Delinquent paddle boarders face hefty lifejacket fines

As stand-up paddle boarding becomes more popular on waterways around the country, not-so-popular lifejacket rules are catching enthusiasts – including this reporter – off guard.

And as harbourmasters threaten fines of up to $500 if you are caught without a personal floatation device (PFD), it pays to know the rules.

Paddling in knee-deep water on the Pauanui estuary over the Auckland anniversary weekend, I was flagged down by the patrolling harbourmaster and told to get off my board because I did not have a lifejacket with me.

"I'll give you a warning, but my colleague across the harbour is giving out fines," I was told.

And get this. I didn't have to actually wear the thing – just have one with me.

Inquiries this week reveal his threat was real and backed by a Waikato Regional Council Navigation Safety Bylaw. (Not many people would know the Waikato council's reach extends to Pauanui).

The bylaw treats a stand-up paddle board (SUP) as a "paddle craft", such as a kayak, and attracts the same lifejacket requirements as a boat.

In theory, you only have to carry the PFD with you – but on a stand-up paddle board there's nowhere to store it.

"The rule is it needs to be carried in a readily accessible place," Waikato harbourmaster Richard Barnett says.

Without one, harbourmasters in Waikato can issue a $200 fine. That compares to a $55 fine for not wearing a cycle helmet – something I also discovered at the well-policed holiday spot.

For now, there is something of a grace period in Waikato, where Mr Barnett says harbourmasters are mostly handing out warnings because people don't seem to know the rules.

Lack of awareness

"There seems to be a general lack of awareness of where paddle boarding fits within the laws," he says.

Enforcement officers will write a notice of breach, which is reviewed by an "enforcement decision group" which decides whether the fine is appropriate.

Mr Barnett says the group has issued a number of formal written warnings this summer.

"In circumstances of increased risk we would elevate to an infringement. We recognise there is a need to educate the SUP community to the rule and this has been a focus through media releases and advertising."

Mr Barnett says stand-up paddle boarders are less likely to be caught without a PFD in the surf because that is not an area the harbourmasters typically control.

Ironically, surfers are not required to carry a lifejacket under maritime safety rules because they are non-navigable craft, and use wave action instead.

It is understood Waikato also has a bylaw asking for vessels to carry a form of communication. But if the skipper is visible to shore, hand signals or shouting count.

Auckland harbourmaster Andrew Hayton says there is no specific requirement for paddleboard users to wear lifejackets in Auckland, but because paddle boards are defined as a 'vessel' there is a requirement to carry a lifejacket for each person on board.

"We encourage people using paddleboards to wear lifejackets as a safety precaution. It's better to be safe than sorry," he says.

"Some people use an ankle leash attached to their paddle board as a safety method and we recommend this in conjunction with the use of a lifejacket."

Maritime New Zealand confirms carrying a correctly-sized PFD is a legal requirement for paddle boarders anywhere in the country under Maritime Rule 91.

But some regional councils take the maritime law further in their own bylaws, and require the lifejackets to also be worn.

Lifejacket-wearing compulsory in six regions

Maritime NZ officer Alistair Thomson says it is compulsory to wear a lifejacket on a vessel smaller than 6m in six regions: Southland, Queenstown, Canterbury, Wellington, Waikato and Hawke's Bay.

The regional councils set their own infringement fees, which range as high as $500 in Queenstown.

He acknowledges the different regional rules can be confusing for the recreational boatie.

But it's hoped amendments to the Maritime Transport Act, due for its second reading in Parliament, will address consistency of navigation safety bylaws.

Paddle boarders need to remember their board is considered to be a "pleasure craft" or boat, Mr Thomson says.

“There is no two ways about it, so there is a requirement to carry one [a lifejacket] regardless of where you are in the country. There is no way around that.”

It is the skipper’s responsibility to be aware of the specific rules within the region they are in, and he recommends paddle boarders check local rules at boat ramps or popular launch sites before getting in the water.

Maritime NZ hears arguments from the SUP community for and against the lifejacket requirements.

“The biggest chestnut we hear is about restriction in movement,” Mr Thomson says.

But he does not think that carries much weight, because of the different styles of PFD available.

He is also not convinced the leg strap is a suitable substitute for a lifejacket. “I’m unconvinced that is sufficient to keep a paddle boarder alive if they fall off and hit their head.”

Don't intend to be 'fun police'

Mr Thomson says Maritime NZ does not intend to be the “fun police” but the rules are about reducing risk.

It is having a closer look at its rules for recreational craft – particularly small craft such as stand-up paddle boards – and the review could acknowledge the difference in conditions for paddle boarding on a river as compared to in the harbour, open water or in the surf.

“We have some policy work to do at Maritime NZ around SUP and that may or may not affect lifejackets." 

Victoria Stuart, marketing manager of paddle board distributor Starboard SUPSNZ – at the forefront of the sport in New Zealand since 2008 – says the laws around lifejackets are confusing for people taking up the sport.

SUPSNZ applies for dispensation to the PFD rule for its stand-up paddle board events such as the City Surf Series at Mission Bay on Auckland's waterfront.

"However, we require paddlers to be in high-vis clothing and to wear a leash. And we have safety vessels present," Ms Stuart says.

But they were not so lucky when they applied for an exemption at a recent relay race event in Pauanui.

The application was declined as the Waikato Regional Council wanted to "set an example" to any new paddlers coming for their first introduction to the sport.

As such, all paddlers were required to wear lifejackets to race in two feet of water, within 50m of shore at all times, from Royal Billy Point to the Pauanui Waterways.

The council donated two extra-large lifejackets as spot prizes for the event.

SUPSNZ advises paddlers they need to wear a safety leash when paddling in the sea or lake.

"The exception to this is river SUP, which would require wearing a PFD, helmet and no leash."

"I personally would like to see stand-up paddleboards re-classified.  I understand the paddle makes them a 'powered' craft, but if I throw the paddle away and lie down I'm a surfer," Ms Stuart says.

A sales assistant at a large SUP store in Auckland says for those who do not want to wear a conventional lifejacket, inflatable rash shirts and clip-on, lifebelt pouches which can be clipped around the waist are also approved.

He says lifejacket rules are smart. "I dread the day there is a paddle boarding death out in the ocean from someone not having a lifejacket."

National body being formed

Lifejacket rules will be top of the agenda for the new national body for stand-up paddle boarding.

New Zealand Stand Up Paddling Incorporated (SUP Inc) held its inaugural meeting on January 18.

Inaugural president Kristin Percy says the sport of stand-up paddling has grown to a level where the creation of some sort of national association has become essential.

Matters of safety and liaison with government groups are probably the most pressing concern at the moment to deal with – including the current ruling making lifejackets compulsory for stand up paddle boarders, she says.

SUP Inc will be affiliated to Surfing New Zealand, providing automatic access to national governing body status and funding opportunities.

The International Olympic Committee recognises the International Surfing Association as the governing body of stand-up paddleboarding.

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