Stand Up Paddleboards: Leashes, Life Jackets & Legislation

Jimmy Blakeney of BIC SUP surfs in the ocean with a straight leash. Photo by Ben Thouard

The Diversity of SUP
With approximately just under three million people in the United States trying Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) in 2015, paddlers have integrated SUP into literally all of our nation’s waterways. From SUPing on calm inland lakes to challenging whitewater rivers to miles offshore in the open ocean, board materials and human skills are constantly evolving to meet the challenges presented by this popular form of paddling.

As one of the fastest growing outdoor recreation activities, there exists a significant opportunity to educate a wide range of waterway users about this diverse craft that bridges both the boardsport and paddlesport communities.

This SUPer is wearing proper equipment for a stand up paddleboard, including an inflatable life jacket, a whistle, and a coiled leash. ACA photo/Christopher Stec

This SUPer is wearing proper equipment
for a stand up paddleboard, including an inflatable life jacket, a whistle, and
a coiled leash.
ACA photo/Christopher Stec


Carriage Requirement
In a letter dated October 3, 2008, the United States Coast Guard, at the request of the Oregon State Marine Board, made a legal determination on the vessel status of paddleboards. In the memorandum, it was “determined that, when beyond the narrow limits of a swimming, surfing or bathing area, the device known as a ’paddleboard‘ is a vessel under 46 U.S.C. § 2101, and subject to regulations administered by the U.S. Coast Guard and its Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety, unless specifically exempted.”

Since SUP is a relatively new activity, and with its vessel classification, it must then meet federal carriage requirements. However, Title 33: Navigation and Navigable Waters, Part 175 – Equipment Requirements, Subpart B – Personal Flotation Devices (3) in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) does not adequately address carriage requirements specifically for SUP in regards to life jacket or leash wear.

For example, imagine paddling on your local lake, you can meet one of the federal carriage requirements if you simply place a life jacket on your board. However, when you fall off, if you’re not wearing an appropriate leash now you’re in the water without any flotation or connection to your board. Unlike a canoe or kayak that fills up with water when capsized, a SUP will just keep drifting away. If there is even a little wind or a slight current, an individual might not be able to swim back to their board. Hence, wearing a life jacket and an appropriate leash would be beneficial in this situation.

However, two challenges exist in regards to leash and life jacket wear for SUPs. There is one venue where it is actually unsafe to wear a life jacket (assuming the individual can swim), and there are several venues where wearing a leash could result in a fatality.

In 2013-2014, through its Prevention through People Subcommittee, the National Boating Safety Advisory Council reviewed the CFR in regards to how it relates to SUPs and other manually propelled vessels. As a result, NBSAC Resolution Number 2014-91-2: Safety Equipment Carriage Requirements: Manually Propelled Vessels1 was passed and given to the USCG. Although this resolution did not definitively address every issue, it provided guidance to the USCG on a range of topics for SUP and other manually propelled vessels through these recommendations:

3. Exempt paddleboards and rafts of all lengths from carriage of an additional ‘Type IV’ ‘throwable’ PFD in [CFR 175.17(b) Exemptions]

4. Clarify the wording and intent of CFR 175.17(c) to clearly describe that this exemption only applies to racing shells, rowing sculls and racing paddlecraft when competing in an organized or sanctioned race or training program approved by a national or international body, or by appropriate permit, and where adequate safety precautions are in place.

5. Continue to exempt Stand Up Paddleboards while surfing on a lake or on the ocean from the carriage requirements in 33 CFR 175.15 by adding the following language to 175.17:

“Stand Up Paddleboards, while in the surf zone of a lake or the surf zone of an ocean are exempted from the requirements for the carriage of any type PFD required by 175.15.”

6. Structure the wording of these regulatory changes in such a way that future styles and types of manually powered vessels and craft would be included.

Since SUPers paddle on a wide range of waterways, they can also fall under the oversight of other federal agencies that do not necessarily have the same regulations as the USCG.

For example, besides their military role, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is the nation’s largest provider of water-based recreation on public lands and they have implemented mandatory life jacket wear for all vessels at four lakes in Mississippi. The following life jacket rule is one of several that is being enforced at all four of the Vicksburg District-North Mississippi lakes of Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid, and Grenada:

All persons must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket at all times on powered vessels less than 16 feet in length or on non-powered vessels regardless of length.2

Now, consider this regulation from the state of New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD). From EMNRD’s Stand Up Paddleboarding website 3:

Mandatory to be worn on all lakes and rivers statewide is a life jacket or PFD, a sound-producing device such as a whistle or horn, and a white light for shining at other boats at night

The actual New Mexico regulation can be found in Title 18 Transportation and Highways, Chapter 17 Navigation and Boating, Part 2 Boating Operation and Safety, Equipment Required to Operate a Vessel 4:

(4) Persons engaged in boating on a river or in boat races or persons using ice sailboats, personal watercraft, kayaks, canoes, paddleboards and rubber rafts on any waters of this state shall wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved wearable personal flotation device.

With the three different examples listed above, two federal and one state, paddlers need to be aware of the specific rules and regulations on the body of water they are on.

