It’s the perfect beginner’s alternative to surfing.
IN THE 1960S, surfing instructors in Hawaii discovered a great way to increase tips: While their tourist-students lay prone on boards trying to catch waves, the instructors would hang cameras on their necks, stand upright on surfboards, and use long canoe paddles to maneuver out to take photos of clients in the surf, creating the perfect souvenir. “Stand-up paddling,” as this mode of transit became known, remained a surf culture oddity until about 10 years ago, when a handful of professional surfers began using the technique to train. In the past few years, the sport has spread beyond surfers — and become wildly popular. “Everyone has a fantasy to be a surfer, [and] stand-up paddling makes it easier,” says Rob Casey, author of Stand Up Paddling: Flatwater to Surf and Rivers and an instructor in Washington state. “The learning curve is relatively easy and gear requirements are minimal.” And while stand-up boards are more expensive than kayaks — beginner boards, which are wider and heavier than traditional surfboards, start at around $700 — Casey says they’re easier to store and carry and provide better exercise, particularly for the core muscles.
To find out whether stand-up paddling is as easy as advertised, in mid-September I signed up for a private lesson. “I’ve given lessons to people from 4 years old to 70 years old, and I’ve never had someone not be able to stand up,” instructor Dan Cox told me, as he helped me into a life jacket. After a quick dockside intro to the equipment and basic techniques, Cox had me kneel on the board, paddle a few yards into the river, and creep up into a standing position. (Yes, it’s really that simple: Beginner boards are designed to be super stable.) For 90 minutes Cox showed me different stroke techniques. I’d worn a swimsuit and had dreaded the thought of plunging into the Charles on a cool fall day, but I stayed upright and dry through the lesson.
Part of the sport’s popularity comes from the fact that, unlike surfing, you can do it nearly anywhere: Rivers, lakes, and oceans all make suitable grounds for “SUP,” the acronym by which the sport has become known. But as fall gives way to winter and the Charles turns icy, it’s tempting to find a more hospitable climate for paddling. Here are five experts’ picks on the best places to stand-up paddle.
TURKS AND CAICOS
The big-wave surfing of Dave Kalama, a pro wind-surfer, was featured in the opening scenes of the James Bond film Die Another Day. Along with surfer Laird Hamilton, Kalama stand-up paddled the entire chain of the Hawaiian Islands, a distance he estimates at 250 miles.
WHERE TO PADDLE “I’ve been all over the world, and one place I really like for stand-up paddle boarding is Turks and Caicos. I run a paddle boarding school there on the island of Providenciales. The water is really clear, and the reefs are very alive. You’ll see stingrays and all kinds of fish. The island has trade winds, so you can do downwind paddling. It has mangroves, so you can get protection from the wind to do flat-water paddling. It’s a really versatile area.”
WHERE TO RENT GEAR OR GET A LESSON “The company I work with is called Big Blue [649-946-5034, bigblueunlimited.com]. They have kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, snorkeling, and diving.”
By Daniel McGinn