Stand-up paddle boarding

Stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), is an increasingly regular sight on Australia’s waterways.
By Dallas Hewett July 11, 2012 Reading Time: 8 Minutes

FROM THE STANDING POSITION I feel as if I am towering over the other surfers in the line-up. I spot the dark line of swell early and stroke hard – I feel the muscles in my legs, back and arms contract as my body maintains balance and pushes the large board forward to meet the swell. 

My heart quickens a beat, my eyes focused on the approaching swell. I give a couple of extra strokes until I am happy with my position. I shift my weight to the back of the board and lean hard on the tail, lifting the yellow nose of the board slightly. I stroke hard, turning the board 180 degrees to face the beautiful tree-lined point.

I shift back up the board, feeling the subtle movements of the board under my feet as the energy of the swell quickens. Two strokes and the wave’s energy takes over, I lean on to my toes, easing the inside rail into a turn, dipping my blade into the turquoise wall as the feathering lip extends in front of me. Intense concentration gives way to relief and excitement, I have nailed my first stand-up paddle board take-off and all that’s left to do is enjoy the ride!

Paddle boarding: What’s it all about?

Stand-up paddle boarding, or SUP as it is known, is taking the world by storm. Te Manu Marsh is a Noosa-based SUP exponent, champion paddler and all round waterman. “You wait mate, this summer is going to be huge for SUP – it is the fastest-growing paddle sport in the world,” he says. “The sport has so much scope: it is great for fitness and strength, you can paddle flatwater, or go surfing when the waves are on.” 

It is hard to dispute one of the best riders in Australia, especially on the evidence available. SUP boards are popping up on waterways all over the world. Amazingly in the Encyclopedia of Surfing by Matt Warshaw published only recently in 2003, no reference is made to SUP.

Today, SUP specialist stores are opening, clubs are forming, tours, lessons and training sessions are available, and an entire industry has formed making boards, paddles and equipment. A world championship tour is set to kick off this coming year and Surfing Australia has announced the inclusion of a SUP open division at the Australian Surfmasters to be held in 2010.

Stand-up paddle boarding: So technically, what is it?

SUP is essentially the paddling of a large, specifically designed board with a single blade paddle from a standing position. The beauty of the sport is that you paddle and surf the board on your feet, making this a very versatile water sport.  “With a flat-water paddle, a long downwind session, there is rarely a day you can’t go paddling,” says Te Manu. 

One factor helping SUP gain popularity so quickly is that it’s a universal sport – anyone can pick up the required skills easily. The surfing side takes a while and plenty of commitment but you can be paddling a SUP board in a few sessions on flat water. It’s great fun and offers a fitness workout while you master the skills ready to hit the waves. If you already surf, you’ll pick it up fast and have a blast in no time.

History of paddle boarding

Contrary to popular myth Captain James Cook didn’t spot ‘natives’ on SUP-like craft as he passed Tahiti or Hawaii. Cook did report in his journal watching a canoeist catch a wave sitting down in Tahiti, and many of the early observers of Polynesian watermen may have seen canoe paddlers stand up to cross shallow reefs in search of fish to spear. However, the combination of paddling with a blade and surfing has a much more recent history.

In the 1950s Hawaii was the epicentre of the developing global surfing phenomenon. The first stand-up paddle surfers emerged in Waikiki in the early 1950s, when the post-war tourism boom meant cruise liners deposited thousands of thrill-hungry Americans on the beach. Naturally, they wanted to try their hand at the new sport of surfing, or at least take a canoe surf under the expert guidance of a Waikiki beach boy.

The beach boys were paid to take the tourists into the ocean, and included some of Hawaii’s great watermen of the day. It is one of these beach boys who is credited with the first paddle-board venture. No one is sure exactly who, but one of the beach boys was called upon by the local surfing crew to capture their amazing feats at the offshore reef breaks. 

Taking the box camera into the line-up, especially offshore, proved difficult and a dropped camera was expensive. So the beach boy’s ingenious idea was to take a paddle from an outrigger canoe and paddle into the break standing on the huge redwood boards of the day. Inadvertently, the beach boy had invented a new style of surfing which, naturally enough, became known as ‘beach boy surfing’.

SUP was kept alive by a dedicated few, however, as surfboards thinned and became lighter and, as cameras became waterproof, the art disappeared from mainstream surf culture. Interestingly, a long flat spell in Hawaii during the summer of 2000 is credited with the renaissance of paddleboarding.
Local famed watermen like Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama and Brian Keaulana among others, took to SUP to keep fit. Before they knew it they were hitting the outer reefs and loving it. The surfing world soon caught on.

Paddle boarding: The basics

It is strongly recommended that anyone taking up SUP should do so with a qualified instructor on still water. In this way you’ll learn balance and technique that will serve you well whether you choose to ride waves or simply enjoy the paddle.

Stand-up paddle boarding equipment

The basic requirements are a board and a paddle. Essentially the longer and wider the board the more stable the board will be and the shorter, thinner board will perform better in waves. Selecting a board is a personal choice and will be influenced by many factors. Considerations might include – where you intend to use the board (prevailing winds and surf conditions), the style of paddling (surfing, flat-water fitness, downwind cruising), your height, weight, fitness and your skill level.

Leaving the above factors to your calculations, you then need to choose a board that feels comfortable and that is stable. Go along and try boards at demonstration days or club sessions.

Chris de Aboitiz is a world champion long boarder and all round waterman. Chris, originally from Hawaii, now lives in Noosa where he manages Stand Up Paddle Surfing, instructing lessons and tours. He regularly sets the south-east Queensland points alight with his SUP skills. Chris and Te Manu recently paddled 220 km around Fraser Island before bad winds put an end to their attempt to circumnavigate the island. Here are Chris’s tips on board selection.  

