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Lifejackets compulsory for paddle boarders at top surf spots

It will be illegal from next week for stand-up paddle boarders to surf at some of the North Island’s most popular beaches without a lifejacket.

A new clause in Waikato Regional Council bylaws, effective on Monday, specifically makes it illegal to surf on a stand-up paddle board (SUP surf) without a personal floatation device (PFD).

Waikato region is home to the popular Coromandel surf beaches, such as Whangamata on the East Coast and Raglan on the West Coast, and where a number of national and international-level competitors live and train.

The New Zealand Stand Up Paddling Association (NZSUP) is alarmed by the move and says life jackets are out of the question in the surf for safety reasons.

It warns the bylaw – which wields a $200 fine for non-compliance – will effectively amount to a ban on SUP surfing in the Waikato region. This would be disastrous for the many events and businesses reliant on the sport, and is asking Maritime NZ to grant an exemption on PFD rules for SUP surfing.

Recipe for disaster
NZSUP president Bill Dawes says the dangers of wearing a PFD in the surf are well understood.

“It’s the unanimous view of everyone involved in any sort of surfing activity that buoyancy aids have absolutely no place in the surf zone.

“It is vital in the surf zone to be able to duck underwater quickly and easily. Every surfer knows this, which is why surfers do not wear buoyancy.

“If another surf rider is riding towards you, you have to be able to duck down under water to get out of the way. Likewise, if a large wave or wall of white water is coming towards you, you swim down under it.

"Whereas with a PFD on you get trapped in the white water, and pushed into shore, all the time trapped in the midst of the white water, making it impossible to breathe.

“Most critically of all, if your board, or that of another rider, is being pushed towards you by an oncoming wave, you have to be able to duck down under it. Anything that hinders this, or restricts the movement of the person in the water in any other way, can lead to very serious, potentially fatal, consequences.”

Any PFD with permanent buoyancy is totally out of the question for surfing, Mr Dawes says.

“Enforcing the wearing of PFDs in the surf zone for SUP boards is a recipe for disaster. There will be injuries and almost certainly fatalities."

Mr Dawes points out the inconsistencies of the situation in which a conventional surfer on a same-sized surfboard will not have to wear a lifejacket. Neither will a waveskier, who also has a paddle.

“Enforcing the wearing of PFDs in the surf zone for SUP boards is a recipe for disaster – there will be injuries, and almost certainly fatalities.”

Appropriate PFDs for surfing don’t exist
Gas-inflated buoyancy aids are also not an option for SUP surfers.

“The beltpack-style worn around the waist all too easily get ripped off in any significant wipeout and the 'horse-shoe' style are impossible to use as you need to be able to lie on your board and paddle,” Mr Dawes says.

There is nowhere on a surfboard to store a buoyancy aid, but that is inappropriate anyway as the only time you will need a buoyancy aid is when you've become separated from your board.

Life jackets for paddle boards a gray area in maritime rules
NBR ONLINE has previously reported on the confusion around requirements for PFDs on SUPS.

The Waikato Regional Council claims to be acting on instructions of Maritime New Zealand with regard to its new bylaw requiring SUP surfers to wear PFDs.

"Effectively our new bylaw requirements regarding paddleboarders bring us into line with directions at a national level," the council's navigation safety programme manager Nicole Botherway says.

"We wanted to propose that peopel using SUP in surf be exempt from carring personal floatation devices - but MNZ correctly advised us that this would be inconsistant with Part 91, therefore we removed this idea from the bylaw document. The simple fact is that Waikato REgional Council's bylaw, by legislation, may not be inconsistant with part 91," Ms Botherway says.

Non-compliance with the bylaw can carry a $200 fine.

Maritime NZ says SUPs meet the definition of paddle craft as stated in Maritime Rule 91 and PFDs should be carried at all times when operating one. But it acknowledges that a number of regional council navigation safety bylaws go further than maritime safety rules and require PFDs be worn at all times.

Until now, however, it has been assumed by the entire SUP community that SUP surfing was exempt from this requirement on the basis of Maritime Rule 91.4(2a), which states the PFD rules shall not apply to any surfboard or similar unpowered craft.

SUP boards are absolutely a "similar unpowered craft" to a surfboard, Mr Dawes says. “Stand them side by side and you can't tell the difference.

“Surfboards are propelled by hand when they are getting out through the surf, and a SUP board is hand-propelled by a paddle at about the same speed. If the paddle is put down the SUP board instantly becomes a surfboard.

"Indeed, many SUP riders choose to paddle by hand out through the surf anyway. There really is no effective difference between the two craft.”

