Marine News from the Great Lakes

Paddle Sports Driving Boating Growth but Ready to Share the Waterways Safely?

Published: Tuesday, August 26, 2014


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There has been an explosion of paddle sport boaters on our waterways, a good thing for the recreational boating industry. With an annual economic impact of over $121.5 billion, recreational boating has created 963,818 jobs and 34,833 marine industry businesses as boaters directly added over $51.4 billion of direct spending into our economy. In 2012, of the 12,182,157 registered boats on the water more than 95% were less than 26 feet in length and overall more than 88 million Americans went boating. This growth is expected to continue increasing over the next several years and is helping to revitalize our generational family boating heritage, which has been impacted by the ever-expanding choice of recreational alternatives.


From the latest 2013 data, there were approximately 19.2 million paddle sports participants over age 6, which translates into approximately 202 million annual paddlecraft outings with each participant averaging approximately 7 outings per year. Kayaking (3.6%), canoeing (3.4%), rafting (1.3%), and stand-up paddleboards (0.5%) primarily make up this group with the largest age demographic being 25-44 years old (~35%).



But is this paddle sports growth a boom to boating or a disaster waiting to happen? With the increased number of paddle sport boaters has come an increased incidence of near misses, injuries, and fatalities and other boating and regional stakeholders are advocating banning paddlecraft from certain areas or waterways with more regulation of their activities, including requiring mandatory training.


At this time, Great Lakes states do not require mandatory boating safety training for manually-propelled vessels and only Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania require paddlecraft registration. Some states like Ohio also have alternative registration methods that allow the use of specialized paddlecraft-friendly sticker that can be attached to the top of the vessel in lieu of the standard side numbers and sticker. But you must register at a state ODNR Watercraft office rather than the BMV to use this option. Researching a few internet sites, potential paddle sport boaters can go to the local discount or sporting goods store, buy a kayak or paddleboard, and make a beeline to the nearest water access with little or no perspective of the vessel handling and operational rules, safety equipment requirements, or necessary maritime domain knowledge which presents several major boating safety challenges.


Properly boarding a kayak or paddle board takes some practice and should be done initially with the help of an experienced boater so as to learn the correct technique and avoid future mishaps or injuries. Since these vessels can be unstable (having higher center of gravity than center of buoyancy) when loaded, practice maneuvering in shallow water (where one can stand up) until some reasonable level of proficiency is achieved. New paddlers also should gradually increase boat speeds and distances to match their fitness level so as not to become exhausted or develop injuries.


States may have very specific safety equipment requirements and paddle sport boaters should not assume they are exempt simply because they are manually propelled vessels. For example, Ohio requires one life jacket for every person on board the vessel and if you are boating between sunset and sunrise in Lake Erie or the immediately connecting bays, harbors, and anchorage areas, your vessel also must carry approved visual distress signals for night use. You can find a link to your state’s specific boating laws at the U.S. Power Squadrons website.


In addition to state regulations, the United States Coast Guard has developed navigation rules that apply to all vessels, “The word ‘vessel’ includes every description of watercraft, including non-displacement craft, [WIG craft], and seaplanes, used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water” (Rule 3(a)). All boaters (paddlers included) must understand and follow these rules to maintain safe and proper traffic movement within the watercourse and to avoid collisions. Great Lakes ports and rivers also have significant commercial traffic concerned about collisions with paddlecraft because of their relatively slow speed, tendency to cluster in groups, diminished visibility due to their vessel size, and lack of understanding of the navigation rules. Large vessels cannot stop quickly and need lots of space to maneuver. Smaller vessels can find themselves in imminent danger when close to a large vessel using side thrusters or near their prop wash. When encountering motorized vessels head on or overtaking you, the onus is on the paddler to understand the vessel’s intent (typically given from their sound signal) and then move away in the appropriate direction staying clear of their intended course. You can purchase electronic and hardcopy versions of the Coast Guard navigation rules or view them free online at


Maritime domain awareness is having the necessary knowledge about the conditions that can occur within a boating venue, how they affect your vessel’s operation and your well-being, and how to mitigate risks caused by them through smart decision-making. Domain elements include wind, waves, currents, presence of commercial traffic, stormwater flows into the watercourse, water temperature, etc. A ten knot wind across an inland lake or river will ripple the water surface but not significantly impede forward progress of a paddlecraft. However, a ten knot wind sustained across a long fetch like a great lake will stack up 4-6 footers and significantly change your paddle back to shore from the paddle out. One of the biggest hazards to paddle sport boaters is cold water. Falling in there is very little time to re-board the craft before hypothermia renders movement impossible.


The best investment for any new boater (paddle sports, sail, or motorized) to enroll in a NASBLA-approved 8 week boating safety course, like the U.S. Power Squadrons America’s Boating Course (ABC Course). Keep in mind you didn’t learn how to drive your car in three hours so an online boating safety course cannot cover all the important safety aspects you should know before hitting the water. ABC not only provides the necessary supplemental information, but your instructor becomes a credible resource for future boating questions and advanced course needs.


Paddlers should also take a paddlecraft safety course such as U.S. Power Squadrons Paddlesmart and have an Operation Paddlesmart sticker affixed to your vessel. Many squadrons are currently holding paddlecraft courses which can be accessed at the United States Power Squadrons website and on Facebook. For more information, go to or contact Sam Insalaco at [email protected]

Boating is Fun! We’ll show you how…

tags: Paddleboards, Safety

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