It’s Against the Law to Paddleboard Without a Whistle
As a proud Floridian, I’ve always loved being on the water. In recent years, one of my favorite summer activities is going paddleboarding in Panama City Beach. There are few experiences more enjoyable than being out there in the tranquil water, surrounded by salty air, watching fish, rays, and the occasional dolphin swim past. Best of all, it’s obviously far cheaper than a boat, and offers more freedom than a kayak or canoe. Many Americans clearly agree, as the stand-up paddleboard (SUP) has become an increasingly popular hobby.
Unfortunately it seems that every time I, and the majority of those who enjoy the sport, have been out on the water, we’ve been breaking the law.
A few years ago the US Coast Guard dubbed paddleboards a “vessel,” and therefore must be treated like any other boat. This means that in order to lawfully use a paddleboard, you must carry a life vest and “a small whistle or horn that can be heard for a least one-half nautical mile.”
In the context of boating, such requirements seem fairly reasonable. After all, countless lives have been saved by the use of life vests when a boat has sunk or a passenger being thrown off a ship in deep water. It’s also easy to see how someone stranded could use a whistle to wave down a passing ship, after all that’s how Rose survived the Titanic.
Paddleboards, however, are rarely used as a means for substantial marine transportation (and even less frequently around icebergs). While a man did manage to paddleboard across the Atlantic earlier this year, a quick look at his board reveals it looks nothing like your traditional SUP, which resemble large surfboards. Since surfers do not have the same vessel requirements, the Coast Guard apparently views the addition of the paddle makes SUP’s substantially more dangerous.
In spite of the Coast Guard’s ruling, few people abide by — or are even aware of — the fact a life vest and whistle are required while riding a paddleboard. In fact, a Google Image search of “paddleboarding” shows that roughly five of the first 100 pictures show examples of people following the law. The danger is that we’ve often seen law enforcement intentionally use minor legal violations to justify additional investigations. Every page to the legal code, no matter how minor an offense, is a restriction on our rights and increases the chances of being punished on charges with greater penalty.
Further, the penalties for not complying with life vest requirements aren’t so minor in some states. When the ruling first became official, some law enforcement agencies said first-time offenders will receive a warning before receiving a fine. While such a statement may have helped the early public relations battle, it is not reflected in any legal statute.1 Instead, by law, penalties can be as high as $1,000 or 90 days in jail in some states.
Luckily since state agents are the enforcers of rules on paddleboarding, state governments have the ability to reject the Coast Guard’s absurd law. Just as they can reject irrational federal fishing regulations, states can explicitly bar their own agents from enforcing life jacket requirements on paddleboards. The anti-commandeering doctrine, which protects state law enforcement from being mandated to uphold federal law, is one of the most powerful weapons in the states’ arsenal in beating back the tentacles of federal government.
Nullifying the Coast Guard’s designation of paddleboards as vessels would not only protect a great way to enjoy the summer, but also push back on an out of control federal government.
- 1. States have differeing requirements as to whether a life vest has to be worn at all times on a vessel, but the Coast Guard mandates their presence on the vessel. Paddleboard's obviously lack the storage space of traditonal marine vessels.