To Leash Or Not To Leash?

To Leash Or Not To Leash?

Questioning The Use Of Leashes In River SUP

by Paul Clark

The debate about wearing leashes on river SUP boards is loud and is heard both on the water and in Internet chatter. It goes something like this: “Leashes are death traps, don’t use them.” “No, leashes save a bad situation from getting worse, wear them always.”

Though I rarely paddle without one, I sometimes find myself cursing my leash. Even so, I feel naked during the Payette River Games and other river races where leashes are not permitted. But prohibiting racers from wearing leashes makes sense. It’s too easy to get tangled up with other boards, buoys, and bodies. A leash goes against the golden rule of whitewater paddling—no ropes in the water without a sharp knife handy.

Leashes can be an entrapment hazard, anchoring a paddler underwater or around strainers. They can also pull a person into dangerous rapids. Even when worn properly, they have a tendency to wrap paddles, fins and limbs. Straight leashes drag in the water, potentially catching up in rocks. Coiled leashes tend to snag and wrap around the paddle when swimming.

The benefits of properly wearing a leash, however, outweigh the potential hazards in many situations. It’s very easy to get separated from the board in swift water. The board is your river vehicle, a backup emergency floatation device and gear storage. Getting separated can be crippling, especially on a multiday river trip. A leash allows a paddler to swim without having to manage the board.

So, how to quiet the debate, and more importantly, paddle safely wearing a leash on the river?

Here are five best practices for wearing a river SUP leash:

1. The leash needs to be on a quick-release system that can be detached immediately and reliably from your body. Quick-release towing/rescue belts are my personal choice, worn securely through loops on my PFD, which I wear without exceptions on swift- or whitewater. My PFD is made by Astral. There are hip-belt systems on the market using beefy Fastex buckles. Some river board brands like Badfish have their own quick-release systems with breakaway carabineers and recoiling leashes. The most critical characteristic with any leash is how quickly and reliably it releases. Practice freeing yourself from the leash.

2. The leash should never be worn around the ankle on the river, but rather above the waist where it can be released quickly with either hand, without having to search for the release lever. Wearing it above the waist makes it a lot easier to reach the release mechanism, plus it helps to keep the leash from dangling in the river.

3. Be sure the leash is attached correctly. I like to use a “knee leash” with a wide Velcro band. I slip the band around a nylon belt, which secures to my PFD, not my leg. I connect the leash to a metal D-ring on the board with a small but solid climbing carabineer. This way, the leash lives on my PFD and is easily removed from both the PFD and the board whenever needed.

4. When entering rapids, be sure everything starts untangled with the leash behind you, not wrapped around a leg or your paddle, fins or deck bags. You may find yourself tangled up by the time you leave the rapid, but you should at least start clean.

5. Choose a leash that suits your board length and riding style. Mine is a 9-foot coiled leash that allows me to surf without stepping on it, and stand in a neutral position in the center of my 8- to 11-foot river boards without getting pulled by the leash.