Are you an “early adopter”? You know, one of those people who flock immediately to the newest, the latest, the trendiest . . .If so, you probably don’t need to read this story.
I’m definitely not an early adopter. I’ve seen way too many “latest and greatest” products fail, and too many fads come and go to get overly excited when something new shows up. One of these days, for example, I’ll get a cell phone that can actually do something beside make occasional phone calls. But I’m not in any real rush.
Sometimes, however, I do wish I was less of a Luddite. For example, I paddled canoes all my life, love everything about them. So, when kayaking first started getting really popular about 25 years ago, I wasn’t in any particular hurry to put aside my canoes. But once I tried kayaking, I got hooked instantly. And now I’m a kayak fanatic: own several, want more, couldn’t imagine a summer without kayaks in it. Wish I’d moved a little sooner. Does this sound at all like you?
Another trend I may have—if you’ll pardon the pun—missed the boat on is Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP). Like surfing, SUP apparently started in Hawaii, then traveled to the mainland. I first heard about it five or six years ago and my reaction was predictably unenthusiastic: “why would anyone want to stand up and paddle a surfboard when they can go faster, farther, more comfortably in a canoe or kayak AND carry lunch?” Frankly, I expected the trend to disappear pretty quickly. It didn’t, and SUP is now everywhere . . . I’ve heard it’s the fastest growing segment of the watersports industry. Huh . . .
The refusal of SUP to disappear as I so confidently predicted left me with a bunch of unanswered questions. . . What does SUP offer that other forms of paddling don’t? How hard is it to learn and progress? And, what’s the reward that keeps people coming back? SUP still didn’t make any sense, but with so many people so enthusiastically SUPing . . .
To get answers, I signed up for an introductory SUP lesson from Chris Shields of SUP NH, who teaches at a number of locations in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region and Seacoast. We met on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in late May at Opechee Park on Opechee Lake in Laconia. The cool water was almost flat calm. There was no motorboat traffic at all, and conditions were perfect for learning to SUP.
For the first hour, Chris and I paddled alone, then I tagged along and took photos as he gave a lesson to two other newbies, Rebecca Daley and Carissa Lampedecchio, who both work for a local inn and spa. For these lessons, Chris uses wide, stable boards that are easy for beginners to balance on.
Chris started my lesson on dry land, fitting me to the long, bent-shaft stand-up paddle (it should reach the bend of your wrist on your upraised arm) and explaining the (very simple) basics of how to get on a paddleboard and make it go where you want to.
First discovery: SUP is elegantly simple. All you need is a board, a paddle and a PFD. The boards are light and easy to load on and off your car and easy to carry to and from the water. If you have a place to paddle near your home, this is something you could do easily before or after work. Much nicer than going to the gym!
After the dry-land training, Chris and I launched our boards in water only a foot or so deep and started by paddling on our knees, which was actually fairly awkward with the long paddle. But it still gave a sense of moving the board through the water. If your balance isn’t very good or you are afraid of getting wet, you could use a regular canoe paddle and paddle this way all the time. But then, why not sit comfortably in a canoe or kayak instead?
After only a minute or two of knee paddling, I was eager to try standing. I figured I’d fall, but what the heck . . .the water was fairly warm, deep enough to cushion a fall, yet still shallow enough to stand in. Chris showed me how to place the paddle on the board and grip it while bracing myself on my arms in push-up position with knees still on the board. From there, it was very easy to bring my feet up under my body and stand up. I didn’t r-e-a-l-l-y need it for balance, but the paddle made the whole process seem more secure.
Now I have to confess that I have extensive experience with falling off surfboards and sailboards. Every single time I’ve ever tried to stand up and catch a wave on a surfboard, or change direction on a windsurfer, I’ve fallen over in a flash (or should I say in a splash?). It’s been fun, but frustrating . . . I was expecting the same from SUP, but I never fell off, not even once. . . . Neither Did Rebecca or Carissa as they tried it for the first time.
