SUP Grows Up: Stand Up Paddling Hits Uncharted Waters

The sport known as SUP has been growing fast in California, Hawaii and along parts of the east coast since the mid 2000s. But in the last couple of years the surfing offshoot Stand Up Paddling has gone mainstream — and inland.

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Michael Holahan / The Augusta Chronicle / ZUMA PRESS

People on stand up paddle boards make their way beneath the railroad bridge on the Savannah River in downtown Augusta, Ga. during Paddlefest, Aug. 11, 2012.

There are all sorts of good reasons to go to Wisconsin in the summertime, but for most people surfing isn’t one that probably comes to mind. But an increasingly popular form of surfing, known alternatively as Stand Up Paddling, Stand Up Paddle Boarding or Stand Up Paddle Surfing (SUP), is precisely what brought hundreds to Middleton, Wisconsin in July for the second annual Mid West Stand Up PaddleFest in Bishops Bay. There, SUPers of all ages and experience levels took lessons, networked with other enthusiasts and in some cases propelled themselves — with a single paddle — through two and six mile race routes. At the event’s debut last year there were 30 people; this year more than 200 signed up.

The sport known as SUP has been growing fast in California, Hawaii and along parts of the east coast since the mid 2000s, when surfing guru Laird Hamilton embraced SUP as a way to explore waves he couldn’t access without a paddle. But in the last couple of years it has gone mainstream — and inland. There are SUP clubs and classes in Idaho, Ohio, Montana, Minnesota, Arizona and other states. There are events every week of the year in the Great Lakes region alone, and this summer SUPers have started appearing in the middle of New York City’s Hudson River, taking their place alongside motor boats, jet skis, tankers and cruise ships. There’s even a world SUP championship. Most recently SUP has inspired a new wave of yoga paddlers, who bring their boards in growing numbers to bays and lakes around the country to practice headstands, downward dogs and sun salutations.

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A branch of the surfing world that dates back to ancient Polynesia, SUP involves standing on an oversized surf board and using a single lightweight paddle, ideally somewhat taller than oneself, to glide over water. Some rough it on ocean surf or river whitewater; most do it on bays, lakes, inlets and other flatwater. Either way, it’s an intense workout; balancing on the board engages all the core muscles, while paddling hits the upper body. And because it’s low impact and relatively easy to master, it has found fans among every age group.

“It’s still in its infancy, and it’s just going to keep getting bigger,” says Hawaiian born Reid Inouye, publisher of Cardiff, Calif.-based Stand Up Paddle magazine. “The biggest growth now is inland, which, if you think of the U.S. with its tens of thousands of lakes, has limitless possibilities. That market is barely tapped.”

Indeed, the sheer beauty and variety of the sights is a big part of the appeal of paddling. Inouye discovered stand up when he lost his “surf stoke” — or passion for the waves — after 40 years of hanging ten, and within six weeks had lost 25 pounds. Among his favorite SUP adventures: paddling through the crevices in the canyons of Arizona’s Lake Powell, where he recently guided a group on a two day trip in the dead of winter. Gary Stone, sponsor of the Mid West Stand Up Paddle Fest, got addicted to what he calls “this powerful connection to the outdoors. I got intrigued with the zen of it.”

Families are jumping aboard for simpler reasons: it’s a fun, healthy way to spend time together. Brad Woodall, a former pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, and his wife Kari Woodall, a former pro swimmer, live in Madison, Wisc. with their two daughters, 8 and 5. They took a sample paddle in June and the next day bought two 12.6 feet boards (stable enough to hold kids). Now they take their two daughters out on Lake Mendota at least once a week. Brad says that after a fearful start, his youngest “has become somewhat fearless, to the point where she is now trying to stand up and do paddle dances.”

Business is booming. Stone says his Westport, Wisc.-based business, Paddleboard Specialists, one of a growing number in the country dedicated exclusively to SUP gear, has doubled its sales annually since 2009. Inouye says Kayak retailers now attribute 15%–20% of their business to stand up paddlers. Mass retailers like Costco, Target and WalMart are selling boards alongside higher end manufacturers like Surfech and Naish. ATX SUP, an Austin, Tex.-based company catering specifically to the entry level fan, opened in 2009, turned a profit in 2010, and saw sales of $13 million in 2011.

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To test the claim that SUP is easy, I tried it this summer in Shinnecock Bay in Hampton Bays, NY, with an instructor, Ed Croce, who launched a small rental business in May. As a 40-something lifelong city dweller who had never touched a surfboard,I thought I’d be an apt demographic. Instructors like to say that newbies will be up on a board in their first 15 minutes. After a quick tutorial on technique (start out kneeling, when ready stand just behind mid-point, lean forward, hold paddle with hands shoulder length apart), I ventured out on shaky knees. Within ten minutes I was standing up, touring the bay’s nooks and villas, effortlessly gliding over crabs and dune grass underfoot, chatting breezily with Croce, and feeling like I was walking on water. It’s true, my giant, styrofoam beginner board — Croce colloquially calls it “the big blue bus” — was ultra-stable. But after the lesson, and a few falls, I was able to get around fairly well on Croce’s sleeker, lighter board, too.

Of course, flat water falling is safe, whereas falling in the ocean waves, surrounded by traditional, more experienced surfers on smaller, faster boards, is not — and that contrast has caused a rift between ocean SUPers and members of the famously territorial surfing community. Some old school surfers are legitimately irked that ocean paddlers are often clueless about surf etiquette and safety; they have even tried, so far unsuccessfully, to get SUP banned from some beaches in California.

Others surfers mock SUP as clumsy, wannabe surfing — akin to using training wheels. That didn’t bother me; I was elated with my clumsy, wannabe surfing self and was quickly imagining buying a family fleet — until I discovered a more practical snag. SUP gear can be costly, due in part to the epoxy material required to keep the oversized boards light. The average cost of a board in 2011 was $1100, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association. Paddles alone can cost between $90 and $500. 12 foot racing boards sell for as much as $3,000.

Then I remembered the Austin company SUP ATX, which manufactures some of its gear in China and offers high quality packages — a board, leash to attach to one’s hand, and paddle — for under $900. My dreams of a family fleet may have been dashed, but I have received clearance from my wife, a fellow student on the lesson with Croce, to order a board and paddle. It’s still pricey for us, and she and our sons and I will have to take turns. But for that magical feeling of freedom from everything except the water, board and paddle — for the “zen” of it — it seemed well worth it.

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