Cold Water SUP and a Paddlesport Marketing Fail

Cold Water SUP fail

Yesterday, Tower Paddle Boards, a manufacturer direct SUP company, posted a tweet about cold water paddling. It said, “Scared to paddle when it’s cold out? Don’t be. Here’s how it’s done.” The tweet included a picture of a guy in a jacket and blue jeans paddling on a SUP with a cup of coffee resting on the board. In a later tweet the company said that the tweet was meant in good humor. But, even though it probably wasn’t meant to do so, it promoted unsafe practices when dealing with cold water.

I’ve written about cold water paddling safety and winter kayaking before, so I thought I’d address this issue here as well as on Facebook (there’s a discussion thread there you may want to read).

Here’s how this played out yesterday:

The tweet and the thread can be found here (as long as Tower doesn’t delete it):

Cold Water SUP fail

I saw it and thought, “Yikes!” So, I posted: shouldn’t he be dressed for immersion if he’s going to paddle on cold water?



The company responded, “That’s only if you fall… and with the right board, you won’t! ;)”

In my opinion, it’s a pretty reactive reply and in my opinion a reply like that is sort of like saying, if you’re not going to fall off then there is no risk. And, while I agree that you need to manage risk with everything, risk management isn’t just about managing the chances, it’s also about weighing the consequences.  And even though there wasn’t much risk of falling off, the consequences of falling off the board are dire. Even if this was close to shore, on cold water the paddlers life was at risk. We’re also talking about an advertising channel pushing out a picture of an unsafe practice.

Here’s a quick review about water temperatures that are dangerous according to the National Center for Cold Water Safety:

Below 77F (25C)
Breathing begins to be affected.

60-70F (15-21C) Dangerous
As water temperature falls toward 60F (21C) control of breathing becomes progressively more difficult.

50-60F (10-15C) Very Dangerous/Immediately Life-threatening
Total loss of breathing control. Maximum intensity cold shock. Unable to control gasping and hyperventilation.

Below 40F (5C) Very Dangerous/Immediately Life-threatening
Water feels painfully cold. Total loss of breathing control. Unable to control gasping and hyperventilation.

Once the water is below 60F, you’ve slipped into temps that are immediately life-threatening. We don’t know the temp of the water in the picture, but once we’ve gotten to fall where I live and the leaves are changing, the water temps are often into the 50s. I suspect the same in this picture especially considering the coat and jeans.

Although the quote above says that water temps are dangerous, it doesn’t specifically tell you why. Why? Because without breathing control while in cold shock, you could easily drown, and without a life jacket, you could never come up. People die this way every single year. They fall into the water and never come up. Or can’t control their breathing and drown. Or they suffer cardiac arrest (or other medical issues) and die. All caused by cold water.

Let’s sidetrack here and talk about risk management using a four window matrix from the book Managing Risks in Outdoor Activities (Cahtye Haddock, 1993, p.26), which is a great resource for those interested in the subject.

cold water risk management

There are a few results on this chart:

  • Retain Risk: Keep it because you have assessed that the frequency and severity are low.
  • Reduce Risk: Use strategies to do this.
  • Avoid Risk: Frequency or severity are at an unacceptable level despite efforts to manage them in all possible ways.
  • Transfer Risk: Either to a more skilled leader or give the participants the information to make the choice and take the responsibility themselves.

To use the chart, you figure out how often something is going to happen and then figure out the severity of the consequences. In this case we have:

  • Paddling on cold water in calm conditions on a stable board without the proper clothing.

So, our conditions are this:

  • Frequency: Low
  • Severity: High (immediate life-threatening consequences)

The activity fits into the box labeled “IV” with the results of reduce, avoid and transfer. So, we need to consider how to reduce the risks by attacking those points until the risk is at an acceptable level. The primary way to do so in this situation is to dress for immersion. To dress for immersion, you wear thermal protection, either a drysuit or wetsuit, with enough warmth and the right fit to keep you functioning in the water temps that you’d experience if you fell in. There are case studies on the  National Center for Cold Water Safety‘s website if you’re interested in further pursuing cold waters effect on paddlers. You also put on a life jacket.

Once, you dress for immersion and put on a life jacket, the calculations on our risk chart change. We now end up with:

  • Frequency: Low
  • Severity: Low

Sounds like it’s time to go paddling!

So, lets get back to the tweet. A few other people such as Arthur Spoerner and Keith Wikle, of Go Kayak Now, also responded on Twitter and Kayak Gus, Bruce Coppola and Moulton Avery on Facebook. And a bunch of people commented on PLight’s Facebook thread.

Lenore had this interesting take in a Facebook group, “It might be an attempt at humor, but — unfortunately — the people who don’t understand the dangers of cold water also won’t understand the “joke” and may take it seriously.”

