Sup survival kit

My downwind kit.  By: Karen Mirlenbrink


I have been paddling for just short of half of my life. I’m blown away to think that it has been that long. I

started paddling in 1998, and was downwinding surfski’s by 2000. It didn’t take long for me to figure out

how to downwind other crafts, from outrigger to, eventually, SUP.


Paddling downwinders is my favorite thing to do. There’s nothing better than running down the coast -

connecting waves, riding the wind, enjoying the push. 15 years is a long time to practice this art, and I

still feel like I have to learn. However, within that decade in a half, I have experienced more than most

will ever. I have lost friends to the sea. I have been a first-responder to a friend that paid the ultimate

price, and I have come really close to losing my own life (please see the article The Day We Almost Died).

When I think back to that day when I thought that my life was over, I remember the one thing that kept

me alive – my PFD.


When I look at the recent sad events in the SUP world, I can’t help but ask the questions about safety.

For whatever reason, maybe human nature, paddlers seem to become complacent with their safety

equipment needs, maybe believing in an invincible ignorance of “It won’t happen to me”. Well, sorry to

let all the paddlers out there know, it absolutely can happen to you. In my experience, I have come to

three unarguable facts when participating in watersports - #1 Mother Nature is Bigger Than You. #2 She

is predictably unpredictable. #3 She can kick you’re a** harder than you ever thought it could be kicked.

With all of that said, I thought I would give you a glimpse into my downwind world. I realize that it’s

different for everyone, but I take my safety very seriously.




I wear a VEST when I go downwind. It’s a whitewater style vest, and it’s well worn-in. There are newer

vests than this that fit and work well, but I like mine. I know it works for me.

I wear a vest in rough conditions because

1. It will always keep my head above water. Heaven forbid I fall on my board and smack my head.

What would happen if I went unconscious, and had only a waist-belt PFD on? SUP paddling does

have a higher risk of head strikes when falling than other paddle sports. I know, no matter what,

if I have my vest on, I will always float head up

2. It makes self-rescue easier. I am one heck of a good swimmer (years of competitive

synchronized and masters swimming and freediving), but if treading is one less thing I have to

worry about, it makes the self-rescue –a.k.a. climbing back on your board- easier.

3. It makes it easier to help others. If you need to rescue someone, you have floatation to help do





I have two different types of leashes in my kit, and the one I use depends on the craft that I am on.

However, it’s always good to be attached to your board. If you fall off, the board doesn’t flip over like

other crafts do, and it will keep moving with both the momentum of the wave and the force of the wind

and current behind it. However, I do not use a leash as my only form of safety, and I pair my safety with

a PFD. Why? Because… what do you do when your leash breaks? What do you do when you break your

board badly and it starts filling with water? Spoken from experience…




Once should have a way to call for help. In my picture, I put several options that we use for


1. A phone in a dry, floating case. This is a no brainer, but what happens if it does get wet or the

battery dies?

2. Portable, waterproof VHF radio. These radios have a direct channel to emergency rescue


3. A SPOT GPS Locator. I love SPOT! This gismo is a cheap version of an EPRIB (Emergency Position-

Indicating Radio Beacon), where you purchase the unit, and pay for a service. SPOT allows you

to send “OK” signals and position coordinates as emails and texts to whoever you list, as well as

serves as an emergency locator beacon. Upgraded services also feature online tracking for those

watching from afar. It is also good for repetitive use, unlike an EPRIB which is only good for one.




By law, SUP paddlers are required to carry a PFD and a noise-making signaling device. A simple marine

safety whistle will do, and the nice whistles can be heard for miles away. I also carry a professional grade

emergency strobe that straps to a hook on the back of my PFD. This strobe can be seen from the sky,

and search and rescue organization are trained to spot strobes on the water. It’s good to be seen and

heard when people are looking for you.





Heaven forbid that a fog rolls in, or you get confused in your way down. A “breadcrumb trail” feature in

your GPS watch will help you find the way back. It also allows you to find your coordinates, which you

can use to help rescue find you if you are lost.





Wear bright colors. Orange is the most easily spotted color on the water.

NEVER GO ALONE! When we run downwind, we run in large groups of 5 or more, and typically stop and

catch up to everyone every 15 minutes. Sure, it slows the run down, but it also keeps everyone in sight,

which is far more important. We also know exactly how many of thus are out there, and we count heads

all day. We all also know our float plan, as well as emergency procedures in the case of worst case

scenario. Also, let other people on land know that you are going out that day, so they are expecting you




Make sure that you are bombproof in getting back on your board in rough conditions.

I hope that this small insight into my preparation helps you rethink your safety needs when heading out

in the bump. As a YOLO Team Rider, a SUP Instructor Educator, and an experienced paddler, it makes

me sad to see such tragedy in the sport I love, especially when it could have been prevented. The reality

of padding is that “stuff” does happen, and, as paddlers, we need to take personal responsibility to

make sure we keep ourselves safe in the big blue.


Written by YOLO Team Rider Karen Mirlenbrink

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