Leashes: When, What, How & Why

Friday, 09 December 2005 17:13 | Written by 
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(By Rob Mousley)

A perennial debate in Surf Ski circles is about the use (or not) of leashes.  This article discusses:

  • When you should consider using a leash
  • What types of leash are available
  • How you use a leash
  • Why you should you use a leash

When should you consider using a leash?

In anything above a moderate breeze, the wind will blow your ski along the surface of the sea much faster than you can swim.  If you're out at sea and you lose your ski (especially if you're on your own), you're dead.  A leash makes it much less likely that you'll lose your ski.

If you're paddling on the open ocean, use a leash.

On the other hand, if you're paddling close to shore, you probably don't want a leash.  If you have to go in and out of big surf, you need to remember that, in waves, leashes can be a liability and the wrong type of leash can be downright dangerous.

What types of leash are used?

In South Africa, the Paddle to Ski leash is the most common.

Paddle to Ski
The most popular leash is paddle to ski.  It's effective because your instinctive reaction is to grip the paddle hard as you fall off the ski.

You're not permanently attached to the ski; if you get into a big wave situation, you can just let the paddle (and therefore the ski) go.
If you're holding the ski, you can release the paddle and it won't drift away.  This is useful in circumstances where you need both hands to operate a cell phone or to operate flares.

It's not fail safe; if you lose your grip on your paddle and the wind is very strong, you'll still lose your ski.  The paddle does not make an effective sea anchor.
If you fall off in waves and hold onto the paddle, the force of the wave pulling the ski may break your paddle (if the leash itself doesn't break).

Ski to Ankle
Another option is a leash from your ankle to the ski.  This is effective if you're in the open ocean, but is dangerous if you're near the coast; you must have a quick release system that you can activate near the shore.  

You're not going to lose your ski.

Falling off in surf while wearing an ankle leash is a recipe for serious injury.  
You still have to hold onto your paddle.
You can get tangled up in the leash as you try to get back on your ski - especially in extreme conditions.

Body to Ski
Finally some paddlers use body to ski leashes.  This type of leash runs from the ski around your waist; you must have a quick release system that you can activate near the shore.  

You won't lose the ski.

Falling off in surf while wearing a body to ski leash is a recipe for even more serious injury than with an ankle to ski leash (broken back, anyone?).  
You still have to hold onto your paddle.
You can get tangled up in the leash as you try to get back on your ski.

Wrist to Paddle
I have heard mention of a wrist to paddle leash as well.  This may be a good idea if a body to ski leash is also being used; your main priority is not to lose your ski.  (As one rescuer put it as he picked up a paddler who'd attached himself to his paddle and not to his ski, "the guy lost the plot - and his ski!")

How do you use a leash?

On most skis, the footstraps provide the best anchor point for the ski side of the leash.  

I simply wrap the Velcro end of my Paddle to Ski leash around the footstraps on my ski.  The other end is looped around the shaft of my paddle.

The photograph below shows a custom modification made to a Fenn XT.  The owner has attached a fitting screwed into the stainless steel reinforcing plate located under the footstraps.  

Leash fitting on Fenn XT (Photo: Rob Mousley)
If you do use a custom fitting, make sure that it is screwed into a secure part of the ski.  If it's simply attached to the fibreglass, it will pull out under the slightest pressure.  Contact your ski's manufacturer to find out where to place screws.

An ankle leash is usually attached to your ankle by means of Velcro and to the ski via a quick release buckle.  

Body leashes go around your waist and are attached via a quick release buckle to your ski.

What length should the leash be?  As short as possible.  It shouldn't restrict the movement of your paddle; neither should it flap about.  

Check the strength of your leash regularly.  I had a translucent plastic leash that deteriorated over time and snapped when I needed it, resulting in the total loss of my ski.


Your ski is much, much more visible in the water than you are; if you end up in the water without your ski, your chances of being rescued plummet.  And this is especially important if you're in the open ocean.  You do NOT want to lose your ski.

The primary reason then for using a leash is to prevent the ski from being blown away from you, should you fall off into the water.  

Secondary reasons are:
  • To prevent the paddle from drifting away should you need both hands for some other task e.g. firing flares;
  • (In some circumstances) to prevent your losing the ski in the surf (but be aware that if you get into really big surf, your leash is either going to snap or do other damage like breaking your paddle.)


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