PFD makers address rising issues with life jacket laws and stand-up paddleboarding

Confusion over life jacket laws for stand-up paddleboarding has sparked PFD manufacturers to educate consumers and design products targeting the SUP market.
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On a bright Saturday in early June, 35-year-old Chip Knight was cruising on his stand-up paddleboard on Vermont’s Waterbury Reservoir when two state policemen in a boat approached him.

“They had seen me from the shore with their binoculars, and they saw that I didn’t have a life jacket,” Knight told SNEWS. “They came out, escorted me to shore and gave me a ticket.” A ticket to the tune of $65.

As the popularity of stand-up paddling has grown, so has the number of people being ticketed for not carrying or wearing a flotation device. “I hear that more people are getting stopped and ticketed, because they’re calling us and asking us for product,” said Lili Colby, marketing director of PFD manufacturer MTI Adventurewear.

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Because stand-up paddleboarding is an emerging sport that's catching on in the outdoor and even fitness segments (click here to read a June 23, 2010, SNEWS article, "Rethinking Retail: Stand-up paddleboarding a means to retail, gym partnerships"), many consumers are not aware of the federal and local laws regarding paddleboards and PFDs. While consumer awareness is low, there is also a lack of flotation devices marketed to the SUP community. As a result, PFD manufacturers are paying more attention to the issue, attempting to educate consumers and designing new SUP-specific PFDs.

What’s the law?

In October 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a memo in which it classified stand-up paddleboards as vessels -- the same classification for canoes, kayaks and a number of other watercraft. Under this classification, any person using a stand-up paddleboard must have a wearable PFD -- Type I, II, III or V -- unless the person is in a designated area for swimming, surfing or bathing.

“It’s actually not a new regulation. No new law got passed. It’s just an interpretation of an existing law that says these are vessels,” said Paul Newman, recreational boating safety manager for the Coast Guard’s 11th district (California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah).

Newman told SNEWS that the Coast Guard issued the interpretation at the request of law enforcement authorities in Oregon, who were seeing more stand-up paddleboarders in the Columbia River Gorge. The Coast Guard ruling in effect became the law of the land (or water as it were), as most states and other local jurisdictions incorporate the Coast Guard rules into their own boating laws.

Newman and other people in the SUP community we spoke with said one problem right now is that regulations for stand-up paddleboards and PFDs are not enforced uniformly across the country. One retailer noted that officials at South Carolina bodies of water have been more aggressive in handing out tickets than officials in North Carolina. It depends in part on the knowledge of local authorities.

But the other main problem is that many newcomers to stand-up paddleboarding have not gotten the word that laws require them to either wear a PFD or at least have one strapped to their board in certain areas.

“Awareness is greater for those who are engaged in an online or physical community where they talk about this sort of thing,” said Newman. “The individual who rents a stand-up paddleboard and is not involved in the conversation might not know about it.”

Of course, one of the issues is that stand-up paddling evolved in the surfing community, and many of those folks do not associate board sports with PFDs. This is primarily because surfers and stand-up paddlers in the surf zone use their boards as their flotation device.

People who come to stand-up paddling from a surf background can naturally be confused about whether they need a PFD when they venture beyond the surf zone, or head to a lake or reservoir. This was the case with Knight, who learned paddleboarding in the surf long before venturing to Waterbury Reservoir.

Recalling the day he got his ticket, Knight said, “I was sort of flying blind not knowing the particulars of the law.”

Manufacturers take action

Colby of MTI (www.mtiadventurewear.com) said she has made it her mission this year to educate the SUP community about PFD laws. She actually added pages to the 2011 MTI catalog explaining in detail the Coast Guard regulations, and highlighting the types of PFDs the company offers that would suit SUP activities.

MTI and other manufacturers are also addressing the PFD issue by creating more products designed for stand-up paddlers. Colby said that MTI’s Zephyr, a belt pack-style PFD that inflates, has been a popular choice for stand-up paddleboarders, particularly because it’s less cumbersome than a traditional vest (photo - above left). “We’re almost sold out of our current belt pack -- I’m down to my last 100 units,” said Colby.

She added that MTI’s new Fluid PFD (photo - right) -- another belt pack being launched for 2011 -- received great response at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market. The original model has a relatively feminine blue color, but a more masculine gray model will be added to the line.

Stohlquist (www.stohlquist.com) also plans to add a PFD to its line to target the SUP community. “We have it as a possibility for 2012,” Brett Conrad, CEO of Stohlquist, told SNEWS. “We’re just trying to understand the market at this time. We’ve talked to suppliers about design ideas, and we’re asking ourselves if it should be something that uses foam for flotation or needs to be inflatable. We’re leaning toward something you would inflate.”

Another company examining the market is Johnson Outdoors (www.johnsonoutdoors.com), which hopes to add an SUP life jacket to the Extrasport line. “I wouldn’t say that we’ll have one for Summer OR next year, but we’re designing for 2012,” said Scott Forristall, business director for the Johnson Outdoors Watercraft division. He said Johnson might create more of a traditional-style vest that takes into account things like the unique paddling stroke of paddleboarding.

Forristall said that even though some people in the SUP community do not like to wear a PFD, newcomers -- especially those who have been kayakers -- aren’t as opposed to the idea. “People coming into the market today are probably a little more open to wearing PFDs, simply because they don’t come from the surf background,” he said. “That’s where we see the opportunity.”

Forristall noted that one thing complicating the development of an SUP life jacket is that companies are curious as to whether there might be changes in the laws concerning PFDs, or the specific types of PFDs, for stand-up paddleboarding. He said companies might hesitate to create a product that would become obsolete under new laws.

At least one organization, the Human Powered Watercraft Association (www.letspaddle.org), is backing a petition to challenge the Coast Guard’s interpretation that stand-up paddleboards are vessels. In a June public notice announcing the petition, the HPWA stated, “The ‘vessel’ status requires a personal flotation device (PFD) either be mounted to the paddle board or worn by the paddler -- both scenarios leading to a dangerous false sense of security with potentially catastrophic results.” The HPWA asserts that in many situations paddleboarders would be safer if they were required to have a leash attaching them to their board, rather than a PFD. Steven Fry, director of HPWA, told SNEWS he now has 1,100 signatures on the petition, which will be presented to the Coast Guard in the fall.

While the Coast Guard isn’t doing anything right now to alter its classification of stand-up paddleboards, Newman said it’s always possible that things could change. “If the stand-up paddleboard community decided to organize and say that they don’t need to wear life jackets on flat water, that’s their prerogative,” he said. “So, yes, it could evolve.”

--Marcus Woolf

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