Bryan Smith of Black Dog Paddle navigates the rapids on the Rappahannock River in Virginia without a leash. ACA photo/Christopher Stec

Bryan Smith of Black Dog Paddle navigates the rapids on the Rappahannock River in Virginia without a leash.
ACA photo/Christopher Stec


Challenges Associated with Leashes and Life Jackets
The 2014 USCG Recreational Boating Statistics Report stated:

     Where cause of death was known, 78% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 84% were not wearing a life jacket. 5

Arguably, wearing a life jacket, not just having it laying on your board, is a wise decision while SUPing in almost all water venues. However, there is one venue, assuming an individual can swim, where wearing a life jacket could be a hazard. If an individual is actively surfing in the ocean, then wearing a life jacket would not allow you to dive underneath waves once you’ve fallen off of your board. In addition, a life jacket would keep your head on the surface right next to the sharp fins and hard rails of the board. The 2008 USCG vessel determination for SUPs appropriately addresses this as SUPs are exempt from life jacket carriage requirements while in a surfing area. However, the state of Minnesota’s guidelines have created issues near Duluth and the Lester River and Park Point surf breaks. From the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Boating Guide:

A readily accessible and wearable life jacket is required for each person onboard  a boat, this includes canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and waterfowl boats 6

So, according to Minnesota regulations, SUPs would need to either wear, or have a life jacket on their board while surfing in these areas along the shore of Lake Superior; whereas the 2008 USCG vessel determination letter for SUP states they would be exempt from the life jacket carriage requirement in this type of venue.

Now, let’s contemplate the complexities associated with leash wear for SUPs.

Although leashes are an extremely important piece of equipment in most venues, unfortunately, it would not be prudent to simply make a blanket statement to mandate leash wear in the carriage requirement section of the CFR.

It is a widely accepted practice that SUPs use coiled leashes on lakes and straight leashes when surfing in the ocean. The challenge comes from tidal and inland rivers with swift moving water. Imagine falling off your board and it goes around a dock piling on one side and you go around the other…imagine falling off your board and the leash snags on a branch or strainer in a river…wearing a leash in moving water or a swift flowing tidal river could be extremely dangerous as it is an entrapment hazard that could result in a fatality.

With the above knowledge about leash wear, now imagine the following scenario. A SUPer starts out paddling in one lake wearing a coiled leash, but then must paddle through a narrow meandering river to get to the next lake. That individual would need to have enough education to know that a coiled leash is appropriate for the lake, but they would need to either remove the leash, or wear a quick-release leash for the moving water river section to avoid potential entrapment hazards.

Even though there are a range of quick-release leashes that attach to your torso area and not your ankle or calf on the market, they too should only be worn in certain water venues. For example, if a river is shallow or rocky, or there are a lot of potential snagging hazards from trees or debris, it is not generally recommended to wear any type of leash. However, if the river is deep, fast flowing, and free from obstructions, a quick-release leash attached to your torso area might be prudent. If you fall in that river or tidal environment, you could quickly be separated from your board and have a long swim. However, even in that environment, there are still risks associated with wearing a leash.

To summarize, in most venues, an appropriate leash is an extremely important piece of equipment. Individuals just need to be educated on when to wear a leash, and what type is appropriate for the venue they’ll be paddling on.

For more information on the details of appropriate leash and life jacket wear for SUP, please view the ACA’s public service announcement, SUP: Leashes & Lifejackets – When to Wear, When Not to Wear at

Christopher Stec whitewater surfs with a quick-release leash on the Payette River in Idaho. ACA photo/Claudette Stec

Christopher Stec whitewater surfs with a quick-release leash on the
Payette River in Idaho.
ACA photo/Claudette Stec


Next Steps for SUP
Due to the complexities associated with life jacket and leash wear, and the various regulations applied to SUP, education is the key.

Local, state and federal regulators need to be provided with accurate information prior to crafting rules and guidelines that effect SUP.

Outfitters and liveries that rent SUPs should truly weigh the benefits of having customers wear a life jacket and an appropriate leash for the venue they’re operating their businesses in.

Retailers, both large and small, should increase their sales staff knowledge base in regards to selling an appropriate leash, or leashes, with each board sale. They should also know more about mandatory life jacket laws for youth as well as when an inflatable life jacket is appropriate for SUPs versus when an inherently buoyant life jacket would be a safer choice.

Even law enforcement officers might consider how they approach a SUP on the water. Ideally, approach at idle speed and ask the paddler to kneel down on their board well in advance of making contact in the patrol boat. Even the smallest wave or wake can cause an individual to lose their balance and fall.

The crucial step in reducing future fatalities for SUPs is to educate the public. If they don’t know what they don’t know, they cannot make an informed decision about which leash to wear in which venue, or about the importance of life jacket wear in almost all venues.

We encourage the entire recreational boating community to continue to partner together to provide education to all groups associated with SUPs, in order to reduce the possibility of fatalities occurring while enjoying our nation’s waterways on a stand up paddleboard.

About the Author
Christopher Stec serves as the COO of the ACA, the oldest nonprofit paddlesports organization in the U.S., focusing on education, stewardship, recreation and competition. He holds numerous instructor certifications and enjoys spending time on the water with his family, whether it’s racing canoes, kayak fishing, or surfing SUPs in the ocean.



  1. NBSAC Resolution 2014-92-02: Safety Equipment Carriage Requirements: Manually Propelled Vessels, retrieved online at
  2. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Lake District Boating Regulations, retrieved online at:
  3. New Mexico’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), Stand Up Paddleboarding website, retrieved online at
  4. New Mexico regulation, Title 18 Transportation and Highways, Chapter 17 Navigation and Boating, Part 2 Boating Operation and Safety, Equipment Required to Operate a Vessel, retrieved online at
  5. 2014 USCG Recreational Boating Statistics, retrieved online at
  6. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Boating Guide, retrieved online at

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