Do you need a lifejacket on a paddle board? The short answer is, yes you do, depending on where you plan to use it. We’ll explain why that is below but for starters, basic water safety (including the use of flotation devices) is an important issue. No one plans to have a mishap on the water — that is why they are referred to as “accidents”.
Safety gear like life jackets are a vital part of preventing water tragedies; you’ll have some choices to make depending on where and how you plan to explore the state’s beaches and waterways.
For example, surfers need a place to surf that is appropriate to their skill level, and if you plan to water ski you will want to know how much clearance to give on either side of the skis and how much clearance is required ahead or behind.
For paddle boards, a primary concern is whether you are required to wear a life jacket when using one. This may sound like a simple issue–floatation devices and life jackets are common sense, after all. But the requirements are actually slightly complicated because there’s no single entity responsible for enforcing requirements in this area.
There are federal laws, there is California state law, and then there are local ordinances which will vary depending on the city or county you’re in.
There are two types of paddle board. One is a “traditional” board which requires you to lie on the board and paddle with your hands, a bit like swimming. The other type of paddle board requires you to stand or kneel.
If you have never used this type of paddle board before, you’ll notice some similarities between it and surfboards and kayaks. It has a basic configuration reminiscent of both.
The difference between a paddle board and a surfboard is that you stand on the paddle board with an oar rather than trying to ride a wave while navigating with your legs. The difference between a paddle board and a kayak is that you remain standing or kneeling on the board to paddle rather than taking a seated position.
That is one reason why these are often referred to as stand-up paddle boards or SUPs instead.
What follows is a discussion about what constitutes a vessel solely for the purpose of our discussion of paddle boards and life jackets–it has no bearing on taxes, legal status on the waterway, etc.
For the purpose of safety equipment, the United States Coast Guard states that a stand-up paddle board is indeed considered a “vessel” and as such is subject to regulation anywhere the U.S. Coast Guard has authority.
The U.S. Coast Guard requires the use of a life jacket on stand-up paddle boards in areas not specifically designated for swimming, surfing, or bathing. When operating in those designated areas a life jacket is not required by the Coast Guard. That does NOT mean life jackets are not required while using California waterways, as we’ll see below.
The official site for the California Division of Boating And Waterways says that life jackets are required for paddle boards. Children under the age of 13 must wear them on “recreational vehicles” of any length.
For a boat less than 16 feet long, plus any canoe or kayak, you must wear a life jacket while riding or being towed. Stand-up paddle boards may be viewed under the law as being similar to kayaks, so don’t assume that just because the board is not mentioned by name that the rule does not apply.
Some laws make a distinction between traditional paddle boards (no oar) and stand-up paddle boards. You may find that with traditional paddle boards the life jacket requirement does not apply. Coast Guard literature includes this instruction to Coast Guard members about enforcement of life jacket rules where traditional paddle boards are concerned:
“Even if a traditional paddleboard had been classified as a ‘vessel’ it would be exempt from lifejacket carriage requirements because it is powered by hand rather than ‘by machinery, sails, oars, paddles, poles, or another vessel.’ ”
Local governments may impose laws and ordinances that go above and beyond state minimum requirements. Safety rules for paddle boards are a good example of this and the rules may vary depending on which beach you visit or what city it may be located in. At Dana Point, paddle boarders are required to carry a life jacket but aren’t required to wear it unless the user is a child under the age of 12.
At Doheny State Beach, launching a paddle-assisted vessel of any kind with or without a life jacket is restricted to a certain area known as Thor’s Hammer. You cannot launch from anywhere else in the area.
San Onofre State Beach has similar rules that were expanded to apply also to paddle boards. With or without a life jacket, if you launch your board from anywhere but the designated areas at this beach you could be subject to a fine of up to $450. Both San Onofre and Doheny have designated paddle board areas but other beaches including Bolsa Chica and Huntington do not.
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