Do you wear a leash when paddleboarding? Hopefully the answer is yet – your leash is your primary item of safety equipment. But did you know that the wrong type of leash for the conditions can be lethal? 

Why You Should Wear  A Leash

Let’s start by establishing why leashes are so important. Without a leash, a rider can easily become separated from their board should they fall off. The very act of falling off a board tends to propel the board away from the rider. In winds of more than a few knots, the board can be blown away faster than a rider can swim after it, especially if they are trying to hold on to their paddle (the natural instinct), and/or wearing a PFD, which inhibits fast swimming.

A rider separated from their board is extremely vulnerable, especially if they are any significant distance offshore. A person in the water is hard to spot (especially in rough seas), and will lose body heat quickly if the water is cold.

It is impossible to estimate how many rescue call-outs have been prevented and lives been saved by the wearing of leashes, as potentially any wipe-out could result in the rider being separated from their board and getting into trouble, if a leash is not worn!!. However, there is no doubt that a number of paddleboard fatalities world wide (and a vastly greater number of rescue callouts) have been due to a leash not being worn. The huge safety positives in leash-wearing are recognised throughout the industry worldwide, and most responsible paddleboard retailers will now not sell a board without a leash. The LEASHES SAVE LIVES campaign has been taken up by many brands, and organisations such as the Human Powered Watercraft Association in USA have a poster campaign advocating the use of leashes as the #1 safety item in paddleboarding.

It is particularly important that a leash is worn when paddleboarding in surf. A SUP board separated from its rider becomes a dangerous projectile – being (generally) higher volume and wider than surfboards they tend to be picked up and propelled forward by the wave, and can cause harm to other water users.

So why is there a problem?

The main problem is that there is no one perfect leash for all conditions. A number of different styles of leash exist, and each is appropriate to a certain set of conditions – but if used in the wrong conditions, can cease to be a safety aid and become highly dangerous.

There are two main scenarios where an inappropriate leash can cause drowning or injury:

The strong current scenario

If a paddleboarder falls off their board in a strong current with obstacles in the water, there is a high risk of the leash snagging on or around an obstacle. The rider will then be trapped in the current flow (often face down) by their leash, and the current may be too strong to allow them to reach back to the leash fixing on their calf or ankle in order to release it. Unless a third party is on the scene to effect a rescue, this scenario will almost invariably lead to drowning.

Recoil injuries & whiplash injuries

Falling off a paddleboard tends to propel the board away from the rider. A wipe-out in surf can cause the rider and board to dramatically part company at high speed. The board will then travel as far as the leash allows. If the board is being pushed forward by a wave (as happens in surf wipe-outs), this happens with considerable force.

Recoil Injuries: If the leash of the coiled variety, the natural ‘spring’ of the coil will then propel the board back at the rider at high velocity. If this occurs just as the rider’s head regains the surface of the water, there is no time to react – the board will impact the rider’s head, fin-first, with considerable injury potential.

Whiplash Injuries: If the leash is of the straight variety there is less recoil, but the sharp jerk as the leash reaches maximum extension and snaps tight is significantly worse. Experienced surfers, wearing the leash on their ankle, know to ‘tuck up’ when a wipe-out happens, so that they can extend their leg when the jerk occurs, to reduce its impact. If the leash is attached around the waist or calf, the sharp jerk to that part of the anatomy can result in injury.

Recoil and whiplash injuries do not tend to be life-threatening (although there have been cases of surfers being knocked unconscious by a recoil incident), but are still very good reasons for not using an inappropriate style of leash when surfing.

THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF LEASH

The straight leash (ankle style)

Description: A straight leash that attaches to the rider via a velcro-fastened cuff around the ankle

Advantages: By far the most common form of leash in circulation. Low cost and very easy maintenance, as it can easily be inspected for damage. The only safe style of leash to wear in the surf to avoid recoil or whiplash injuries (see 1.4b), and also because the rider’s head/torso needs to be as far away from the board as possible when board and rider are being ‘rinsed’ in a surf wipe-out

Disadvantages: Can dangle in the water behind the board, creating a risk of catching on debris or obstacles in or under the water. Requires the rider being able to reach right down to their ankle in order to detach it, thus not suitable for any situation where a quick release under pressure may be required.

Best suited to: Surf. Any water with minimal current (lakes, open sea, harbours, etc.), and low/no kelp, weed or obstacles that could catch on the leash.

