One week ago, the stand up paddling racing community tragically lost a member when 20-year-old Andres Pombo became separated from his board during a practice run through the Gorge ahead of last weekend’s Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge. According to analysis of footage shot by the GoPro camera attached to his board, Pombo swam in the rough, windswept waters for approximately a minute before disappearing from view. Despite immediate response efforts by eye witnesses and an extensive search, Pombo drowned in the river that day. His body was recovered five days later after being spotted by a search plane – just slightly up river from where he fell and became separated from his board. As everyone in the SUP racing community now knows, Andres Pombo was not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) or a leash on his fateful final run through the Gorge.
Despite the tragedy, the race went on. While the decision to move forward with the event was no doubt wrought with emotion, Pombo was gone and the search had turned into a recovery operation. As the wind dropped and smoke-filled the air from a nearby forest fire the athletes attending the Gorge Paddle Challenge paddled out that weekend to form what may have been the largest circle of stand up paddlers to memorialize the loss of their comrade.
As social media posts fluttered across the Internet this week, the stand up paddling community was faced with the uncomfortable reality of experiencing two preventable deaths in the span of just over a week. Both tragedies took place in the western United States – the first being the drowning of a sheriff’s deputy in Lake Tahoe on August 13.
Often lost in the beauty of stand up paddling is the fact that going out on the water is inherently dangerous. The dangers are multiplied when the proper safety measures are not taken – either through a deliberate decision or simple unfamiliarity with the dynamics of the aquatic environment. Stand up paddling is in this regard a bit of a double-edged sword. One of the greatest things about SUP is the number of new people it has brought to the water. Conversely, one of the biggest challenges facing the SUP community is the number of new people it has brought to the water.
SUP safety is not difficult to achieve in most conventional paddling scenarios similar to the circumstances surrounding the deaths highlighted above. This past week the SUP community has rallied behind the slogan “Leashes Save Lives”. While this may be true, it doesn’t go far enough to address the full scope of SUP Safety measures necessary to promote sound stand up paddling safety practices.
The Safety Triad
Personal flotation devices or PFDs designed for stand up paddling come in various makes and models, often dependent on the local regulations, and range from vests to low profile inflatable belt packs. SUP Examiner has reviewed several models and is amenable to evaluating others in the future. Regardless of which style you prefer, the best PFD is the one you are wearing – not the one strapped to your board, even if this may comply with local regulations.
Everyone in the SUP racing community is likely familiar with how to use a leash. Even so, as the events at the Gorge brought home, the practice is not always followed. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the need to effectively communicate the SUP safety benefits of wearing a leash with recreational paddlers and among SUP rental companies in particular. Industry insiders may have the knowledge, but many new paddlers do not. The number of times I’ve observed a beginner paddler in a marina fall off their board only to watch it scoot away across the water [often towards a boat] is disheartening.
SUP is a great social activity, so the final ingredient is likely the easiest of them all – if the other two measures are properly in place. Whenever possible, paddle with a friend. At the very least, you’ll now have someone to share your selfies with. If you do find yourself in the position where you are faced with the decision to make a rescue, consider the risks before you begin. The golden rule of any rescue, air, land or sea, is to ensure you do not become a victim yourself. Rescues can be tense and emotionally charged, but always make sure that you are 100% safe – PFD on and leash attached – before attempting to assist another paddler.
Once upon a time I served as a Aircrewman in the U.S. Navy. Whenever a serious mishap struck we would always have a Safety Stand Down immediately afterwards to assess what went wrong, what could have been done differently and how to prevent similar mishaps from occurring in the future. In light of the events of the past few weeks, now is the time for the SUP community to take a similar action in which we pause and reflect on what should collectively represent the best SUP safety practices for the industry in the future.
Be smart and paddle safely. See you on the water.