It might be an innocent looking pastime, but paddle sports carry hidden dangers making them some of New Zealand's most dangerous water-borne activities - with women among those increasingly at risk safety experts say.
Baz Kirk, Maritime New Zealand's manager of Sector Engagement and Collaboration says there has been an explosion in the popularity of stand up boards, kayaks and other paddle craft in recent years: "As a result we have seen an increased risk of fatalities and accidents.
"Historically boating and water craft sports have been a male dominated hobby, but not any longer. Now we see an almost equal number of women taking part," he says.
"It can look so innocent," he says. "Paddling often has a cheap point-of-entry and boards are regularly portrayed as toys. People see flat water, a nice sunny day and paddling looks perfectly safe, but too many are going out unprepared, get into trouble and need rescuing. "
Around 20 people die on average in recreational boating accidents every year and Kirk's comments come as the Safer Boating Forum launches the 2020 Boat Safety Week (it runs from today until Labour Weekend). It is aimed at encouraging Kiwi boaties and other water users to have the right safety precautions ticked off and a plan in place before venturing out.
Kirk says New Zealanders are being urged to Prep, Check, Know – a mantra for properly prepping their water craft, checking their equipment (which should include correct fitting life jackets and two forms of waterproof communication) and knowing what the weather is doing. It also calls for boaties to have a safety plan for their time on the water – and to let others know about it.
Maritime New Zealand's 2020 Recreational Boating Survey shows around 45 per cent of New Zealanders - about 1.67 million people - take part in some form of recreational boating with paddling (this includes kayaks, canoes/waka ama and windsurfers as well as stand up boards) having the highest level of participation.
It found kayaks are the most frequently used vessel (by 32 per cent of recreational users). This was followed by powerboats of up to six metres (19 per cent) and jet skis and powerboats over six metres (nine per cent).
Men aged over 45 who go boating in vessels under six metres account for the majority of fatalities. But as the number of craft users rise, young women and men using them are increasingly at risk.
Already this year (to the end of September) there have been 10 recreational boating fatalities - with the traditionally busy summer period still to come.
Kirk is also worried the impact of Covid-19 may attract even greater numbers to have a go at paddling: "The alert level environment restricted people's ability to travel internationally which will likely result in more trying 'new' activities at beaches over the summer, activities they may not be appropriately prepared for."
Amanda Kerr, Nelson's deputy harbourmaster and ambassador for the New Zealand Water Safety Forum, says there is a huge and growing paddle board population in Nelson: "On a good summer's day there can be as many as 200 stand up paddlers out.
"But still some are going out unprepared – they don't check the weather, they may not have appropriate clothing. It can be just as dangerous as other forms of boating; if they fall off they can get cold quickly and if the tide and weather turn against them they invariably need rescuing.
"Last summer, for example, there were at least 10 rescues of paddle boarders – male and female – caught out by the conditions," she says.
"I talk to a lot of boaties and encourage them to check their vessels, life jackets, weather and to tell someone where they're going. I have these conversations with everyone I come across."
A dramatic rescue off the coast at Gisborne in September is an example of how things can go wrong.
Winton Ropiha and his two sons, 21-year-old Paora and Wiremu (13) headed out in kayaks from Turihaua north of Gisborne to dive for seafood according to a report in the NZ Herald. While they were underwater strong winds dislodged the kayaks and both Winton and Paora were swept out to sea in the surging water.
Wiremu and a friend of Winton's were in a dinghy nearby and managed to make it back to land to raise the alarm, but not before Winton drifted 9km from the shoreline. He was eventually rescued by the Coastguard, while Paora was picked up 1km out.
Meanwhile, the boating survey revealed the main problems facing safety advocates were getting adults to wear lifejackets, checking marine weather and the need to carry at least two forms of waterproof communication.
"The problem with the non-use of lifejackets remains the belief that 'it is okay to put one on only when conditions get rough'," says Kirk. "But people can still fall overboard and get into trouble even in calm conditions.
"The major reason we have so many deaths is the result of an accident or incident. But I believe two-thirds of fatalities might be prevented if people wear lifejackets; things go wrong very quickly and when they do there is often no time to put one on."
Kirk says having effective communication devices is also important: "If we can't find you we can't rescue you.
"Cell phones do have a place – they are helpful for keeping an eye on the weather forecast – but they should only be used as a back-up device – and even then should be kept in a waterproof bag or container," he says. "The most effective devices are things like personal locator beacons which work more reliably in the outdoors.
"While we live on an island, Kiwis are not always aware of the consequences if they don't have the right safety measures in place before boarding a vessel," Kirk says.
"The purpose of the Safer Boating Week is to appeal not just to boaties but to their friends, family and the wider community to make informed decisions about the risks involved – and to highlight that Prep, Check, Know is for all water users. It will be supported by a marketing and education campaign throughout summer."
Kirk recommends new paddlers join up with a recognised paddle sport organisation which can help teach key safety skills and the proper preparation needed before getting out on the water (available through groups like New Zealand Stand Up Paddling and the Kiwi Association of Sea Kayakers).
For more information go to: www.saferboating.org.nz