April 5, 2013

Night light: LEDs allow new way to paddleboard

Adding LED lights to paddle boards gives adventurers a new way — and time — to explore South Florida’s waterways.

After sunset, the water along Riverwalk in Fort Lauderdale is pitch black.

But as half a dozen paddle boards are set in the New River, the water becomes illuminated with neon greens, blues and reds.

“It almost looks fake — it’s beautiful and relaxing,” said Bev Smith, a tourist from Canada spending her holiday in Fort Lauderdale.

The paddle boards have been equipped with waterproof high-intensity LED lights, designed for the night. Called NightSUPS, they are designed to illuminate up to a 40-foot circumference around the board. The idea came from Tyler Knight of Fort Lauderdale, an avid paddle boarder. While living in Massachusetts, Knight thought of installing lights around the paddle board in order to make them visible to boats.

“It originally derived from a need for safety at night time,” said Knight. “I’ve been doing night paddle boarding for about a year and a half and it never gets old.”

When he began showcasing his NightSUPS, Precision Paddleboards, a company in Fort Lauderdale, quickly signed on. They partnered and asked Knight to move from Massachusetts to begin building the boards. After giving an introductory lesson, Precision Paddleboards then takes out groups of four to six on tours.

“Most people are beginners, and at first people think they can’t go out at night because it freaks them out,” said Josh Vajda, owner of Precision Paddleboards. “But the boards are super stable.”

For the time they’ve been in operation, only about two people have fallen off the board, mostly because they were “goofing off,” said Vajda.

But Vajda said the routes for night paddle boarding are specifically chosen in areas where there is little boat traffic. They monitor the winds to make sure the water is flat and the LED lights make the paddleboards impossible to avoid.

Smith, the tourist from Canada, agreed.

“We felt very secure from the time we set out,” said Smith, who had done day paddle boarding only twice before. “They went through and showed us the paddle stroke — not all people are doing that.”

“I really like how you didn’t feel like you were going to fall,” added her 11-year-old daughter, Jamie Smith. “The lights made the experience extra cool.”

The beginner’s tours usually take off from New River and Middle River in Fort Lauderdale. Ocean tours are available for the more experienced paddle boarders, and only if the weather conditions allow it.

Like canoes and kayaks, paddleboards must abide by a set of rules put out by the U.S. Coast Guard. Among them are having a flotation device, a whistle and a hand flashlight. “People need to abide by laws and regulations and make sure that they have proper safety equipment on the paddleboard,” said Jorge Piño, community relations officer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “It is extremely challenging to navigate at night, let alone trying to look for a human being on a paddleboard.”

But Vajda insists the tours are safe, and the schedule makes it easier for people with full-time day jobs to get out on the water.

“There is a whole group of professionals who never would have joined our shop and been part of our paddle events if we didn’t have something available at night or late,” he said.

And at night, you get a totally different experience than you would during the day. “It’s an incredibly peaceful experience,” Vajda said. “During the day you can encounter a lot of stimulation; whereas during the night you can focus on the immediate area around you.”

Night paddle boarders in Fort Lauderdale get to see common mullet fish, ballyhoo, crabs and schools of reef fish streaming under the boards. In Islamorada, where Precision Paddleboards has recently expanded, the experience is even more diverse, with jellyfish, stingrays and even baby sharks, said Vajda.

More than 200 people have tried the night paddle boarding since its launch in Fort Lauderdale. Vajda says he’s had kids as young as 8 to adults in their 60s trying the NightSUPS.

“You see so much more with the lights,” said Tiffany Weidener, who has been paddle boarding for about three years. “The fish are more lively and you see a lot more. It’s glorious. Night paddle boarding renewed my passion for paddling — it was a new way to experience the sport I like.”

Olga Nicole Castro contributed to this story.

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