AUXPAD: USCGAux paddle safety program

Jim Greenhalgh

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Paddlesports have surged in popularity in recent years due in part to the increased market availability of inexpensive paddlecraft. The sport’s growth has also contributed to an increase in paddler fatalities. To address the need for boating safety education within the paddling community, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary created a program called the Auxiliary Paddlecraft Program, or AUXPAD. AUXPAD originated in the USCG Auxiliary 5th District-Northern Region from a paddling safety program called the D5NR Paddle Craft Operator Program before going national in 2015.

On Feb. 10–12, 2024, AUXPAD held a winter training event at Fort De Soto in St. Petersburg, Florida. Auxiliarists from around the country attended this three-day event to train new AUXPAD operators and upgrade the skills and qualifications of existing AUXPAD operators and qualifiers. I spent a day with this group, viewing their training, both on land and water, and learning how AUXPAD provides boating safety education to the paddling community and supports the priorities and objectives of the National Recreational Boating Safety Program’s Strategic Plan.

AUXPAD program

The AUXPAD program has two components: AUXPAD Ashore and AUXPAD Afloat. Auxiliarists may participate in either or both programs, provided they possess the necessary qualifications. The auxiliary maintains a partnership with the American Canoe Association and utilizes ACA skills training programs to prepare and qualify AUXPAD operators for on-water operations.

AUXPAD Ashore Outreach

The foundation of the AUXPAD program, AUXPAD Ashore Outreach presents RBS activities to the recreational paddling community through public education and vessel safety checks. Program Visitation events disseminate boating safety information through local marine dealers and other boating safety partners. The Auxiliary’s Public Affairs Division circulates paddling safety information via broadcast media, public appearances, displays and exhibits at boat shows and other public events.

Any auxiliarist may participate in the Ashore Outreach program; however, only qualified personnel may participate in Public Affairs, Program Visitation and vessel safety checks, and only qualified instructors may present the Auxiliary’s onshore paddle safety course.

All auxiliarists who participate in AUXPAD enjoy a variety of training opportunities and are encouraged to complete the Auxiliary’s paddle safety course or other ACA paddling courses. They are also encouraged to become AUXPAD operators or qualifiers and participate in the AUXPAD Afloat program.

AUXPAD Afloat Outreach

An extension of Ashore Outreach, AUXPAD Afloat Outreach places qualified auxiliarists on the water in paddlecraft to take the RBS message to the paddling public. They set an example of good boating safety by wearing life jackets and carrying and operating the proper safety equipment for their vessels in accordance with federal and state laws. AUXPAD operators are not authorized to teach paddling or rescue skills while on patrol; however, they may give advice or render assistance to paddlers.

Only qualified AUXPAD operators and qualifiers may participate in on-water patrols. To achieve certification, AUXPAD operators must go through training and demonstrate proficiency with skills listed in the Auxiliary Paddlecraft Safety Program Handbook. These include demonstrating basic boat handling skills from kayak transport, launch, paddle strokes and maneuvers, capsize, wet exits, self and assisted rescue, and towing. Candidates must also demonstrate knowledge of the Navigation Rules, marine VHF, safety equipment, cold water awareness, and various program policies and procedures. They also must complete a 5-mile group paddle and demonstrate basic knowledge of navigation and planning.

AUXPAD qualifiers provide training and assess potential AUXPAD operators. At a minimum, AUXPAD qualifiers must complete and maintain an ACA Level 2 instructor certification in coastal or river kayaking. Both operators and qualifiers are required to requalify every three years.

For AUXPAD Afloat Outreach, all operators must use a kayak that has been offered for use and accepted by the director of Auxiliary as an AUXPAD facility. Only sit-on-top kayaks, pedal drive kayaks and decked kayaks with proper flotation are accepted. Operators can use a tandem kayak only if both people aboard are AUXPAD operators or qualifiers. A kayak offered for use will be inspected to ensure that the vessel and equipment are in good working order. The vessel must have all safety equipment required by law and additional equipment required by the program. Vessels accepted into the program must display an AUXPAD facility decal.

AUXPAD has several policies and procedures to assure the safety of the operators while on patrol. Most importantly, they are required to patrol in tandem with at least one other AUXPAD vessel and operator, or another auxiliary or public safety vessel. They are also required to wear life jackets, dress for immersion and maintain regular contact with the tandem unit over marine VHF radio. All Afloat Outreach missions must be conducted within specific operational, weather and geographical parameters to maintain safety while on patrol.

AUXPAD today

Seeing steady growth since its inception, AUXPAD now has active units in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Maine, Rhode Island, New York, Florida, Missouri, Colorado and Texas. Currently, there are around 65 AUXPAD operators with about 20 qualified as ACA instructors. AUXPAD continues to expand into new states by engaging with paddle clubs, state agencies and paddlesports businesses.

AUXPAD units have offered training programs in Virginia and North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, and Colorado, and presented boating safety programs at events in Arkansas and Virginia, with the Sea Scouts in Baltimore, and even the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Virginia. They continue to expand their safety patrol program and have recently completed patrols at races in Occoquan, Virginia, and assisted paddlers visiting Fort Gorges in Casco Bay, Maine, and the annual Floatzilla event in the Quad Cities region of the Mississippi River, which attracts thousands of paddlers. They also distribute boating safety information to the paddling community during National Safe Boating Week.

AUXPAD leadership is working to expand this program nationwide to continue to encourage paddlers to develop their knowledge and skills. They plan to build on their partnership with the ACA by engaging ACA members and bringing top ACA instructors to train AUXPAD members and other auxiliarists. They also plan to participate in paddling events and engage with paddling clubs, paddlesports retailers and other partners to develop a strong presence in the paddling community. Through this they hope to influence a culture of safety within the paddling community and reduce the trend of increasing fatalities in paddlesports.

A benefit for all

AUXPAD is an important resource for a growing population of paddlers, many of whom do not see themselves as boaters and are unaware of the regulations and safety considerations that come with paddlesports. Through this program, the Auxiliary can provide basic boating safety information to paddlers and suggest paths they might take to increase their knowledge and skills. In turn this program has encouraged some paddlers to join the Auxiliary and help spread the message of recreational boating safety to the paddling community.

Jim Greenhalgh

Jim Greenhalgh of St. Petersburg Sail & Power Squadron/22 is a senior navigator, vessel examiner, and instructor, having taught boating safety and navigation since 1991. He draws on his vast sail and powerboating experience as a lifelong boater and avid sea kayaker. Jim leads trips for the Kayak Adventure Group, a sea kayaking club based on Florida’s west coast that he co-founded. He also wrote Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft, a must-read for all paddlers.

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