To Leash or Not to Leash

In this post, we will be discussing and answering a very important question in the SUP community: To leash or not to leash? We will review the different types of leashes, watch some video footage highlighting the importance of doing things correctly, share the history of leashes, and potential scenarios of when and what you should be doing with a leash for your (and others) safety.

So let’s begin!

What is the origin of the SUP leash?

So how did it all start? The beginning of leashes takes us back to Hawaii and the early days of surfing. Hawaiians had been wave riding for generations and the long swims to retrieve boards or to get to shore were seen as important demonstrations of their ability. Using a leash undermined confidence in their ability to save themselves.

Fast-forward a few decades to the 60s and 70s and people were now starting to fiddle with leashing themselves to avoid long swims back to shore. It was the shortboard revolution that pushed this desire to not lose their board to the jagged cliffs and coral as boards were now being made of fibre glass. Originally made of surgical tubing and a suction cup placed at the nose these early leashes caused some serious injuries because of the ‘spring back’.

Surfing legend, Jack O’Neil lost his eye in 1971 due to leash spring back while testing a prototype leash and yet, went on to surf with a leash until his later years.

The Power Cord was the first commercially produced leash, using a Velcro strap and 500lbs test nylon cord inside a 6-foot tube attached to the fin box. While leash materials have evolved, the basic design and function have changed very little since 1971.

“Certainly in the past half-century, nothing has put and kept more surfers in the water than the leash. Plus, no more swimming, allowing everyone to safely surf everywhere, regardless of ability.” ~ Sam George (History of the Surf Leash)

It is this aspect NO MORE LONG SWIMS that we want to be your take away from this post. The entire purpose of the leash is to avoid a long swim to retrieve your board or get to shore. Now that you’re clear on history and purpose, let’s look at types of leashes.

Different types of leashes

We will discuss various types of leashes below since it’s important to understand the use case of each type.

Coiled Leash - This is the most common type of leash used in the SUP paddle industry today. A coiled leash is a leash designed to coil up and eliminate any slack that you may sometimes get with a straight leash. Most SUP paddlers like this leash and believe it offers many advantages rather than your traditional straight leash. It is sleek to wear and gives off far less drag in the water as it can fully sit on top of your board. A slight disadvantage is it does have a bit of spring to it so could potentially hit you if the coil springs back.

Straight Leash - These are mostly worn by surfers when they are transitioning over to paddleboarding. People like to stick to what is most familiar to them and they tend to prefer the straight leash. A great thing about the straight leash in aid of helping with your safety is the fact it helps keeps your board away from you if you’re caught in rough waters. One downside to these types is they tend to get tangled a lot so please keep that in mind.

Quick-release leashes - Ideal for people who are SUPing in rivers and slightly more intense conditions. They tend to be worn around your waist and as mentioned in the name designed for you to quickly release yourself from your board. The leashes are solid and made from heavy-duty materials but to the person wearing it seems very lightweight and comfortable allowing you to move and glide freely in the water. It is coiled but stretches to let you move as you would like. It stays out of your way and out of the water.

It is extremely important that you find a quality leash that keeps you safe, comfortable to wear, and the correct type for what you are doing.

Leash Position

Where you wear your leash mostly comes down to personal preference. We are happy you’re wearing one, so just wear it in the position that feels most comfortable.

Calf Attachment Leashes - This is the traditional surf-style placement of the leash because it allows you greater ease of movement on the board. With it being on your calf it prevents you from getting tangled up and dragging around in the water. The release of a calf leash is easier because it’s closer to your hand should you need to do this.

Ankle attachment Leashes - This is the preferred placement for flat-water paddleboarders who don’t move around too much or have a low need of releasing the leash.

Water Forces & Leashes

Water is a relentless force. Waves keep coming, currents keep flowing - there’s no stopping the force of water. This sport is thrilling and is becoming more popular by the day. While it can be a beautiful and peaceful sport it does come with some potential dangers and hazards. It is very important that safety precautions are carried out properly.

Being aware of your surroundings and conditions is vital. Some things to take into consideration are the wind, the waves and swells, the tides, and the currents which we cover in more detail in our beginner’s guidepost.

  • The higher the wind speeds the choppier the water will be. If the wind is under 10 knots then it is typically safe for you to paddle out at any skill level and always take note of the direction of the wind. Leashes are critical in windy conditions as they keep your board from being blown away, again helping you avoid a potentially very long, difficult swim back to shore.

  • Waves and swells are more demanding to paddle on so you must be prepared physically and mentally to tackle these conditions. Waves and swells are more likely to throw you off balance and off your board. In wavy conditions, leashes keep your board within reach and allow you to more easily stay on top of the water. Wave conditions are very challenging to swim in, so the leash is a critical piece of safety gear.

  • Tides can create currents. Awareness of the tides will prepare you as they can carry you very far in a small amount of time. Paddling back may take much longer than it took you to paddle out and therefore be exhausting if you don’t plan on it ahead of time. Therefore, it is important to plan your route around the tides so that you make it safely back to shore and avoid exhaustion. Leashes are critical in ocean currents, like riptides, to ensure you and your board stays together.

  • River currents are different from tidal currents in that rivers often have more debris than in the oceans, especially in places where old logging practices pushed millions of logs down rivers. It’s this debris in and under the water that is the biggest hazard to paddlers. In this river SUP scenario, it is agreed by river rescue professionals that a quick-release leash or NO LEASH should be used to avoid submersion entrapment. This is where the leash would get tangled on an underwater object, like a log, and keep you held underwater.

Leash Use Scenarios

The recommendations outlined below are based on Paddle Canada guidelines which are developed by trained SUP paddling professionals and what we teach in our training courses.

Flatwater Conditions

“I’m a strong swimmer, I can look after myself” are heard too often when it comes to people discussing if they should wear a leash in flat, calm waters. Well, the answer is YES! You should always wear one. Even if you are in the calmest of waters and you fall off your board, the force of falling off could push the board up to 30 feet away from you. If the water is cold, this could quickly turn into a bad situation as you struggle to breathe from cold-water shock and your limbs begin to stop working. A coiled sup leash is a preferred choice when on flat waters because it creates less drag and is nice and lightweight.

Flatwater with Children or Pets

Since the purpose of the leash is simply to keep the board from getting too far away from you, it’s important that the leash ONLY be used by the person who is paddling the board.

In the scenario with children and/or pets joining you on your board, they SHOULD NOT be leashed to the board. They are not responsible enough to rescue you, rescue themselves, or otherwise manage the scenario so they should not be the one attached to the board. As a parent, you are responsible for managing the board so you should be leashed. Your children/pets must be able to swim and must always be wearing an approved lifejacket. You will use the lifejacket to pull them onto the board should they fall in. If you are not comfortable with the thought of your child or pet falling off the board, do not take them out.