Picture it: Pushing a stand-up paddleboard from the beach into the water and climbing on. The sun is warm on your shoulders. Waves gently lap at the board as you maneuver it farther out, until the shore is just a squiggly line behind you.
More and more people are diving into new water sports, and according to the Physical Activity Council, participation in sports like boardsailing and windsurfing has been largely driven by millennials. And the popularity of stand-up paddling grew 26 percent in the past few years, finds the Outdoor Foundation.
But before jumping in, make sure you’re comfortable—and safe—in the water. “You don’t have to be a professional swimmer to enjoy a new activity,” says Charles Fort, BoatU.S. Magazine’s associate editor. But you should have basic skills before heading out. If you need a refresher, most local community centers offer classes for adults, he adds.
Ready to plunge in? Follow these five essential first-time water sport safety tips for a good time.
Pro Tip #1: Always wear a life jacket.
Even if you’re a strong swimmer, you can’t anticipate exhaustion, rip currents, or other unforeseeable factors. While some activities, including tow sports like tubing or water skiing require wearing life jackets, a floatation device isn’t always required to be worn during other adventures, Fort explains. But he strongly suggests you keep one on at all times. Researchers estimate that life jackets may prevent half of all boating-related deaths, according to a study published in Injury Prevention.
Pro Tip #2: Don’t go full throttle until you’re ready.
Simmer down, rock star. There’s plenty of time to kick up the intensity. Start with a lesson in your chosen sport (check hotels and resorts, local beach boutiques and boating shops for classes), or head out with a friend who’s experienced. “Boaters are friendly folks and most would love to help introduce you to the sport,” says Fort.
No boat? No problem. If you want to try wakeboarding, say, cable wake parks are a great place to dip your toes into this relatively new sport. These manmade facilities are like a ski lift … on a lake. Just bring your equipment (or rent on site). An electric overhead cable system tows you across the water. Conditions are typically smoother than on open water being towed behind a boat, so first-timers can practice without rough waves. Many parks also offer other activities like a lazy river for tubing, water slides and more. Find a cable park near you.
Pro Tip #3: Know the rules of water sports.
When your new hobby involves a boat (such as wakeboarding or sailing) you should follow the boating “rules of the road,” Fort says. “They aren’t always the same as for cars, and the type of boat you’re in determines how the rules are applied,” he explains. “Paddleboards and kayaks are considered vessels and users must abide by the rules too.”
Generally maintain plenty of distance between other boats and have someone looking out for people in the water (a spotter). For motorboats, stay in navigable waters and monitor your wakes. If you have water skiers or boat tubes that people will be riding on, go over hand signals so skiers and riders know how to communicate with the boat, explains Fort. There’s Okay (thumb and tip of index finger together); Faster (thumbs up); Slower (thumbs down); Stop (hand slashing across neck); Go Back to the dock or shore (pat head).
Pro Tip #4: Keep your boat or beach bag well stocked.
Always have sunscreen, life jackets, required boating safety equipment and plenty of drinkable water. “Out in the sun and wind, you can become dehydrated much faster than you realize,” Fort explains. Avoid booze since “alcohol tends to increase dehydration, and, just as when you’re driving, it affects coordination, which can result in an accident.” Wait to celebrate your new water sport prowess when you’re back on the shore. (Click here for our tips on how to go boating without breaking the bank.)
Pro Tip #5: Build strength before you go on the water.
“Water sports can be really fun, but they’re also physically challenging,” says Diana Garrett, master trainer and founder of SURFSET NYC, a workout class that simulates balancing on a surfboard. “Strength training helps provide the control and body awareness to help meet the demands of water sports.” (Translation: You’ll pick the sport up quicker and help prevent injuries and accidents.)
Most water sports are total-body workouts with an emphasis on your core, shoulder and leg muscles. These muscles help you stay balanced and stable on a board and aid with paddling and swimming, Garrett explains. Focus on moves that strengthen your core, such as planks, and add instability to your workouts using an exercise ball.
Now you’re ready to conquer the water.
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By Bari Lieberman
Watch video: How to have the Ultimate Saturday on the water