Hoping for an exemption
Concerned Waikato Regional Council’s rules will spread to other areas of the country, NZSUP has written to the director of Maritime New Zealand asking for a specific exemption to navigation laws for SUP surfing.

If that’s not granted, Mr Dawes warns there will be a mass outbreak of civil disobedience as people deliberately ignore the rule. Or – and even worse – people will try to comply and wear a lifejacket in the surf zone, and as a result get badly injured, possibly killed.

Waikato Regional Council SUP rules as they currently stand

  • You must carry a personal floatation device (lifejacket) and this should be worn.
  • You must carry at least one form of waterproof communications with you; this could be a cellphone in a drybag.
  • Failure to comply with these rules can result in a $200 fine. 


  • Consider using a leash.
  • Avoid areas with heavy boat traffic, strong currents and dangerous outcroppings.
  • Keep a safe distance from swimmers.
  • Get a lesson from a professional paddleboard instructor/school.
  • Always let someone know where you are going and when you'll be back.
  • Check the weather and tides before heading out.
  • Learn the basics in flat, calm water.
  • Stay safe and paddle with a mate.

More by Georgina Bond

Comments and questions

As a surfer, who has also paddle boarded for the past four years, this is just plain dumb! Those setting these bylaws need to get out in the surf and see how they go dodging a six-foot wave face with a lifejacket on.

I am concerned about my safety and that's why I, like every other surfer and paddle boarder I know, wears a wetsuit to assist floatation and a leash to secure ourselves to our boards ... which, by the way, are a rather good floatation device.

In my experience, most surfers are pretty fit and healthy, too, and swim well.

Sure, if someone is new to the sport and not confident in water wants to float around in a quiet estuary or on flat water on a paddle board then they should consider wearing a PFD. That is common sense. But this bylaw across all is just nuts.

As an aside, last summer I was kicked off my paddle board by Waikato Council harbourmaster in a flat Raglan harbour as I didn't have a PFD. Apparently, it was irrelevant that I had a wetsuit vest on and was leashed to my board. I was threatened with fines.

After some considerable debate the irrationality of the whole argument was proven by the fact that it was apparently perfectly fine for me to go to shore drop off my paddle and instead paddle my paddle board in the same place (much more inefficiently, I must add) by hand as a surfboard.

Go figure!

Let's bring back common sense here, folks.

These SUP rules remind me of the desk-bound stupidity that gave us giving way when turning left for so many years.

Maybe the council would like to install traffic lights on the waves so surfers know when it is their turn to ride. Bring on a Coromandel Unitary Council; people are sick of people of being governed by the swamp-dwellers.

Unusual for the Waikato Regional Council to actually achieve anything. Usually, the council just racks up huge costs while achieving nothing. Still plenty of mangroves out there the council staff could be cutting. Instead, they pass silly and dangerous bylaws.

This is insane!

This is fantastic!

About time the council bucked up their ideas. The council now needs to banish all watercraft over 10 feet from the surf and also ensure the compulsory use of leg ropes.

I agree with the leg rope rule but I don't care what people are riding as long as they are being respectful and not to greedy. Who cares what they are riding?

What is it in the water in the Waikato that delivers us endless stories of idiocy by the employees and elected folk in the various councils. It must be something ingested in the region, something called stupid juice maybe. I prefer to think this is the cause rather than a few generations of country people marrying their cousins.

It's frustrating that councils don't use facts. I'm sure someone will get into trouble some time, but how many SUP users have had to be rescued or have drowned which would justify this heavy handed approach? Don't more people wearing black jeans and drinking RTDs drown? Why don't they concentrate on policing the rules they already have before introducing more. Any summer's day there will be plenty of power boats going over five knots too close to other watercraft and the shore.

Just another fine example to confirm that the Waikato Regional Council bureaucrats are totally out of touch with reality on this, and many other water-related issues.

What a joke. More in the same vein as removing diving boards from swimming pools and closing down children's playgrounds.

NZ is choking from layers of stupid regulations like this one, that successive regulators heap on Kiwis trying to lead a fun and free life.

Yet another council entering an area of law they have no legal authority in. How are they going to enforce it? They have no power of arrest. No power to demand a person's name. This is a matter for the police and or marine police. It is no business of the council. The police won't or should not act on the matter unless there is clear direction to do so via an act.

It is called the Maritime Transport Act 1994 and the Local Government Act and I thought the same, so had a look before I agreed with you. They have the power to ask for name and address, like the police.
No powers of arrest - but then, when was the last time you were arrested for not wearing a seat belt or talking on your cellphone?

So it's this kind of stupidity I pay my WDC rates for! Total incompetents. Typical WDC.

