Of course it was “The Duke.” Really, could it have been anyone else?
If you do a little internet research into the origins of the hottest new sport of the last decade – yes, that would be stand up paddle boarding – you’ll soon discover a video from 1939. In that video you’ll see none other than Duke Kahanamoku, the man who basically brought surfing to the world and made it the coolest sport in history. And in that video, Duke is not on a surfboard, but a strange-at-the-time contraption called an Australian surf ski; which was, for all intents and purposes, just an early version of a stand up paddle board.
Although it appears Duke tried to get the stand up paddle boarding (SUP) craze started about 80 years ago, SUP as a sport really didn’t catch hold in the United States until 2004, when another Hawaiian uber-surfer, Laird Hamilton, publicly showcased the new outdoor activity. It’s grown amazingly fast in the decade or so, since. In 2013, SUP was reported as the outdoor activity with the most first-time participants of any sport in the U.S. The popularity of SUP shouldn’t really be surprising, especially in the Northwest. Combining the paddling skills of kayaking, the balancing proficiency of windsurfing, and the stunning outdoor beauty of the nearest ocean, river, or lake, SUP manages to hit all the water sports high notes. Kim Rueter, from Gorge Performance in Portland, which has been selling boards of one kind or another for 30 years, concurs, “It is wonderful to see Portlanders use our waterways 12 months out of the year,” Rueter said. “For many, our rivers have been intimidating and just something to admire from the shore. With the introduction of stand up paddling, all ages and abilities are finally seeing Oregon from the water.”
Patrick Calavan, Sales and Marketing Manager at Stand on Liquid in Bend, has witnessed the boom first hand. Since it opened in 2010, Stand on Liquid has grown into one of the largest SUP retailers in the nation, even developing their own national line of SUP boards. “We’ve been told by other outdoor industry insiders that they see more paddle boards in Bend than any other city of its size, and in 2014, Outdoor Magazine honored Bend as the world’s best SUP getaway,” said Calavan. “Bend now features five SUP race events and a huge paddling community, which will only grow with the completion of the Bend Whitewater Park.” In other words, SUP has come to the Northwest, in a big way.
The First Time On The Water
“Paddle boarding has a small learning curve, and anyone can do it,” said Calavan. “The essentials are a board, paddle, PFD, and leash, which can all be rented.” While SUP is intuitive and fairly simple to learn, please remember to be safe. The U.S. Coast Guard does categorize paddle boards as vessels, so personal floatation devices are mandatory.
You know your sport has hit the big-time when you see SUP boards near the registers at places like Fred Meyer and Walmart. Saving a few dollars is rarely wrong, but there are important choices to be made before trying SUP for the first time; choices that a professional can help you make. If you’re heading out for the first time, get some guidance from a reputable SUP retailer and perhaps try a few different types of boards and paddles by renting before committing to buy.
SUP Board – If you’re a beginner, go big. Wider, longer, thicker boards offer better stability. Smaller boards are faster and more nimble, but require more skill to manage in the water. Hold off on the fast, little boards until you’ve got a good number of SUP hours under your belt.
Paddle – So many choices: wood, carbon fiber, plastic, aluminum – basically, if it’s a material that floats, they’ll try to make a paddle out of it. The paddle should be a little longer than you are tall. They tend to get a bit longer for flat water and shorter for open water with surf. Find one that feels comfortable in your hands. You’ll be holding onto that paddle like your life depends on it, until you get more comfortable on the board. Rueter would consider buying, not renting, when it comes to the paddle and PFD. “While they all can be rented, it is advantageous to have your own PFD and paddle,” said Rueter. “Paddles are specific to the user and not the board. This makes it possible to purchase the ideal paddle for you, and then demo and evaluate various board types to determine which you prefer.”
Leash – Like a surfboard, a SUP board has a leash that attaches to your ankle so when you inevitably hit the water, your board won’t float down the river without you. Those boards are pricey; you don’t want to lose them.
