Essential Downwind SUP Gear and Tips

If it’s blowing 42 knots outside my local downwind SUP community will be chomping at the bit to hit the water.  In previous years, many of the local paddlers have showed up to the beach with minimal clothing and gear, sometimes leading to mishaps and lessons learned. Check out these essential downwind SUP gear and tips to save you time in figuring out what works.

Before You Launch..

Establish a Float Plan

Before leaving, set up a Float Plan which means leaving with a friend your plans for your downwind session – Where you plan on launching and landing, start time, expected end time, your clothing color and how to reach you on-water. Here in Seattle, we have a Facebook group set up for this. Everyone checks in before they launch and sign-out after they’ve returned. The Coast Guard does have an app for this!

Get Reliable Communication On-Water

A tethered cell phone is great, if you have reception and battery power, have a solid waterproofing option and your neoprene gloves allow you to manipulate the wet screen.

A tethered waterproof floating VHF is in many ways a smarter option as they can handle wet conditions better, can work as a 2-way radio with your buddies and many have long battery life with the simpler buttons than a phone.

If something dire happens, contacting Channel 16 is a lot more useful than trying to call 911 and explain your situation while 2 miles offshore in 34kts of wind.  Also use a short tether for your VHF to keep it from floating away. I use Standard Horizon and ICOM handheld radios.

Hand Signals

Hand Signals

A cell phone is useful when you arrive on shore to call for your shuttle to pick you up.  One of our more experienced downwind paddlers has a shuttle driver that can adjust their position in case they don’t get to their first take-out. They can call this person on-water to adjust pickup locations. How to Use a VHF Radio


Non Verbal Communication On-Water –
Sometimes the ol’ phone or VHF doesn’t work due to battery failure and extreme noise from high wind.

Alternatives include a signal mirror, whistle and hand signals.

Whistles are great in many situations but don’t work when blown upwind.

Signal mirrors are idea if you’re in a pickle and need to be seen a rescue boat or from shore. They’re available as shiny plastic 3″x5″ rectangles on a string that are quite bright, even on cloudy days. A friend who is former Navy flier said the mirror was an essential part of their safety kit.  Like the radios, attach on a string to you.

Hand signals (above image) are great for directing each other on the water especially if you can’t hear over loud wind and waves. If a buddy wants to go left, he can signal left.  If a buddy falls hard, you can pat the top of your head. If he’s ok, he’ll pat his head back.

Check page 149 of my SUP Book for the page shown here. We use hand signals regularly in our classes on whitewater, in surf, in high wind, or for communication at a distance.

Bb Talkin 2-way Radio Surf Hat

Bb Talkin 2-way Radio Surf Hat

2-way Surf Hat Headset  – Jaecey Suda on the North shore or Maui has a radio system set up in wide brimmed hats made by BbTalkin. This way paddlers can talk hands free between each-other. Get in touch with Jaecey on Maui for her Maliko Shuttle. 

More Downwind SUP Gear and Tips

Life Jackets (PFDs)
Co2’s are great if you’re in hot weather and you’ve practiced firing off the cartridge and know how to blow it up when the cartridge fails (they do). A friend of mine wore his for a year, then realized when testing it that the opening of the inflated PFD didn’t go over his head.  Know before you go.  Co2s are also good for those with big bellies that don’t fit well with a vest PFD. Check out my article on minimalist PFDs.

If you’re not in hot temps, a vest PFD is your best bet. For those worried about on-water fashion, ya it may not be appropriate for the red carpet, but in 45kt winds in the middle of Puget Sound that’s the least of my concerns.

Vest PFDs also keep you warmer and help reduce chest injuries if you fall on your board. A friend of ours broke his ribs this year from falling on a board and was using a waist C02 pfd.

PFD Buying Tips:  Try before you buy.  Online may be cheaper, but if you have a belly like me, your PFD will ride high on your chest. If that’s not comfortable to you, better to find out before you order it. I’m also 6-5, so I’m at the top end of the fit scale.

Always wear hi-vis colors for visibility.  It’s nice to be seen on-water.

