Stand-up Paddleboarding is a very simple sport, equipment-wise. You need a board, a paddle, a leash, a buoyancy aid and some sun protection. If you’re going to hit the water in the winter or spring or planning on surfing, you should invest in some rubberwear too. And that’s pretty much it! So let’s go shopping…
There are two primary reasons for a paddleboarder wanting a buoyancy aid. Firstly, a weak/non swimmer, will want that safety back-up for any and every time they fall in, which basically means something with built-in permanent buoyancy. There are some nice low-profile products which offer 50N of buoyancy, enough to give a bit of support and comfort, but not enough to keep someone afloat without effort for long periods of time. However, any product that does offer the full always-keep-you-afloat-face-up flotation is likely to be too big to be comfortable for extended paddling.
The competent swimmer and experienced paddleboarder who doesn’t need the backup of permanent flotation still needs to have a PFD – because it is the law!! The only exceptions to this are while actively involved in paddlesurfing, or in an organised competition if the race rules permit not wearing one. At all other times you need to have a PFD. (It doesn’t matter how close you are to the shore, or whether you are wearing a wetsuit or not).
For the competent paddler therefore, the belt-pack PFDs are the most low-profile and unobtrusive option. These PFDs are user-activated – when you need to deploy it, you pull the toggle, which auto-inflates the PFD from a CO2 cylinder. This is a very important point to understand – if you fall into the water unconscious, just wearing a belt-pack PFD will do nothing – you need to perform manual actions to turn the belt-pack into a functioning buoyancy aid.
Not all beltpack PFDs are certified for use in New Zealand, and some of those that do meet the required standards, cannot be recommended as suitable for use on paddleboards due to the way they have been designed. The following devices meet with Maritime NZ approval and have been tested and approved by NZSUP:
MTI Fluid 2
Safety at Sea
These are the only fully approved beltpack PFD devices. Any distributor wishing to get their beltpack PFD approved by MaritimeNZ and NZSUP should contact us at email@example.com
A leash (also known as a legrope) to keep you attached to your board, is a vital part of paddleboarding safety. You should wear a leash at all times when on a SUP. Any suitable first-time board has massively more flotation than any life jacket could ever provide, and will keep you up and out of the water (even if you can’t stand up on the board for whatever reason), so by wearing a leash you have taken care of 90% of your safety planning right there. If your board doesn’t come with a leash, ask your retailer for one. Don’t try and improvise with a bit of rope or a roofrack strap!
So – you should always wear a leash. However, leashes come in a variety of sizes and styles, and it is very important to wear the right type of leash for the environment you will be paddling in. For general cruising, a short leash (down to 6′) is absolutely fine. Leashes incorporating some coil (either along the full length or just some of the length) means that the leash is not dragging in the water behind you, and not likely to catch on anything. However, coiled leashes are a real ‘marmite item’, people either love them or hate them. They do keep everything neat, but when they tangle they’re a right pain. And they’re generally slightly more pricey. Probably wise to try before you buy.
For surfing it’s good to have a longer leash, so as to keep plenty of distance between you and your board if you’re getting tossed around in the surf. Many surfers reckon that the leash should be as long as the board, but bear in mind that too long a leash does increase your ‘kill radius’; the distance away from you which your board might travel, when picked up by a wave. Do not use a coiled leash in the surf, as it can cause the board to spring back at you after a wipeout!
Calf leashes attach around the leg just below the knee, which has the advantage of keeping the leash clear of the area beside the board where your paddle exits the water. Ankle leashes are generally considered better for the surf, as it’s a tighter fit and more comfortable.
A decent leash should be easy to take off in a hurry (ideally by simply yanking on a nice big pull tab), and many also have a key pocket, which is useful.
This getting-it-off-in-a-hurry factor becomes extremely significant if you are planning to paddleboard on fast-moving water, such as rivers. If you fall off in fast-flowing water you may well end up with your board on one side of a rock or other obstacle, and you on the other, unable to get out of your leash because of the force of the current. People have drowned this way. What you need for this environment is a quick-release White Water leash which is worn around the waist, with an easy-release pull toggle to undo it effortlessly in an emergency. (Purpose built kayaking lifejackets often have this quick-release system included as standard, and also offer some useful buoyancy and torso protection too!)
For a really good summary of leashes and buoyancy aids, check this video from the American Canoe Association. It sums things up pretty well.
Once you’ve learned the basics then unless you’re going out in surf, or offshore for a downwinder etc, then it’s debatable as to whether you even need to wear a wetsuit, as realistically you’re not going to be falling in very much, if at all. The final decision will depend largely on your location and time of year – falling off in Dunedin Harbour in July is an entirely different experience to taking a January tumble in the Bay of Islands!
So what sort of wetsuit do you need? Paddleboarding generates a lot of upper body heat, and you’re unlikely to be spending much time actually in the water (unless you forgot your leash!!). So a hardcore super-warm surfing or windsurfing/kitesurfing suit may well be too warm – and also too restrictive. Bear in mind too that paddleboarding gets a whole different set of muscles pumped up compared to these other sports, so your perfectly-fitting windsurfing suit may actually end up feeling tight and uncomfortable. The rythmic action of paddling can also generate chafe (or just a really annoying repetitive squeak!) around the arms and shoulders.
So ideally, you want something that will enable you to cope with occasional quick dunkings, but otherwise is as unrestrictive as possible, and not too hot or thick. For this reason many paddleboarders use relatively thin shorties or ‘long john’ (no arm) style suits. Thermal rash vests are also a very good option to consider, for the marginal days when a bit of protection makes sense but you really don’t need all the encumbrance of a wetsuit. Wind-chill is also likely to be much more of a factor when paddleboarding than surfing, which is why single-lined (‘smoothskin’ neoprene) is generally more efficient, as well as lighter.
In many ways this is almost more important than wetsuit considerations, as for obvious reasons most paddleboarding tends to happen when the weather is nice. If you’re new to watersports then beware – you burn fast and hard on the water!!!! The UV reflects back off the water so you’re getting cooked from every angle, basically. Plenty of sun cream and good quality polarised and fully UV-A and UV-B proof sunglasses are essential, a long sleeve rash vest is smart, and a good sunhat a wide precaution too. Even if you’re just going out for a quick early morning paddle and it’s cloudy, expect to get burned. Because you will…
Go into any decent paddleboard shop and you’ll find a whole plethora of other accessories on sale – wheels for your board, deckpads, various bags and holders, fishing accessories and much more. But they’re accessories, not essentials. At its heart, SUP is a very simple sport. Board, paddle and leash, and you’re good to go