Here’s another interesting one, because Tower replied:

Here Tower tries to redirect by saying,

Agreed Bruce. We recommend you dress for the activity. You make valid points. We sell boards to all levels of paddlers in all parts of the country, however, and trust they can make their own decisions about safety. While this may not be wise for some paddlers, neither is dropping into a 10′ wave, or doing river rapids. We’re just re-posting pictures of what our customers are doing, not dictating what or how they should do it. Thanks for bringing safety concerns to our readers attention – that never hurts!

Tower is now on board with dressing for immersion (I think), but it says something about risk. According to Tower now, not dressing for immersion is not “wise for some paddlers…” (Whoops, it isn’t on board with dressing for immersion). True. For those types of paddlers that like to put their lives into immediate life-threatening danger from a simple slip up and that are well informed about the danger (aside: a picture on the Internet making light of cold water doesn’t inform the viewer of the risks of cold water), the risk might be acceptable. Then Tower claims that this is a customer’s picture, but we don’t know if Tower’s PR department doctored the picture with the arrows. We do know that it was Tower’s tweet that made light of the situation by saying,

Scared to paddle when it’s cold out? Don’t be. Here’s how it’s done.

Standard type of PR redirect. Eventually the situation builds and we get an apology:


We hear from Tower that “We always advocate SUP safety first.” We know this doesn’t sound true, because it used a customer’s photo that was showing an unsafe practice, one which has immediate life-threatening consequences. While, I do believe this was a slip up from a marketing team, I do think there is a lesson here. Hopefully, they don’t repeat the mistake again.

Of course, the next day we get this:


And I agree with Tad Upah, there probably is always one in every crowd. It doesn’t matter how much you try to education them (see: What’s Our Burden As More Experienced Paddlers), they just aren’t going to believe that cold water is dangerous. And it’s these types of advertisements that continue to give this myth, that cold water isn’t dangerous, its staying power.

Well, cold water is dangerous. It kills every single year. You can manage that risk by dressing for immersion and wearing a life jacket, and all responsible paddlesport companies should embrace this in its advertisement.

Cold water kills.

Note:  Picture and tweets are included here according to the doctrine of Fair Use in U.S. Copyright law.

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  • What is far more disturbing than the original tweeted image and message, is the response to your comment saying “That’s only if you fall… and with the right board, you won’t! ;)”. At that point they still didn’t get it.

    • I agree. I felt it was more of an attempt at humor without understanding the danger of paddling on cold water.

  • Sadly, everybody does dumb things with their business from time to time. This is dumb, but I’d wait to truly judge them until after they have an opportunity to let the facts sink in. If enlightenment strikes, and they add, say, a link on their site to safe paddling in cold water, then I’d tip my hat to their ability to learn something and to share it.

    • I try not to judge based on one mistake. Hopefully, they’ll take this to heart and start promote safe paddling — dressing for immersion and wearing a life jacket.

  • From a legal standpoint, the tweet looks like they were recommending it as way to use their product in the winter.
    A lot of people get cabin fever and when they get their new kayak, canoe, sit-on-top or stand up paddle board for Christmas, they intend to try it out on the first sunny day. This sunny day could be in January or February.

    I know I have seen it far too many times.

    May is the worst month as the air temps can be warm and people assume it’s safe. I have seen many cases of hypothermia in the spring, several at one time at a kayak fishing symposium where only the experienced paddlers were dressed properly. For many, it was the first time in a sit-on-top, capsized by boat wakes and clapotis and had to be towed to shore and sat in tents and cars with their heaters running full blast.

    The participants were not encouraged to do this and the promoter advised about the correct clothing.

    So you can imagine when people see a tweet like this. Especially with advice from the manufacturer guaranteeing they won’t capsize:-(

    I can see the lawyers waiting to jump on the first case.

    No matter how stable your stand up board is, most people do end up capsizing within the first few paddles.
    Experienced people may not, but usually only beginners would be following the advice in that tweet

  • Bravo, Bryan! Thanks for posting about this incident and focusing on Tower’s comments! Your post is the most thoughtful and detailed account that I’ve seen. Also, thank you so much for directing readers of your blog to our National Center for Cold Water Safety web site. It’s because of people like you that the paddling community is made aware of our cold water safety message and the resources on our site.

    Like Bryan Sarauer, I thought Tower’s initial response to you was particularly telling. The same goes for their dodgeball response to Bruce Coppola: “we’re just re-posting pictures of what our customers are doing”. My overall impression is that Tower was clueless about the issue of cold water safety until it was brought to their attention. On the vaguely positive side, their Tweet did create a bit of a firestorm on Twitter and Facebook, and they got their paws spanked – as well they should have.

    Very detailed information about the specific hazards of cold water immersion can be found in the danger section of our site where we cover sudden drowning, gradual drowning, heart failure and stroke, and the four Stages of Immersion: Cold Shock, Physical Incapacitation, Hypothermia, and Circum-Rescue Collapse. There’s a lot of information there that you will find nowhere else on the web. You also mentioned our case studies and I’m happy to report that we now have 19 of them – with lessons learned – in our Golden Rules of Cold Water Safety section.

    Again, thanks for your support of cold water safety!

    Moulton Avery
    National Center for Cold Water Safety

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