Check out my tips for good Minimalist Hi-Vis PFDs

Think about pockets. If you’re not going to carry gear on a bag on your board, then it’s going in your PFD. Can you access the pockets with neoprene gloves on? Will the upper pocket bump into your chin? Where will your VHF go?  If yo want to use it on rivers, does it have a quick release strap?

PFD Contents – I carry the following in my PFD of downwinding – knife, small bottle of sunblock, neoprene skull cap, go pro, energy bar, VHF, signal mirror, whistle (on exterior), watch (attached to exterior shoulder strap.  If getting close to dark, I’ll have a waterproof white non blinking light on.

Where to buy a PFD?  Kayak shops will have the best selection. Check my store on minimalist PFDs for purchasing option.s They’ve been on the safe path much longer than SUPs, thus will always have more of that type of gear.  Surf and SUP shops – if they have a PFD, it’ll be one or two and not women’s PFDs or sizes.


Finally we’re seeing leashes on paddlers in rough water. For several years many didn’t wear them unless they had big water experience.  A friend years ago told me that he only falls by his board so didn’t need a leash. On that 30kt day in 5′ seas, he fell away from his board and we had to chase him down.  Always wear your leash.  If you disagree, at least wear it in surf (to prevent board collisions) and in big water offshore, (to stay off the news).

Coiled leashes are preferred by most due to not tangling with stuff in the water, and they don’t drag behind slowing you down.  We attach your leashes to our PFD side straps so it stays clear of board walking (also preferred for not tangling with stuff in rivers).

Double Strings – Use two leash strings on your board in case one breaks. And some ‘double leash’ meaning they use two leashes in heavy conditions.

Did You Forget Your PFD or Leash?  
I carry extras in my car.  I have an extra fin, fin screws, leash, leash string, PFD, VHF and extra clothing options. I do forget things so that’s my solution.


Helmets keep you warmer, offer high visibility, and keep your noggin intact in case of a collision with your board (it happens), paddle or another paddler.  Get a bright color like yellow or red. Black and white blend into the background.  I use Gath which are really comfortable and have removable ears.

Try before you buy as a few friends with big heads don’t fit into most helmets on the market.   Kayak shops will most likely have more options than a surf shop.  Make sure the helmet doesn’t slide forward and back on your head. Size for wearing a neoprene hood under.

Deck Storage

A deck bag will allow you carry more water, extra clothing and extra safety gear that won’t fit in your PFD. Though don’t put anything in the bag that you would need if you got separated from your board.   I use bags from Sealine and Seattle Sports which are waterproof and have 4 attachment points.

Attaching to the board, I use NSI spectral loops which epoxy to the board. Some of my boards have leash plugs on the nose (most secure).  If not, I add them.  I don’t trust suction cups.

Picking Paddling Buddies

There’s a lot of articles about how folks think it’s safer to paddle with others. But what if the others don’t have experience, can or even know how to rescue you or get you into conditions about your skill level?  Do low or wind paddles with folks before hitting the big stuff.

One person’s version of ‘small waves’ may be way too big for your skill level.  Start in small waves and build to larger wind with more experience. Your buddy may think 45kts sounds epic! But you may struggle and have a bad experience in such wind. If in doubt, don’t go out.

Getting Upwind and Fatigued Paddling Tips

Sit Paddling using a Kayak Stroke

Sit Paddling using a Kayak Stroke

Prone, Sitting and Kneeling

Just because it’s a stand up board, that doesn’t mean you have to do that.  It’s just a platform.  When I paddle in strong upwind conditions, I sit (see video on sitting) and blow past my friends who are destroying their shoulders trying to fight 20+kts of wind. Kneeling works but you’re still a sail going upwind.  Prone is the smartest way to get upwind, but it takes practice to get in shape for it.  If you lose your paddle, prone home.  (and phone home).  Tips for Prone Paddling


More Downwind SUP Gear and Tips
10 Tips for Safer Downwinding
Tow Systems for SUP
11 Tips for Paddling Solo
13 Downwinding Tip for Safer & More Runs

Any questions give me a holler: rob@ / 206.465.7167

NW Downwind classes at: www.salmonbaypaddle.com

Salmon Bay Paddle SUP Tips

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