Less suited to: Water with kelp or obstacles that could catch on the leash

NOT suited to: This style of leash should NEVER be worn in fast-flowing water (rivers, white water, harbour mouths with strong currents etc.), due to the risk of the leash being caught on an obstacle and the rider then not able to release their leash due to the strength of the current.

The Straight Leash (calf style)

Description: A straight leash that attaches to the rider via a velcro-fastened cuff around the calf, just below the knee.

Advantages: Low cost, very easy maintenance (i.e. can easily be inspected for damage). Assuming the right length of leash is used, it does not dangle in the water so much as the ankle leash, thus less prone to catching kelp/weed/obstacles.

Disadvantages: Still requires the rider being able to reach their calf in order to detach it, thus not suited to fast-flowing water conditions.

Best suited to: Any water with low-moderate current (1-3 knots).

Less suited to: Surf – sharp whiplash-style tensioning can damage the knee.

NOT suited to: This style of leash should NEVER be worn in fast-flowing water (rivers, white water, harbour mouths with strong currents etc.), due to the risk of the leash being caught on an obstacle and the rider not able to release their leash due to the strength of the current.


The Coiled Leash

Description: A coiled leash that attaches to the rider via a velcro-fastened cuff around the ankle or calf.

Advantages: Due to being shorter, this type of leash does not dangle in the water at all.

Disadvantages: Much less easy to inspect for damage, can twist and tangle (“telephone cord style”) after repeated stretches, can cause the board to spring back at the rider after a wipe-out (see 1.4b recoil injuries).

Best suited to: Any water with low-moderate current (1-3 knots), particularly if the water contains kelp/obstacles that the leash should be kept clear from.

NOT Suited to: The coiled style of leash should NEVER be worn in fast-flowing water (rivers, white water, harbour mouths with strong currents etc.), if attached to the rider’s calf or ankle, due to the risk of the leash being caught on an obstacle and the rider not able to release their leash due to the strength of the current.

Not suited to: The coiled style of leash should never be worn in surf as there is a strong risk of ‘bounce-back’ where the leash recoils and springs the board back at the rider after a wipe-out.

the above picture clearly demonstrates how a coiled leash stays on the deck whereas a straight leash (especially if long) can dangle in the water and catch on obstacles


The Quick-release Leash

Description: A leash that attaches to a quick-release strap around the rider’s waist (sometimes an integral component of their PFD).

Advantages: The leash can easily be released, even when under extreme tension, via a quick-release pull toggle or tag situated at the front of the rider, usually at belly height.

Disadvantages: More expensive, unsuitable for surf.

Best suited to: White water, rivers, any zones of strong current.

Not suited to: This style of leash should never be worn in surf as whiplash wipe-out tensions to the lower back could cause severe injury to the rider, and tend to result in the rider facing away from the board after a wipe-out, which inhibits rapid recovery.

The quick-release leash attached to a waist belt.


Racing Leashes

Description: Leashes with a coil and then a webbing/buckle component to allow the leash to be adjusted to exactly the right length. They have the same general advantages, disadvantages and danger zones as coiled leashes, see 2.3 above.

Multifunction leashes

A new class of leash that has just started to appear overseas, designed to offer the complete all-round solution, where the rider has both an ankle and waist-belt attachment, and can clip the leash into whichever is appropriate for the conditions. Still very much in the early stages of development and currently very expensive, and still requires a high level of user awareness (i.e. understanding of how and when to change modes etc.), but definitely offering a good option for the future.

LEASH STYLE SUMMARY

ENVIRONMENT

BEST OPTION

COULD USE

NEVER USE

General cruising

(less than 3 knots current, low kelp /obstacle risk)

Any type of leash

General cruising
in area of kelp/obstacles

(less than 3 knots current)

Coiled leash, race leash or quick release leash

Straight leash (but expect it to get fouled)

Surf

Straight leash

Any other style

Fast-flowing water:
rivers, areas of high tidal flow (3kts+) etc.

Quick release leash

No leash at all

Any other style!!

The At-Risk Environments

As can be seen from the table above, no one type of leash is ideal for all conditions. The two environments that require a specific type of leash – and where the wrong type is hazardous – are fast-flowing water, and surf. So if you are planning on paddling in either of these, make sure your leash is of the right style!