Look for a board ranging from 11 ft to 12 ft and between 29 and 31 inches wide. This will offer a really stable platform for any body weight. Great for flat-water paddling and fun on small, full waves.

Slightly shorter than the beginner at 10 ft to 11 ft 6 inches and between 27 and 29 inches wide. This sized board will paddle well for the intermediate paddler and surf like a long board.

Advanced or performance
Built much more like long boards or large surfboards these boards start to incorporate varying tail shapes and fin configurations designed to perform manoeuvres on the wave such as top turns, floaters and cut backs.

Don’t go digging out your old canoe paddle. SUP paddles are specifically designed with an angled blade that maximises the efficiency of the standing stroke. To reach the water from a standing position, the paddles are also longer. Paddles come in a variety of weights and materials from plastics to carbon fibre. The style will depend on you and your budget!

Stand-up paddle boarding skills

The basic SUP strokes are performed from the standing position. Your feet should be placed in the middle of the board, shoulder-width apart, and your position is forward facing for the paddle out or for flat-water paddling. Once you are surfing you will switch to a regular surf stance. The basic strokes are:

Forward Stroke
Holding the paddle in front of your body with arms at shoulder width apart, dip the blade in the water in front of you as close to the rail or side of the board as possible and draw the blade along the rail, pulling with the bottom hand and twisting the torso slightly. This will move the board forward. Alternating the stroke on the left and right sides as required will keep the board travelling straight.

Back Stroke
Basically the opposite of a forward stroke, this is essentially your braking stroke. Place the blade in the water behind you close to the rail, and draw the blade forward.

The Surf Stroke
This turn is performed as a swell approaches to catch a wave. Move your centre of gravity toward the rear of the board so the nose of the board lifts slightly. Place legs apart, one foot forward and one behind (surfing stance – right foot at rear is called natural, left foot at rear is called goofy) bending the knees slightly, placing the paddle in the water by reaching out in front from the surf stance.

If the nose of the board is considered 12 o’clock, you will place the blade in the water at 3 o’clock and draw it around to 6 o’clock until the paddle is behind the tail, turning the board 180 degrees. You will turn from nose toward the wave,
to nose toward the beach. Immediately transfer your weight from your back foot to your front and give a few firm forward strokes until the wave’s momentum takes the board and… you’re surfing!

Paddle boarding: fitness and health  

Paddle boarding is a full-body work-out, focusing on core strength and balance and, as it’s low impact, there is low risk of injury. SUP is all about balance, therefore it basically works every muscle in your body. Not only are you working your legs, but you’re also working your arms and core. The entire time you are on the board, even in flat water you are improving your fast-twitch muscles (crucial for balance and reaction time).

“SUP is a superior core work-out on both flat water and among the waves. It is an ideal sport for cross training as it brings together legs, back, feet, arms, neck and stomach muscles in a graceful display of core strength and balance,” says Chris. Many of the world’s top surfers – including Kelly Slater, Luke Egan, Joel Parkinson and Tom Carroll – have been using SUP for cross training for these reasons. Even Lance Armstrong has been seen on a paddle board.

Where to go paddle boarding?

The beauty of SUP is that you can paddle anywhere and everywhere. It is this versatility that is seeing the sport grow so rapidly worldwide. Internationally, Hawaii is the epicentre of the sport and home to many of the SUP’s modern legends, and offers downwind races and challenging reef breaks. California has a huge scene, and even the UK has a following with a club recently starting up in the chilly waters off Brighton, south of London.

Closer to home, the Sunshine Coast and the NSW north coast are traditionally long-board haunts but there’s been a real surge of interest in the sport recently. The areas are home to some classic sand bottom points that are perfect for stand-up paddle boarding. Sydney’s northern beaches are popular and offer good options with beaches for surfing as well as coastal river and lagoon systems perfect for flat-water paddling.

And lastly: don’t take it too seriously! As Te Manu says: “Just have fun in the water, that’s what it’s all about.” 

Surf Etiquette

If you’re hitting the surf on your paddleboard, be sure to take with you your etiquette. If you are new to surfing, these tips will help you enjoy your experience and avoid any unwanted attention. SUP is relatively new to most Australian line-ups and they come under the same ‘unwritten rules’ of the surf.

1. Have fun, but not at the expense of the other people in the water.
2. Don’t drop in – this means don’t catch a wave that someone else is already riding. The surfer on the inside (closest to the breaking part of the wave) has right of way.
3. Don’t be a snake! A ‘snake’ is a surfer who paddles to the inside, or turns inside someone after they’ve started to paddle into a wave, and then invoke the drop-in rule. No one likes a greedy paddler.
4. Don’t paddle through the line-up. This means don’t paddle out where the other surfers are riding – it’s very dangerous for all involved.
5. Do show courtesy and respect to both the more experienced surfers and the locals. When you are surfing away from home, you are surfing in someone else’s home.
6. If paddling out, try to stay out of the way, take the hit from the whitewater rather than risk ruining another surfer’s wave.
7. Use common sense where crowds are an issue. If you turn up to a break that is already heavily crowded, then consider surfing somewhere else.
8. Wear a leg rope. Occasionally you’ll see a surfer in the water who is not using a leg rope; they are usually very experienced and rarely lose control and they are the only exception to this rule.
9. Always hold on to your board when a wave hits you – throwing your board away and allowing your leg rope to do the job for you, is very dangerous to the other surfers in the water.
10. Never use your board as a weapon or as a means of protection from a possible collision. Many beginners will throw their boards in front of another surfer when afraid of a possible collision. This is incredibly dangerous.

These are the basic rules that have been in force for many years in the surf. Show respect in the line-up and you will gain respect.