Don Morrison
Special to the Bonanza

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February 28, 2012
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Tahoe's cold waters and paddle sports

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — If this unusual winter continues, and as spring approaches, we are going to see more and more kayaks and stand-up paddleboards on the lake on calm days. Kayaks are actually boats (vessels) and have always been subject to federal and state boating laws. The U.S. Coast Guard has recently ruled that SUPs are “vessels” by definition, and are, therefore, subject to federal boating laws. Because of the nearly identical Nevada boating laws, requirements for paddle sports are the same.

Every vessel must have an appropriately sized USCG approved life jacket (PFD) for each person on board. This includes kayaks and SUPs. Most adults sit on their life jackets in a kayak, and if boarders are aware of the SUP ruling, their life jacket is strapped or Velcroed somewhere on the board. Inflatable devices must be worn to meet the requirements and are not approved for any boaters less than 16 years of age. There are inflatable PFDs which are “fanny pack” style and worn by many boarders.

The lucky paddlers are the youngsters under 13 years of age who are required to always wear their life jackets. Here's why the youngsters are lucky. The water in Tahoe is now generally about 40ºF or a little lower. Kids don't have the option to use poor judgment. In water as cold as Tahoe, no matter how pleasant the day may be, if you go in the water you will only have a few minutes to self rescue; that is, to get back in or on your vessel.

Cold water causes the body to shut down the blood flow to its extremities (arms, legs and even brain) to protect its vital organs, and even very strong swimmers will lose their ability to climb on a kayak or board, or even to swim. Hypothermia (low body temperature) will not kill you for about an hour, but within a few minutes of entering the water you will be unable to swim and will drown without a life jacket or inability to hold on to your board.

So we have established that a life jacket is required by law on kayaks and SUPs. We've also tried to convince you that just carrying a life jacket on your kayak or SUP is not going to help much. Even if you can stay with your kayak or board, have you ever tried to put a life jacket on while in the water? The only other safety equipment required on a kayak or SUP is a “sound-producing device.” Really? Some kayakers carry air horns. The minimum requirement would be a whistle, which can be easily attached to your life Jacket.

A real-life example

Here's a real example from the archives of Washoe County Sheriff's office patrol/rescue vessel “Marine 9.”

Returning from the gas dock at Carnelian bay last October (water probably about 55ºF) we offered to hang around the tail end of an SUP race from Camp Richardson to Kings Beach (about 20 miles) because the lake was getting nasty. As we prepared to follow “tail-end Charlie” we remarked that the next to last contestant look pretty shaky.

When we came abeam of the last contestant (about 100 yards) we turned to follow him and looking back saw “Shaky's” empty board. Then we saw his head about 30 feet from his board, where his life jacket was strapped on the deck. We sped to his aid, threw him a life ring, which he was able to grab, and maneuvered to make the dive door accessible to him.

While we were maneuvering, with him clinging to the life ring, he was gasping “hurry, hurry.” He was unable to get on board Marine 9 without considerable assistance. He was very cold after about 5 minutes in the water, but was not hypothermic.

The obvious moral to the story is “Wear your life jacket, especially when the water is cold (10 months of the year at Tahoe”).

If you insist on not wearing a life jacket on an SUP, but do strap it to your board, at least tether your board to your leg. It will keep your life jacket and your board close at hand despite your wild thrashing as you fall and launch the board at 10 mph.

If you are not convinced and want to see real life testing with volunteers, go to “www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1xohI3B4Uc” or Google “Cold Water Boot Camp” for some scary in the water scenes and a more complete medical explanation.

— Don Morrison is the current president of WCSO Incline Marine Auxiliary, the volunteer group that operates the sheriff's patrol/rescue vessel “Marine 9."


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Feb 29, 2012 08:42PM Published Feb 28, 2012 01:46PM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.