On-the-Water Safety: What Could Go Wrong? Everything …

Drowning of standup paddleboard user in Huntington Harbour is a reminder to be cautious.

HUNTINGTON HARBOUR — The peak of summer means hundreds – if not thousands – of people are in or on the water at any given time. Every year a small percentage of those people succumb to a life-ending event, one he or she could have been prevented.

Case-in-point: a young man reportedly died after falling off his standup paddleboard and drowning in not-so-deep waters in Huntington Harbour. A 26-year-old Lakewood, California resident was reportedly on a paddleboard when he fell off and became submerged. He was not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) and did not know how to swim, according to multiple news reports.

The man was discovered about 25 minutes after he fell, news reports continued. Attempts to resuscitate him reportedly failed, and he was declared dead later in the day.

The tragic event at Huntington Harbour is a reminder of the risks involved with being on the water – and the importance to be as safe and responsible as possible.

Personal Flotation Devices

Could the loss of life have been prevented? The hindsight answer is a nonjudgmental yes.

Standup paddleboards and kayaks might be nimble, low-maintenance vessels, but there is little to nothing protecting you from falling into the water should something go wrong. Wearing a PFD is a solid line of defense.

PFD aren’t an absolute defense, of course. The U.S. Coast Guard cited 51 deaths involving PFDs in 2006 (compared to 423 drowning deaths in the same year, all reportedly without some sort of PFD).

“In the majority of cases, other contributing factors would have overcome the benefits of any PFD,” the Coast Guard stated in an informational piece on PFD selection. “The factors include: being trapped in an overturned boat, being held under a boulder or log by the strong currents of white water, removing the PFD for some reason (like swimming to shore), becoming hypothermic due to the duration of exposure in cold water, suffering other injuries that led to drowning, etc.”

Cmdr. Kim Pickens of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve pointed out about 80 percent of drowning deaths are the result of not wearing a life vest or PFD.

Pickens added, however, canoers and kayakers actually have a higher life vest or PFD wear rate than other boating populations. She also pointed out paddle vessel users face a different set of risks. Some of these risks play a substantive factor in whether someone safely survives a mishap.

“Frequently paddle alone or with only one other person, and the vessels they use are by design relatively unstable and prone to frequent capsizings. And paddlers are particularly at risk for a dangerous situation called entrapment,” Pickens said. “Entrapment occurs when the vessel or the boater becomes snagged on rocks or debris at some hazardous point, then goes under due to the severe hydraulics of the water, and the boater [or paddler] is either unable to escape the craft or unable to escape the hydraulic pressures on him or her.

“The boater [or paddler] is unable to escape the forces on him/her no matter what kind of PFD the boater has on, and the resulting cause of death would be drowning,” Pickens continued.

Rental Companies – Hodgepodge Regulations?

News reports indicated the Huntington Harbour drowning victim was on a rented standup paddleboard. There are certain things to ask about or pay attention to whenever renting a paddleboard or kayak from a local outlet.

Does the rental company require you to wear PFDs before heading out onto the water? Do they offer any formal or informal training ahead of your excursion? Are you informed of the rules of the road? Is there a dedicated portion of navigable waters dedicated to SUPs and kayaks?

OEX Sunset Beach, Sunset Rentals and Huntington Harbour Boat Rentals are among the handful of boat, kayak or SUP rental destinations at Orange County’s northernmost waterfront.      Huntington Harbour Boat Rentals, interestingly enough, features two large and conspicuous maps of the Sunset Beach and Anaheim Bay region on its exterior walls. Each map has a directional red line tracing the harbor’s inner interior, essentially showing customers the path to follow while navigating the water. The map also advises boaters, kayakers and standup paddleboard users what portions of the harbor and bay to avoid (i.e. don’t cross under certain bridges or where not to navigate beyond).

Are the rental companies regulated? Could a public agency oversee harbor operations at Huntington Harbour and possibly establishes guidelines for kayakers, SUP users and rental companies to follow? Should there be state or federal mandates to streamline safety protocols for recreational uses of local harbors?

While each Southern California harbor and port district manages its own jurisdiction there are no set or consistent guidelines or regulations when it comes to ensuring kayakers and standup paddleboarders follow certain safety protocols.

Vessel rental businesses might be required to follow certain protocols to gain a permit for conducting their operation at a given location, but specifics vary from harbor to harbor. One question invariably raised in light of the recent drowning death is whether rental companies should require all of it customers to wear life vests or PFDs before taking a boat, kayak or standup paddleboard out on the water.

Huntington Harbour, unlike other waterfront venues in the area, does not have a dedicated commission or agency regularly monitoring operations.

Orange County does have general oversight at Huntington Harbour, and the city of Huntington Beach has been involved with the harbor in the past, as well. Nearby Newport Beach, however, has a seven-member Harbor Commission advising the City Council monthly on waterfront policies. A similar advisory committee exists in Long Beach.

O.C. Parks oversees day-to-day operations at Dana Point Harbor; the South Orange County waterfront had its own, independent harbor department until 2016. Oversight agencies also operate on a bi-monthly or monthly basis in San Diego, Oceanside, Redondo Beach, Marina del Rey, Ventura and Santa Barbara.

Issues across the channel at Avalon Harbor are addressed by the local city council as they arise, essentially making Huntington Harbour the only boating waterfront in Southern California without an advisory or regulatory oversight body to propose or recommend policies.

Governance and policymaking can only go so far, however. Water safety, at the end of the day, is all about common sense. Don’t take anything for granted when you’re out on the water as conditions are unpredictable.

Parimal M. Rohit photo

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