Ankle leashes are the only intelligent requirement when on a SUP, surf or flat water. Fall off simply slide back on, much harder to do when wearing a PFD, I have seen people struggle with PFD's on. Sort of makes a joke of New Zealand - adventure capital of the world! Dumb bureaucrats.

I thought leashes were dangerous on rivers? Seems like there's a lot of misinformation out there.

Why are they dangerous on rivers?

What a dumb idea. I ride a 7'2" board which is smaller than a lot of surfboards and I have to wear a lifejacket? Are you out of your mind? This is crazy and I hope someone knocks some sense in to the council.

i wouldn't say that buoyancy aids have absolutely no place in the surf zone on various surfcraft/ various conditions, but it is just so wacky that someone could actually come up with this as law. On one hand I don't want a bunch of incompetent stand ups with lifejackets thinking that is going to keep them safe / surfing beyond their ability / conditions. In fact, they can and will injure others as well as themselves, and on the flipside why is someone who is clearly inexperienced (in practical sense) on this matter making the decision and not backing down?
Finally, we have something called a leash that, although we don't rely 100% on (as they snap in huge surf when most are not out), that actually attaches the board to our body - boats don't do that. LOL. What is going on NZ for this to even happen? Very unKiwi. Wear a helmet and pads going shopping next?

Instead of Maritime NZ trying to keep the rules consistent with other paddle craft (I mean really - that's like saying my lawnmower needs a WOF because its got 4 wheels and motor) surely it would have made more sense to reword the existing rule.. something like "all paddle craft not used in surf, must have a PFD...".
Obviously this rule was made by people who have never seen surf.

Yeah, Maritime New Zealand need to sort it out.

Watch out, speedo cops closing in. Quick, ditch the paddle tell them it's driftwood. The funniest and saddest thing is someone has actually watched paddlers at the beach, figured out what would really upset them all, pushed their agenda under the radar of water safety and, most surprisingly of all, got others to agree with them to the point of enforcement. Wow, well done you!

This is a ridiculous rule which needs to get changed before someone is seriously hurt.

The drongo quotient is right up there with those parents who don safety helmets on their kids who ride plastic tricycles or mini scooters

Pull your heads in, council.

Guys are going to drown wearing life jackets, stuck in the white water. I would NEVER wear one. Wow. So Stupid. Will take a few deaths to make make council realise how ridiculous this is.

It appears to be totally irresponsible to forge ahead with this new bylaw when there is so much evidence of the more likely dangers of injury and death caused wearing a pdf during ocean SUpaddling. I was also stopped by the Raglan harbourmaster and threatened with a fine despite using a leash which was also attached to the biggest and safest floatation device, my board.
Even without his awareness of my water capabilities or my famaliarity with my surroundings, I was demonstrating 100% responsibility with a leash paddling during optimum tide conditions in my flat water playground. Common sense that an inexperienced or new paddler should be taking safety precautions appropriate to the conditions, environment and their abilities, but this responsibility for one's own safety shouldn't be defined by the mandatory wearing of a pdf.
In fact, for someone most likely to come off their board a pdf will only make it more difficult for them to get back on! The real likelihood of someone drowning when leashed to a SUP board is so minimal it is irresponsible to pass this law, given the more potential dangers in doing so. And the waist belt pdf, acceptable in the bylaw, really isn't worth much if you knock yourself out!

This is a Maritime NZ rule, so how about we get them change their stuff. This is not the first council, so we need to write to Maritime NZ now to stop the other councils having to follow suit.
Start at the top and work down, and that way we can achieve what we want in our sport.
If the councils were to go against Maritime NZ then we would have have crack at them for that, too - haha.

Absolutely pathetic PC stupidity passed by councillors with no knowledge of surfing.

Another desk jockey that has no idea. Pure stupidity bringing in crap rules like these.

Another desk jockey who has no idea. Pure stupidity bringing in stupid rules like these.

SUPs need to be banned from surf zones. I've nearly been seriously injured or worse a few times by these monstrosities. They at too big to be controlled properly, even by skilled users, and are endangering the lives of surfers. Ban SUPs in surf zones.

Err Joha watch for what you wish for... because the same applies to all board types - not just SUPs - all boards can inflict injury.

BS - my SUP is shorter than most long boards. Ban Longboards as well then?

The same council that removed floride from the water just trying to get rid of another non-essential risk to human life. Good on them, I say.

This is a national rule. This is Maritime NZ. Why aren't they fronting up on this issue?

Can someone explain to me how it is dangerous in the surf? I don't really understand? I though SUP boards were more buoyant and would sit on top on the white water, or does the board sink in the whitewater because of the additional air in the water?

Seems to me like a SUP in surf should be treated the same as a surfboard and the national rule needs changing. What's the delay?