Paddleboard deaths are on the rise as sport grows in popularity

Tafari Campbell Photo by Shutterstock/Yevhen Roshchyn

On July 24, Massachusetts State Police confirmed that Tafari Campbell, personal chef to Barack and Michelle Obama, drowned while paddleboarding on Edgartown Great Pond near the Obama’s home in Maratha’s Vineyard.

Campbell, 45, was last seen by a fellow paddleboarder on Sunday evening. The witness told police they saw Campbell fall into the water, briefly struggle to stay on the surface, and then submerge without resurfacing.

The local fire department, local police, state police, and the coast guard arrived on scene around 8 p.m. Divers were sent in to search for the body, but as it grew dark, rescue efforts were paused over night. The next morning around 10 a.m., Massachusetts State Police discovered Campbell’s body while using a boat equipped with a side-scan sonar. The body was approximately 30 metres from shore at a depth of two and a half metres.

The Obama’s were not home at the time of the accident, but the couple did release a joint statement to U.S. publications describing Campbell as a “beloved part of our family.”

Over the last several years, paddleboarding has exploded in popularity, increasing the number of associated accidents. During the pandemic, the Outdoor Foundation, a non-profit committed to making the outdoors more accessible, found that 37.9 million U.S. citizens engaged in either kayaking, canoeing, or paddleboarding—an estimated 2.5 million new paddlers compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Simultaneously, the Water Sports Foundation (WSF), a non-profit that advocates for water safety, reported a record high 202 paddlesport fatalities in the U.S. in 2020, accounting for 26 per cent of the country’s boating deaths that year.

A major catalyst for this increase was paddlers’ lack of experience. “We know from analyzing U.S. coast guard data that in 2020, nearly three-quarters (74.6 per cent) of people who died in paddling accidents had less than 100 hours experience in the activity,” said Jim Emmons, WSF’s executive director, in a statement, “and over one-third (38.8 per cent) had less than 10 hours experience.”

Jodi Bigelow, a paddleboard instructor and owner of Paddlefit in Chelsea, Que., has noticed a similar lack of experience in Canada. “If you go out in the middle of a July day on a nice calm lake, and you float around, no big deal, right? But if the wind gets up and if you don’t have any experience, very quickly you can find yourself in a tricky situation,” he said.

During the pandemic, Paddlefit’s rental program saw a surge in business. Bigelow explained that people were looking for an opportunity to get outside and be active. But in the last year, rental numbers have dropped. He attributed this to the fact that many people who took up paddleboarding during the pandemic have since bought their own board. The only issue is that many of these people are buying cheap boards.

“People are making the decision to buy. They’re walking through a retail store and they see the box there. The price is under $500, so it gets put in the cart. It’s an impulse buy. There’s been no pre-thought other than ‘Oh, it would be nice to have one,’” Bigelow said. “But they’re buying a lot of the inflatable ones. The cheap inflatable ones.”

Bigelow compared some of these cheap, inflatable paddleboards to beach toys. If an inexperienced paddler were out on one when the weather turned, they could have difficulty getting home. Bigelow also pointed out that inflatable boards tend to blow away more easily if you’ve fallen off, and they’re thicker than fibreglass boards. This means the inflatable board is much harder to get back on.

“If you go to the back end of a hard board and try to get on, the board sinks in the water and you just basically put it underneath you,” he said. “But with an inflatable, you have to lift yourself up onto the board and it’s more physically demanding.”

That’s why Bigelow suggested investing in a better built board and taking a paddleboard lesson before heading out on your own. “I’m having that conversation with my staff about how do we word a course in such a way that it’s attractive to those people who are inexperienced, to go through the law with them and how to paddle effectively,” he said.

In Canada, you’re required to wear a life jacket and carry a whistle while paddleboarding. You can be fined for not having either item. But just as importantly, Bigelow said all paddleboarders should attach themselves to their board’s leash. In the event you fall off, the board won’t blow away.

“Anywhere else in the world—I’m not exaggerating—go anywhere else in the world. The ethics are you wear the leash,” he said. “You fall off, you pull the board back with the leash. It’s no different than an open-water swimmer pulling one of those red buoys behind them. You can just turn around, grab your board, and rest.”

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