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.

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