Balanced atop a wobbly 11-foot board, knees bent, arms wielding a long angled paddle, I take a deep breath and brace myself for the boat wake that ripcurls towards me.
Not far from the kelp forests, rock cliffs and sandy white shorelines of Newport Beach, CA, here I am, a student at a standup paddle boarding school trying not to topple face-first into the nippy waters of the Pacific.
The sport of standup paddle boarding (SUP) is growing in popularity. Health and fitness experts are boasting about its cross-training benefits—strengthening the core, improving posture and sculpting the buns, thighs and abs.
Modern SUP began in Hawaii in the 1960s with the “Beach Boys of Waikiki.” Water sports instructors would use their long boards and outrigger paddles to navigate the ocean and to monitor students learning to surf. In the early 2000s, Hawaiian surfers such as Rick Thomas and Laird Hamilton brought Ku Hoe He’e Nalu (the Hawaiian word for SUP’ing) to the mainland as a way to train while the surf was down.
Since then, this decade-old sport has exploded into the mainstream as a recreational activity.
Reid Inouye, publisher of Standup Paddle Magazine, says interest for the sport has grown by as much as 800 per cent.
“We’re still in that first level of people finding out about [the sport],” he told the Deseret News last summer. “We had a competition in Tahoe five years ago, and seven guys entered. This year, there were 400.”
While the hub of standup paddling is concentrated along the California Coast, more and more companies are popping up in non-traditional surf areas all across North America, from New York (where you can paddle the Hudson River) to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.
The Sup Spot, an adventure company based in the Newport Beach area, is one of many companies offering standup paddle boarding lessons across all levels, from beginners who’ve never paddled, to hardcore racers looking to perfect their sprint stroke.
Who better to teach a newbie paddler like me than company owner and professional surfer Jodie Nelson? The first woman to paddle a gruelling 64 kilometres from Catalina Island to Dana Point in 2010, she not only raised US$125,000 for breast cancer awareness, but had a close encounter with a minke whale during the historic trek that landed her on The Ellen Degeneres Show.
My hour-long crash course begins with the basics: the correct stance and form, paddling techniques and proper equipment usage.
“A common mistake people make is holding the paddle the wrong way. For a further reach and more efficient stroke, the angle of the paddle should be facing away from you, not towards you,” explains Nelson.
“Another common mistake is to have your hands too close together. Keep your hands shoulder-width apart, one hand on the centre of the paddle, the other on the T-bar. If you lift your paddle over your head, your arms should be at 90 degrees.” She demonstrates, arms over her head like a sea-dwelling superhero.
Successful standup paddling is all about balance, so, as I climb up on the board, I find the centre point, keep a wide stance, distribute my weight and slowly creep from the kneeling position to standing upright.
There is a little arm flailing, and a few “whoas” slip from my lips, but I don’t fall in. Instead, I learn I’m actually quite good at standup paddle boarding. Who knew?
But before I give myself too much credit and quit my job to join the surfer circuit, I must admit this is truly a sport anyone can do.
“Surfing can take years to master, but with standup paddle boarding on flat water, people can get up on the board and start enjoying themselves in a matter of minutes,” Nelson says as we skim effortlessly across the water’s surface. “It’s low-impact, it’s not intimidating and can be done in almost any body of water around the world by people of any age. Also, the vantage point from a board is a completely different view from a kayak or canoe.”
In the protected area of Corona del Mar state beach, not far from Laguna Beach, the turquoise waters are so clear, it’s as if you’re on a glass-bottomed boat. You can spot brightly coloured orange Garibaldi fish, dolphins and migrating grey whales swimming alongside you.
“I’ve seen more wildlife since I started SUP than I ever did all my surfing life!” says Nelson.
How to sprint stroke
The beginning of the stroke when the blade first enters the water
1) Drive the blade deep into the water before pulling.
2) Extend your arms out to a comfortable reach, but don’t try to over reach.
The driving of the board forward past the submerged paddle blade
1) Think about driving yourself past the paddle blade, not pulling the blade through the water.
2) Use your upper body and rotate your shoulder for power and use your arms as just extensions from the shoulders. Your body is much more powerful than your arms.
3) Try to keep your top hand over your bottom hand during the pull to allow more strokes per side.
4) The paddle is most efficient when it’s vertical or has a positive angle like at the beginning of the stroke.
5) The power phase should finish at your feet (if you’re standing) or at your hip (if you’re seated).
6) Pulling back too far will only cause more deceleration between strokes.
The end of the stroke when the blade is released from the water
1) Take your paddle out at your feet, don’t pull beyond your feet as this will allow you to start your next stroke sooner. The board will not decelerate as much between strokes.
2) Be sure to exit by dropping your top hand downward and not by lifting the lower hand up.
3) This is a more relaxing way to exit and will also help get the blade out of the water clean and fast.
The return of the blade back to the start of the stroke
1) Point your thumb forward on the recovery to allow the blade to “feather” on the return. This will allow the blade to be in the most aerodynamic position on the recovery. This is particularly important when paddling into the wind.
2) Relax your shoulders on the recovery to give your body a relaxed feeling in between strokes.
3) Don’t rush the recovery. A nice smooth recovery will aid in the next stroke being more powerful.