Advisory board’s recommendations to increase on-water safety for paddlers were presented before the City Council.
NEWPORT BEACH — The accidental death of a standup paddleboard (SUP) user in Huntington Harbour last affected many recreational water activity enthusiasts and experts everywhere including the Newport Beach Harbor Commission. During the height of the summer, a 26-year-old man rented a paddleboard and drowned. It was revealed he could not swim and was not wearing a life jacket, The Log reported.
Newport Beach Harbor Commissioner William Kenney sited the accident as one of the major motivators behind forming the ad hoc committee; the committee was approved by the City Council in October 2017 to review Newport Beach Harbor’s paddleboarding safety policies. Kenney presented the committee’s initial findings before the City Council in early May.
Kenney’s presentation included a focus on paddleboard rental companies operating in Newport Beach Harbor. The ad hoc committee shared a goal to study the educational practices available to SUP operators.
Several points were revisited and the top recommendations included enforcement of code in coordination with the city’s Harbormaster, namely rental businesses operating without a permit, the revision to a safety pamphlet, attaching manual powered vessels with leashes, and possibly altering or encouraging conditions for procuring a Marine Activities Permit.
In terms of the permit, Kenney stated each customer should be required to read a safety brochure. Operators should obtain in writing a statement from the customer he or she knows how to swim. If the customer does not know how to swim, they should then be required to wear a life vest, according to the SUP Safety Committee’s recommendation.
While most would question allowing a paying customer to attempt paddleboarding without the ability to swim, this requirement would protect both participants and businesses from something going awry.
A series of Newport Beach Harbor Commission interviews of local paddleboard rental companies – which was conducted for research, not policing, purposes – revealed less than half (only 7 out of 20) paddleboard rental businesses operated with a permanent address held Marine Activities Permits.
To Regulate, or Not To Regulate
One source of opposition and discussion: the Harbor Commission’s recommendation all paddleboarders – especially beginners – attach and wear a leash.
Councilmember Kevin Muldoon mentioned he believed attaching a leash could potentially be a safety hazard and could be a more dangerous issue if a paddleboarder was caught up in a current.
A public comment from the owner of Balboa Water Sports, a popular rental business providing paddleboard rentals to the public since 2012, said leashes have improved safety on the water for beginning level paddleboarders. She also stated she would like to see conversation for rental companies to pay for their own dock space versus using public docks, saying when participants have done “stupid things” on the dock, it is her business’s cue not to allow those people into the water.
Councilmember Will O’Neil stated he felt imposing too many regulations would get ahead of the Coast Guard and at this time it would benefit more research being gathered.
After discussion, two pathways were presented to council members: steer clear of actively regulating the local personal watercraft business community or avoid regulatory policies altogether.
The council ultimately voted to stay out of the matter for now, though Council members Diane Dixon and Scott Peotter both voted in favor of increased regulation. Mayor Marshall Duffield recused himself from the vote due to a conflict of interest.
Education & Continued Discussion
Although tragic, some are considering the cause of the man who drowned in Huntington Harbour an isolated case.
Kenney, on behalf of the Newport Beach Harbor Commission, stated education must begin with the rental companies. The commission committee studied a rental business in Alamitos Bay, kayakers and paddleboard users are required to watch a video and take a written test before heading out on the water.
This model, Kenney said, is one that the Harbor Commission hopes to replicate to ensure safety for paddleboarders and others on the water.
Though this may be a good jumping off point for locals or visitors who have limited experience with on-water activities, would participants who are more experienced be willing to take on additional tasks to practice their activities? Kenney said while safety measures are always recommended, the law states it is only necessary for participants have a life vest and sounding device with them. It would be the individual’s choice as to whether they wear/use the devices.
A report released by the American Canoe Association gathered between 2011 and 2015, paddler deaths had risen from the average of 170 people per year to 176. Though the number had risen, is it because there is an increased interest in paddleboarding, an increase in unsafe practices or another factor?
Is it necessary to increase regulations on paddleboarding safety or will increasing educational material improve the issues? Newport Beach hopes to find answers as the city, and other communities up the coast, continues to flesh out paddleboarding safety measures.