Paddleboarders, Try Not to Die in Fort Lauderdale's New River

Be careful right around here!
Be careful right around here!
Jay Clark Flickr Creative Commons

Fort Lauderdale isn't called the "Venice of America" for nothing. The city's maze of navigable waterways -- from the Intracoastal Waterway to a series of canals to the New River that cuts through downtown -- offers a scenic way to travel through the city, preferably by megayacht. Fort Lauderdale is also known as the "Yachting Capital of the World."

Thankfully, eyeballs are free, and even those of us with meager vessels -- a kayak or paddleboard, say -- can gobble up the delicious sights: the stately waterfront mansions, the historic Rain Tree, hot deckhands wiping flecks of dust off of $3 billion boats. From the New River, you can also see the Broward County Jail and patrons who, according to legend, might moon you from the waterfront site of the Downtowner Saloon.

But as you're cruising along, all "La-di-dah -- Ooh, look at that three-foot iguana!," you might not notice the other creature floating quietly beside you: THE GRIM REAPER.

OK, so we exaggerate, but last night the city was scheduled to hold its regular Marine Advisory Board meeting, and prior to it, Water Taxi owner Bill Walker said he was legitimately concerned with paddleboarders and kayakers who have been cruising up and down the waterways thanks to the recent explosion in popularity of these watersports. They are largely oblivious to the real threats posed by the landscape and boat traffic, he worried.

Walker, who employs 90 people on his fleet of 12 water taxis, said he's seen a lot "close calls," especially on the stretch of the New River between the Andrews Avenue bridge and the Riverside Hotel. The waterway is very narrow there, Walker says. Large boats dock on both sides of the river, and heavy boat traffic moves in both directions. The tide goes up and down four feet in a normal day, and the "current can be three to four knots. You can't swim against that."

There's also outflow from pump stations and no ladders on the concrete walls of the riverbanks, so it'd be difficult for someone to climb to land if they got separated from their board or kayak. What if a person got knocked off his or her board and stuck between two powerboats coming in opposite directions?

Walker says he's an avid recreational waterman and was not proposing any restrictions on use of the waterway, but he wanted to raise awareness about the safety issues. So, please be aware.

A paddleboarder joins the 2013 Winterfest Boat Parade in Fort Lauderdale.
A paddleboarder joins the 2013 Winterfest Boat Parade in Fort Lauderdale.
Photo by Andrew Soria

Statistics on paddleboard accidents was hard to gather. Fort Lauderdale Police said their database was not searchable in such a way that they could isolate paddleboard-related incidents. Broward Sheriff's fire department spokesman Mike Jachles said he wasn't aware of any incidents in the seven municipalities handled by BSO.

Timothy Heiser, deputy fire chief in Fort Lauderdale, said he "could not find any instances of paddleboarders in distress or having interaction with boaters or requiring rescue. The boat traffic moves at no wake on the New River, so I would imagine that a qualified boater would be able to avert any such situation (my opinion, not the opinion of the department)."

New Times left messages for owners at Fort Lauderdale Stand-Up Paddle and Precision Paddleboards.

Josh Vajda runs Precision Paddleboards. He has a shop on A1A and also rents boards from a concession at Esplanade Park, across from the Museum of Discovery and Science.

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He says "the vast majority of boaters are very respectful" to paddlers but agrees that the area Walker referred to "does get very narrow, so we don't send paddlers that way -- we send them west toward Avenue of the Arts bridge, away from the Andrews Avenue bridge." He also gives paddlers a safety talk, life vest and leash. "If we're concerned, we don't rent. For instance, during Jazz Brunch, by about 1 p.m., we cease rentals because there are so many boats that are docking."

He understands the Water Taxi's concern, given that the company's boats are pulling in and out all the time. Paddlers, he says, need "common sense and skill" when there is heavy boat traffic, but in general, the New River provides a wonderful paddle experience -- it's calm and beautiful and in the widest parts of the river, I don't know that there is a better spot to paddle."

Her sells boards for $850 - $1800, or rents them at the rate of $20/hr, $30/2 hrs, or $35 for a tour with instructors.



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