On a paddleboard you can stand facing the front of the board rather than sidewise as you would stand on a surfboard or sailboard. Personally, I found it much easier to maintain balance in that position. And besides, this was on the flat, calm water, not bouncing waves. Still, once I got standing, I felt like even the tiniest movement was going to immediately tip me over—but it didn’t. I had to learn to trust the board. Though it reacted instantly to each subtle shift in my weight and felt like it was eager to dump me off, it was actually pretty stable, especially when you added a little forward motion (just as a bike is easier to balance on when it’s moving forward).
Second discovery: SUP is easy. Less than five minutes after my lesson started, I was up and paddling—not well or comfortably at first, but I was doing it. As we paddled, my body quickly adapted to the new normal and standing on the board got easier and more natural with each stroke of the paddle. Within 10 minutes, Chris and I were out on the pond enjoying the beautiful day. Exactly the same thing happened with Rebecca and Carissa in their lesson. A minute after they hit the water, they were standing up and paddling. Frankly, I think Stand-Up Paddling is something anyone who has reasonable balance and is in reasonable condition can learn pretty easily. With a good instructor, almost anyone, young, old or in-between, should learn the basics in minutes.
Chris and I spent the rest of our hour paddling around the quiet bay, as he taught me how to make the board go straight when I wanted it to, and turn quickly and surely when I wanted it to. To be honest, I think my decades of paddling experience in canoes and kayaks may have helped me. But it just wasn’t that difficult. Rebecca and Carissa proved that in their lesson. Though they are both obviously fit, athletic young women, neither claimed any extensive previous experience or particular skill at paddling, yet both were up and paddling effectively in just a minute or two.
Third discovery: SUP is just plain fun. By the end of my lesson, I could shift my feet around, experiment with different positions fore and aft on the board (standing farther forward makes it easier to go straight, standing back makes turning easier), paddle the board in a straight line and spin it quickly.
Fourth discovery: SUP (at least the way I did it on a warm afternoon on calm water) is extremely relaxing.
I’ve repeatedly heard SUP described as a terrific workout for core, quads and glutes but, frankly, it wasn’t. In my lesson, Chris and I paddled probably a mile, total, within the bay where we started. In Rebecca and Carissa’s lesson, we paddled about a mile across the pond and another mile back. At the end, I paddled as fast as I reasonably could for close to half a mile, but even that didn’t get my heart rate up noticeably. The next morning, my muscles felt well used, but not even close to sore. SUP paddling, to me at least, seems like a very gentle, low impact, total-body workout.
But even if SUP isn’t an intense aerobic workout, it is exercise, and it’s relaxing, fun, and a whole lot better for you than sitting on a beach (or a couch in front of the TV). It’s easy to learn, the equipment is simple, and you travel quietly and elegantly and explore new vistas under your own power. That makes it well worth trying. I’m not ever going to give up my canoes and kayaks, but I am looking for a long paddle to use with my sailboard when the wind is quiet and I just want to get on the water with minimum hassle and maximum reward.
Where To SUP
SUP lessons and rentals are everywhere. Some lessons and rentals are MUCH more expensive than others, so check prices and compare. Flatwater SUP is so easy and simple, you shouldn’t need much instruction. Surf SUP is apparently, a whole different ball game (can’t wait to try it!). Here are just a sampling of some SUP lesson opportunities. We’ll add more as we find them:
Coastal Maine Kayak in Kennebunk
SOPOSUP in South Portland
SUP NH on Winnipesaukee and a number of other locations in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region and Seacoast.
Kayak Country in Wilmot
Poor Yorick’s Paddle Sports in Contoocook
Canoe Imports in South Burlington
Clearwater Sports in Waitsfield
Paddlesurf Champlain in Burlington
Umiak Outdoor Outfitters in Stowe
Cape Cod Paddle Surf (I’m taking my first Surf-SUP lesson with them in June)
Charles River Canoe and Kayak several locations near Boston
Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures in Westport
Surfari Stand Up Paddlesurf in Manchester
Down Under Kayak in Westport and Rowayton.
Paddlesurf RI in Westerly
The Kayak Centre in Wickford and Charlestown
Lake George Kayak Co, in Bolton Landing
Stand Up Paddle Montreal in Montreal
KSF in Montreal