Learn the laws of stand-up paddleboarding


As the warm weather arrives many in the Sea to Sky corridor take to the water — an increasing number on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP).
In addition to providing an excellent workout, on a calm day SUPers enjoy the serenity of gliding over the water, travelling under their own quiet power. The feeling can be meditative. In fact, this has spawned a whole new water activity: SUP yoga.

Given this, many SUPers are disinclined to wear personal flotation devices (otherwise known as PFDs or life jackets). Some find them confining. They interfere with the feeling of freedom on the calm water. They are too hot. Some regard them unnecessary, and indicate their SUP is the only PFD they need.

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Those in favour of PFDs point to examples, such as a woman who fell off a paddleboard into Howe Sound on May 7, 2013. She had no PFD. Due to cold water, wind and currents, she was unable to reach her board. A conservation officer, assisted by a local high-school student, rescued her.

There are reports of SUPers “pulled over” by RCMP on Whistler’s River of Golden Dreams who believe this is a waste of police resources. Many of these accused law-breakers argue that SUPing without a PFD should not be illegal at all. They compare it to requiring a person to wear a PFD while swimming. Others point to surfers and their lack of PFDs. Others use alternative safety-gear, such as a leash attaching themselves to their SUP, and believe this must be enough to comply with the law (if indeed anything is required). Rumour even has it that some affix a PFD to the SUP with tape.

So … what is the law on SUPing and PFDs?

The answer: Canadian waterways and the navigation thereof fall under the federal jurisdiction of Transport Canada, which regards a SUP as a “human powered vessel other than a pleasure craft.” As such, they are governed by the

Small Vessel Regulations to the Canada Shipping Act (2001). Interestingly, SUPs are not specifically mentioned in the regulations, most likely because they were not anticipated at the time of drafting.

The question is: what type of use is being made of the SUP?

An important point, however, is that this law technically only applies when SUPs are behaving as “vessels.” Thus, the question for Transport Canada is not whether or not you are using a SUP. The question is: what type of use is being made of the SUP?

If you are “navigating a waterway” then you are subject to the regulations. This occurs any time you travel from one place to another on the water. Arguably, this means the regulations do not apply at a beach, or while practicing SUP yoga (although a review of Canadian case-law does not indicate this issue has ever been decided, so it is an open question).

If a person is travelling from one place to another on a SUP (the vast majority of SUPers) then the regulations apply, and a failure to comply can result in a fine. In order to comply, one must:

1. “wear” an approved life jacket or PFD, equipped with a sound-signalling device (a.k.a. whistle); or

2. “carry” an approved life jacket or PFD, one buoyant heaving line of no less than 15 metres, and a sound-signaling device (a.k.a. whistle); and

3. if the SUP is operated after sunset or before sunrise or in periods of restricted visibility, carry a watertight flashlight.

In addition, one must always carry on board a first-aid kit.

So, the moral is: if you are travelling any distance on a SUP, and especially if you are going into open water, you are required to wear or carry the above equipment. Why? Because the law says so.

While this may seem unreasonable to some, at least one woman rescued from Howe Sound would likely disagree. If you do not agree with the law, perhaps lobby the federal government to amend the regulations. If you are simply out for a day of SUP yoga, arguably you are in the clear and the regulations ought not apply to you, but if you rely on this exception you may find yourself in the uncomfortable role of explaining your legal position to the local authorities; or even a judge.  

Happy SUPing!

Corey D. Steinberg is a lawyer practicing personal injury and general litigation at Double Diamond Law, with offices in Whistler and Squamish. csteinberg@doublediamondlaw.com

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