Long weekend drowning sparks call for life jackets, tethers for stand-up paddleboarders

Over the long weekend, a man drowned after slipping off his stand-up paddleboard into the frigid mountain water of Herbert Lake, near Lake Louise. He, like many SUP'ers, was not wearing a life jacket.

Safety advocate says 'that first one minute' in cold water is crucial to survival

Stand-up paddleboarding can be a peaceful outing on a calm lake, but safety proponents worry that many are foregoing the life-saving tether and life jacket. (Queen City SUP)

Over the long weekend, a man drowned after slipping off his stand-up paddleboard into the frigid mountain water of Herbert Lake, near Lake Louise.  He, like many SUP'ers, was not wearing a life jacket.

Ryan Hamilton, the co-owner of Bow Valley SUP and Surf, says the increasing popularity of SUPing means more people are out on the mountain lakes, but that many can be seen without either life jackets or safety tethers.

"People don't realize how cold the lakes are," Hamilton told the Calgary Eyeopener. "People think that they're great swimmers. And maybe they are great swimmers, but when you fall into water that's five, six, seven, eight degrees you don't have much time to really react and get things under control. It all happens very quickly."

The weekend tragedy has raised questions around the safety of the popular sport.

"I do believe that this is the first stand-up paddleboard-related death in the park, so I hope that everybody takes this very seriously," he said. "And I really hope that I start seeing people wearing life jackets and leashes, but until the bodies that be, put in the regulations that need to be, people probably won't think that it's necessary to do that."

The 25-year-old man, whose name has not been released by RCMP, drowned on Sunday during an outing with friends. RCMP said he was not a strong swimmer. 

Sunday saw two other Calgary drowning victims. Lual Ayach, 22, is believed to have drowned in the Highwood River after jumping from a ledge around 8 p.m., and a 34-year-old boater, not yet publicly identified by RCMP, is believed to have drowned in the Clearwater River near Rocky Mountain House. The man was wearing a life jacket.

Meanwhile in Banff National Park, safety proponents like Hamilton are hoping that if nothing else, the tragedy sparks a conversation about water safety for stand-up paddleboarders. Hamilton added that he doesn't blame the people who are just out for a paddle.

"I just wish that there were some more safety requirements put in place, and people followed those safety requirements," he said, pointing out that life jackets are mandated by law.

"We follow the same sort of requirements that Transport Canada puts in place for small water vessels, and on the top of the list is definitely a life jacket." 

But Hamilton says there's no law about attaching the tether, a safety feature that keeps the board close to the paddleboarder.

"I would say this is equally as important because that keeps you attached to an even more buoyant object," Hamilton said. "It's great to see people have life jackets but if you're not strapped to your board, it's like driving down the street with your bicycle helmet on your handlebars."

Hamilton says he sees people going without life jackets and tethers every day.

"You would be shocked what we see on the mountain lakes. We run lessons and we do rentals on a daily," he said. "We're out the other day and we saw a family of four — two kids, two parents and a dog. Do you want to guess the only one that was wearing a life jacket?"

The dog.

Hamilton said social media hasn't helped the safety cause.

"I don't want to point any blame on where this might be coming from, but I mean, social media — people like pictures these days and people don't like to wear life jackets because it doesn't look cool. So I think that's definitely a little bit of a contributing factor."

The photos used on the Banff-Lake Louse Tourism site show stand-up paddleboarders without lifejackets or tethers. Safety advocate Ryan Hamilton says people may lose sight of safety in the rush to get a good social media photo. (Banff-Lake Louise Tourism)

Even the Banff and Lake Louise tourism site, which reminds people that life jackets are required, presents photos of SUPers going without. Their main photo shows three young women in bathing suits and long-sleeved shirts, and none of them wearing a life jacket or tether.

"If I have a life jacket and I'm tethered to my board, if I fall into the water I can get back to my board pretty quickly because I'm attached to it," Hamilton said. "Whereas if I'm not attached to it, I'm going to have to swim. I have one minute to sort of regain my composure, initial hyperventilation that will pass after one minute, so that first one minute is probably the most crucial time."

Angela Anderson of Banff and Lake Louise Tourism, told the CBC's Elizabeth Withey the tourism board is in the process of removing all photos that do not show SUPers wearing a PFD or life jacket. 

"It is a very tragic event," she said. "It's very sad that a life had to end in that way. But we definitely encourage people to plan ahead and understand the risks of doing any activities in the mountain park. And absolutely if you're on a body of water bring a personal flotation device with you.

"As an organization, it is our philosophy to promote safety within the park."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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