Paddle smart: How to enjoy Lake Tahoe safely and legally aboard a paddleboard or kayak
Within the past half-decade, stand-up paddleboarding has grown in popularity immensely. Lake Tahoe is a prime destination for the latest form of water recreation because of its size and stunning views, but paddling out on the lake doesn’t come without safety concerns.
“Most of the incidents we have up here on the lake are from people who don’t have knowledge of paddleboarding,” said Luke Berghuis, petty officer with U.S. Coast Guard Station Lake Tahoe. “It’s a popular thing that’s taking off right now.”
Because both stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking are straightforward manners in which to enjoy the lake, many without experience undertake the activity. This leads to accidents — and in some cases fatalities.
“That’s a lot of what we see up here every year from June to August,” Berghuis said. “We have a lot of tourists that come up that don’t do their research and don’t know the laws.”
The Coast Guard considers a paddleboard a vessel for transportation because of its use of a paddle, making it different from a surfboard or water toy. As a result, life jackets are required — and must be worn by those younger than 12 — along with a flashlight and whistle or noisemaking device beyond the swim line.
“We are having a big push for the safety of everyone up here, especially when it comes to paddleboarding and kayaking,” Berghuis said. “There’s a lot of misconception with what the laws actually are.”
Though the life jacket doesn’t have to be worn while stand-up paddling, it is highly recommended along with a leash so the board doesn’t get away. When a paddler falls off their board, cold water shock can occur — which could more easily result in drowning without wearing a life jacket.
“You tend to take that [first deep breath], and if you’re not wearing a life jacket that right there could be it for you,” Berghuis said. “Lake Tahoe has had fatalities already this year with paddleboarders who have fallen in the water and their life jackets are attached to their paddleboards.”
According to Berghuis, the best way to deal with cold water shock is to remain calm and stay close to the paddleboard or kayak. The effects of Lake Tahoe’s water that averages in the low 60s during summer can also be mitigated by getting an initial, gradual feel for the lake.
“If you can slowly get used to the water — slap it up on your arms and chest, and get used to it so it’s not an immediate immersion — those are things that are going to be helpful,” Berghuis said.
Planning before getting out on the water — similar to before hiking, biking or skiing in the backcountry — is another important component to a safe trek on the water. This includes checking weather and lake conditions, and letting someone know about the trip’s origin and destination — the Lake Tahoe Water Trail is a helpful resource when mapping things out.
“Make sure you have a plan and let people know where you’re going. A majority of our calls are ‘they left from this area,’ and that doesn’t give us a lot to go off of — we have to track down specifics,” Berghuis said.
During a nearly precipitation-free summer, afternoon winds have caused problems for those on the lake. Berghuis said nearly 60 percent of the Coast Guard’s cases this summer have been from paddleboarders and kayaks in the late afternoon that have been displaced or separated from their vessel due to wind.
Through its Operation Paddle Smart initiative, the Coast Guard provides free waterproof stickers for placement on paddleboards, canoes, kayaks and rowboats. The stickers are available at Lake Tahoe Station, located in Tahoe City — and Berghuis said they act as an insurance policy while lending clarity to potential rescue efforts.
“They just put it on their board, write their name and number — and if we find their paddleboard out in the middle of the lake, it gives us something to go off of,” Berghuis said.