prevents your board from drifting out into boat traffic. The latter is particularly relevant for beginner paddlers. When you fall off your board, chances are your tumble will be unexpected. For new paddlers, falling the first few times can be a dramatic experience. More importantly, regardless of one’s ability, unexpected falls can inadvertently propel your board forward and away from you and out into boat traffic. Wearing a leash will keep your board close by so if a boater does have to navigate around you, both you and your board will be contained in the same patch of water. To help you get in and out of the water, you could also invest in a sturdy set of marine dock ladders. These practical wet steps will make your paddling experience more comfortable and can even be bought in different colors to match the design of your boat.
Wear a PFD
Wearing a PFD is required by law in many harbors and marinas. They type worn is up to the personal preference of individual paddlers and may range from the popular belt pack style PFDs to a more traditional vest style. Belt pack PFDs are great for experienced paddlers who are comfortable “in” the water and know how to swim. The law in some jurisdictions only requires paddlers to have a PFD on their board, however, I strongly recommend wearing it – especially if you are a new paddler. Wearing your PFD ensures you will have it where you need it when you needed it should the occasion arise.
Carry a Whistle
The sound of a whistle will travel much further than your voice, particularly if you are in distress. Many PFDs and even some hydration packs now integrate a whistle into their design. Doing so is a great feature and will give you a perfect signaling device to contact a nearby boater should you require assistance.
Avoid Boat Traffic
The introduction of SUPs to harbors and marinas has at times drawn the ire of seasoned boaters due to some paddlers’ unfamiliarity with basic maritime conventions. Sticking to the correct side of a boat channel is one step towards demonstrating you are a responsible member of the harbor community. Never attempt to pass in front of a moving boat unless the boat operator has indicated it is safe to do so. Making eye contact with boaters and maintaining awareness of your surroundings will contribute to others viewing you as a welcome addition and not a nuisance.
Avoid Marine Life
A California Sea Lion basking in the sun in Marina del Rey.
Harbors and marinas are often home to a variety of birds and animals. If you happen to live near the ocean, there is a good chance marine mammals will clamber aboard boats and docks to sleep or bask in the sun. They may look cute, but do not be tempted to touch a baby seal. Marine mammals are wild animals and may bite or behave in an unpredictable manner. They can be dangerous if provoked and most jurisdictions have the option to levy a sizable fine for interfering with marine mammals. As long as you keep a respectable distance, e.g. no selfies with a seal, both you and the marine mammals will be able to enjoy the water together.
Make Note of Your Departure Point
Large harbors and marinas are comprised of numerous channels and after an hour or more on the water, they can begin to all look the same. Paddlers should familiarize themselves with the layout of the area before setting out on the water. If you are paddling in a location where there are multiple channels, pick a prominent feature and use it as a reference point. When choosing a reference point, be sure it is not one that will sail away!
Be safe, have fun and see you on the water!