Leashology: Leash Components and When to Use a Straight vs. Coiled

Infinity Board, Leash, Paddler

This is the second article in a two-part series on SUP etiquette. 

Identifying the Parts of a Leash

A leash has three parts. Let’s start with the “rail saver,” which is the velcro section that attaches to the string on your board. The rail saver folds in on itself with the string inside, assuring a strong attachment to your board. Better quality leashes often have an extra tab of velcro beyond the final fold, giving the paddler extra assurance their safety line won’t peel off in a tough situation.

The rail saver is connected to the leg cuff by a long cord. Originally made of surgical tubing, this material was changed to urethane after leashes displayed a dangerous tendency to stretch and snap back at the surfer. Urethane cords are durable and pretty much unbreakable in normal paddling conditions. Usually leashes have one or two swivels where they attach to the rail saver and cuff. This is to prevent tangling during the inevitable twisting that occurs when a paddling falls off his/her board.

The cuff is where the leash attaches to you. It goes either around your ankle or the top of your calf right below the knee. I have tried the above-the-calf method and find it restrictive and a little painful, but many people are quite comfortable with it there. As long as the leash is snug without being tight, that doesn’t matter. Which leg do you attach it to? The answer comes from the leash’s surfing heritage: You attach the leash to your dominant leg, the one you kick with. If you were actually surfing your board, this would be the leg you put behind you when going into surf stance, the leg closest to the tail. For most humans, this is the right foot, which means you are “regular footed”. If tend to put your left leg back you are considered “goofy footed”. Isn’t that nice. Being goofy footed isn’t just for lefties, by the way. I’m right-handed for most things. I even kick with my right leg. Yet when I surf my paddleboard I am inarguably goofy footed. Go figure.

Types of Leash Cords

There are two types of leash cords, straight and coiled. Both do the job of keeping your body attached to your board well. Both are made out of the same materials. They are designed for different environments however. One might even be a bit dangerous in the wrong conditions.

straight leash
Straight Leash

A straight leash is just that, a straight line, no fancy coils. It’s your basic, down-to-business leash, and does the job fine. If you’re buying your first paddleboard, you will not go wrong with a straight leash. They’re perfect for noodling around and going into the waves. Keep in mind that in the waves a leash has a dual purpose. It keeps you attached to the board, but it also keeps your board from getting out of control. Paddleboards are bigger than traditional surfboards. Getting hit by one can hurt. The last thing you want is to lose your board in the waves, then have it hit an unsuspecting child in shallow water. That’s bad for the child, you, and the sport. The leash prevents that.

Experienced paddlers recognize a problem with the straight leash. A few feet of cord tends to float behind the board. This creates create a little extra drag. A recreational paddler might not notice the difference, but racers are a different breed. They want to squeeze every bit of speed out of their boards, and one thing that helps is keeping the leash out of the water. A dragging leash also tends to gather seaweed and aquatic plants. This isn’t a serious problem — all you need to do is stop and pull the weeds off — but it gets annoying after a few times. Many people try to paddle with that slack on their board, but in choppy or surfing conditions that’s not always possible.

coiled leash
Coiled Leash

The coiled leash solves this problem, but introduces a different one. As you can see, it’s coiled like a telephone cord (for you old-timers like me who remember such artifacts). This means that while it’s the same length as a straight leash, the entire length will conveniently stay “aboard” your board. For serious touring and racing, this is the preferred style. For flatwater paddling, there’s no reason to not use one.

That said, a coiled leash should not be worn in the waves. Consider this situation. You’re surfing your trusty paddleboard, wearing a swanky, new, coiled leash. You’re having a great time. You’ve caught a few waves already and are lined up for the next one. It’s a little big, but you go for it. No guts, no glory, right? You paddle like a maniac until that magic moment when the wave carries you forwards. Then something goes wrong. You fall backwards into the drink. Happens all the time. But while you’ve stopped, your board is still moving forwards. That is, until that coiled leash is completely extended. Then what happens next? That’s right. Your paddleboard launches backwards, aiming right at you.

You see, the coil is “springy”. If you pull it, it snaps back into shape. Learning to paddlesurf involves falling a lot. Leashes are great for this environment, but make sure your choice of leash doesn’t transform your board into a missile. If you think this is an exaggeration, remember those leashes made of surgical tubing? Jack O’Neill, the famed surfer and inventor of the modern wetsuit, lost an eye in exactly this type of accident. Please, use a straight leash in the waves. Thank you. And while you’re surfing, make sure you check your leash every now and then. The cord has the tendency to get nicked by your board’s fin, weakening it. If you see notches in your leash cord, it’s time to replace it.

Are there times when you would not want a leash? The answer is yes, but in very specific and controlled circumstances. Paddleboard yoga is one of those SUP disciplines where you might be better off without one. It requires the practitioner to twist, turn, and stretch while staying balanced on a wide paddleboard. Instructors report that the leash tends to wrap around a person’s leg and generally get in the way. Since paddleboard yoga is usually done in gentle, calm conditions, frequently on an anchored board, this may not be unreasonable. It should be repeated that paddleboard yoga is usually done without a PFD as well, so every practitioner must know how to swim.

There is an argument that a leash can actually lead to accidents. This is very similar to the seatbelt argument. While there are occasional accidents where seat belts have caused harm, and the same applied to leashes. People have been dragged under boats by their leash. People who paddle on river rapids actually use a special waist leash, designed for quick release in case a paddler gets their leash tangled on a branch or rock. A leash isn’t 100% perfect, but you are safer with one than without.

Leashes truly keep you safer. A PFD will keep you floating, but a leash attaches you to your board. They aren’t expensive either. A well-designed leash costs only about $30, which is a pretty good investment for your safety. If you paddle both in the surf and flatwater, consider getting both a coiled and straight leash. That way you’ll have the best equipment for the conditions. However, even if you just stick with a standard straight leash, you’re in great shape. You’re being safe while having fun, and that’s the most important thing.

This is the second article in a two-part series on SUP etiquette. 

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Ian Berger
Ian Berger grew up in love with the ocean, so discovering stand up paddling was a bit of revelation. Once he bought his first paddleboard, he realized this was the sport for him. Ian Berger lives in Peekskill, NY with his wife Kirsten and three children. He teaches middle school English and drama, and also has a passion for writing, which he shares with his students. Every morning Ian wakes up to write — sometimes science fiction or comic Young Adult novels, sometimes plays, but very often about stand up paddling. The Hudson River is his home turf, and you can usually find him there when the weather is good.


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