PFD – Don’t even think about getting on a board without a Personal Flotation Device. In most areas, once you get into the open water, it’s not only smart, it’s the law.
Anyone with experience swimming in open water knows, in the Northwest anyway, the most common views are of murky water and greenish brown weeds. That’s simply not a problem with SUP. When paddling, you’re standing at full height and can view into the water, across the water, and at all the surrounding beauty of the landscape.
How Do I Start This Thing?
Take a lesson. Or two. That said, there are a few basic tips that you might want to consider. Remember, this is the Northwest. Unless you’re in a shallow lake in the middle of summer, you may want to rent a wetsuit. Are you going to get wet? That depends. Some say yes, but Rueter said it’s perfectly reasonable to expect to stay dry. “Most people are initially quite challenged for the first 15 minutes when they’re on a board, but they tend to acclimate very quickly,” said Rueter. “We find that about one in eight people fall in during a first time lesson, and that rate is even lower for those already active in sports.” Find the absolute calmest, most gentle body of water you can for your first few outings; no waves, no currents. Look at your board – the shape is fairly symmetrical. Is there a front to this thing? Yes, the fins always go in the back, so pay attention before you get on. The correct stance on the board is straight ahead, with your feet shoulder-width apart and pointing forward. Do not stand on the board sideways like a surfer. Also, don’t be afraid to test out your balance and paddle a few strokes from your knees until you get a better feel for the movement of the board. Much like a bicycle, a paddle board becomes more stable when it’s moving. For many beginners, the tough part comes at the very beginning: standing and taking those first few paddles. Also like a bike, keep your head up and your posture straight, the knees slightly bent. Don’t stare straight down at the board; it’s a good way to fall in headfirst.
Once you’re going, it’s a bit like a kayak; you’ll need to switch sides every few strokes or you’ll start going in circles. When you actually want to turn, keep your knees slightly bent and lean your torso into the turn, while paddling on the opposite side. Your body will move the board quickly into the direction you want to go. Be sure to keep your hands spread out on the paddle, at least shoulder-width apart, and take good, long strokes. Let your back and torso muscles do most of the work.
Finally, since this in 2016, there are a large number of high-quality instructional videos online. Give a quick look and grab some pointers before heading out for your first SUP session.
Cross Training for Other Sports / Yoga!
“SUP is a great cross-over activity,” said Calavan. “You get a workout from head to toe. It engages your entire body and focuses on your core. There are some athletes who SUP as a substitute for swimming while training for triathlons, while others use it as an alternative for a run or trail ride.”
Not only is it great cross-training, the board is also a perfect portable studio for yoga. Yes, that’s a thing. In fact, it’s quickly becoming a very popular thing. Many yoga practitioners, already searching for that calm, centered emotion that comes with their craft have realized that the paddle board can jump-start the entire process. The still, tranquil water and waves, the sounds and smells of nature, and the feeling of balance, physical and mental, are a natural gateway for the wonder of yoga.
Whether you’re thinking of SUP as an off-season workout, a cross-training workout, a yoga session or just some serious playtime, don’t be the last among your friends to give it a try. “The main disadvantage to using SUP as a workout is that you’re going to have to sell that bike in the garage to make room for your new board,” said Calavan.
Hey, if it’s good enough for “The Duke,” it’s good enough for you.
Where to SUP in the NW
Many of these locations have both easy and difficult water, depending on where you put in and how far you travel, so plan ahead.
- George Rogers Park / Lake Oswego, OR
- Howard Amon Park / Richland, WA
- Juanita Beach Park / Kirkland, WA
- Lake Chelan State Park / Chelan, WA
- Lake Sammamish State Park / Issaquah, WA
- Marina Park / Kirkland, WA
- Ross Island Loop / Portland, OR
- Washington Park / Anacortes, WA
- Deschutes River in the Old Mill / Bend, OR
- Main Payette River / Boise, ID
- Waterfront Park / Hood River, OR
- South Beach State Park / Newport, OR
- Joseph Whidbey State Park / Oak Harbor, WA
- Oaks Park / Portland, OR