Photo: Plastic Tides
Photo: Plastic Tides

Downwind Paddlers and Police Clash | Who’s to Blame?

Picture this scenario: You and a few friends are out on your local waterway for a howling downwind run. The conditions are wooly, but being experienced paddlers you’re prepared and have taken all the necessary safety precautions--drysuits, PFDs, leashes, plans, the works. Linking one big bump after another, your smile stretches from ear to ear amid the best conditions you’ve ever seen. You are experiencing downwind nirvana.

Suddenly, a boat comes roaring into your path. The men on board demand you stop what you’re doing at once and board their vessel.

It may sound like a tall tale of pirate kidnapping, but this scenario is exactly what happened on March 2 in Maryland.

The captors? The Maryland Natural Resources Police.

According to a first-hand account from paddler Matt Jones, that Friday five paddlers launched into the Severn River amid 40- to 60-mph winds as Winter Storm Riley tore across the state. All were experienced paddlers prepared with calculated float plans and adequate safety gear to handle the conditions.

The same storm that caused power outages in more than 400,000 homes between Michigan and North Carolina was generating outstanding downwind conditions on the Severn, and subsequently a small craft advisory was issued by local authorities. Faced with some of the best downwind conditions they’d seen on the Severn, Jones’ group seized the opportunity for a run.

“The conditions were awesome in every sense of the word,” writes Jones. “Waves were big, the wind was howling, and a ton of fun was had.”

The group was nearing the Route 50 bridge when they were approached by a Maryland Natural Resources Police boat.

"We are terminating your voyage,” the officers insisted, according to Jones. “Get in the boat."

The officers were responding to a 911 call from someone on shore who thought the group was in distress. Despite the paddlers’ attempts to assure the officers they were equipped for the situation, the group was not allowed to continue. Instead, they were taken to a random beach (not within reasonable walking distance from their vehicles at the put-in/take-out), each given a $320 ticket for "negligent operation" and subsequently left stranded there wet, cold and without shelter.

When the shivering clan finally hitched a ride back to their vehicles and checked their phones, they found the incident was being reported on local news channels with the headline, “Five paddle boarders rescued from Severn River.”

Yikes, talk about an adventure gone wrong. But who’s really to blame here? Is this simply a case of overzealous cops cruelly stomping out some paddlers’ epic day on the water? Or does the folly belong to the paddlers who put themselves in a potentially dangerous situation despite a small craft advisory?

It depends who you ask. Standup paddling is still a relatively obscure sport, and the vast majority of people are unaware of its nuanced thrills and the conditions that support them. From all accounts it seems pretty clear that these officers knew nothing about downwinding. From their perspective, this was a case of civilians needing rescue from a perilous storm.

While the Maryland Natural Resources Police force is not likely to have a thorough understanding of SUP downwinding, they are more likely to be aware of the rising number of paddlesports deaths in recent years. Their job is to prevent people from drowning, so when they get an emergency call about paddlers in distress they’re bound to take it very seriously.

That said, their treatment of the paddlers upon investigating the situation, according to Jones’ account, seems questionable.

The charges these individuals received and their subsequent $320 fines, were based on “negligent operation” of their vessels. Considering these were experienced paddlers well-equipped for the conditions with float plans, group accountability and the gamut of safety gear, their operation hardly qualified as negligent.

After some thorough questioning, could the MNRP have concluded that these were experienced paddlers and declared the call a false alarm? Probably. But for them to leave the standup paddlers on the water in such severe winds was not likely. The authorities erred on the side of caution and perhaps they can’t be blamed for that decision.

On the other hand, the fact that the paddlers complied and were still written expensive tickets based on highly disputable charges, then abandoned in a random parking lot and debatably slandered in the media, does not feel like justice. Taking them off the water is one thing, but there seems to be no good excuse for leaving them stranded wet, cold and unsheltered.

So, what can be learned from this experience?

First and foremost, if you’re planning on entering the waterways during a storm, it’s a good idea to contact the local authorities and clue them into your plan. Not only will this give them an idea of your whereabouts should something go wrong, but it also protects you against the aforementioned scenario should a concerned citizen decide to call 911. People calling authorities out of concern for your well-being can happen, but if those agencies have already given you the go-ahead, it’s going to be hard for them to justify writing you a ticket.

It’s also imperative that you study up on local laws and regulations regarding standup paddling. Rules vary widely between paddling zones and what flies in one area may not be OK in another. For instance, some agencies require you to wear a PFD and leash at all times while others do not. We suggest paddlers always wear both safety devices, paddle with a partner, have a plan, and as this unfortunate example demonstrates, communicate that plan accordingly.

A ticket sucks, but a death is tragedy. Too many inexperienced paddlers have died because of a lack of safety precautions. While authorities may overstep their boundaries from time to time, their main goal is to keep us safe and alive.

As a community, the best we can do is educate others and take safety seriously. Maybe some day everyone will understand the thrills of paddling, but until then, don’t be discouraged from paddling within the means of your ability responsibly.

See you on the water!

Related

Read the paddlers’ first-hand experience with the incident.

More SUP downwinding.