Stand up and Paddle!

Stand up and Paddle!

You’ll see them at popular surf spots standing on what appear to be longer than normal longboards...and armed with what to the untrained eye, looks like a bent outrigger paddle. The paddle-board surfer, before catching a wave, stands with feet wide, side by side and turned out slightly, a little duck-like, rather than with one foot ahead – a la normal surfing. A few quick digs of the paddle and the stand-up paddleboard surfer (SUP) is gliding onto a wave and switching into a normal surfing stance, one foot in front of the other.

Then the paddle becomes a subtle tool, used in many different ways: dragged in the water beside the board to help with a ‘cutback,’ or held around chest height, and skimmed along the lip of a fast breaking wave for help with balance. If the wave slows, the light-weight paddle can used for a quick burst of paddling, to get through the slower section. The top Hawaiians even twirl their paddles at times, like Polynesian surfing drum majors.

 It’s been a while since the advent of a new surfing craze (or vehicle) in the wake of the light-weight longboard that sparked a surfing renaissance, and the emergence of body-boarding  which brought surfing to the masses.  Stand-up paddle boarding – aka SUP - is a fast-emerging global sport that’s winning followers in New Zealand too, although not yet at a rate to label it a craze or fad. 

There are no figures available on how many people are stand up paddle surfing in New Zealand, with the sport making more of a significant ripple than waves, compared with Australia and the U.S., in particular. But it’s a fair bet with our surfing history, the number of stand up paddlers will steadily increase. Keep an eye not only on surf beaches, but any large body of water – because you can paddle your SUP almost anywhere you can happily kayak – including lakes, rivers and estuaries. 

Stand up paddle boarding is in fact, a pretty ancient sport with a Hawaiian heritage. It’s traced back to the early days of Polynesia, but in more recent times, the 60’s, as a way for surfing instructors in Hawaii to manage their large groups of learner surfers. ‘The ancient Hawaiians started it. Modern Hawaiians revived it,’ and then the rest of the world caught the bug.

Back then, the beach boys of Waikiki would stand on their long boards, and paddle out with outrigger paddles to take pictures of the tourists learning to surf, according to the SUP websites. This is where the term ‘beach boy surfing,’ another name for stand up paddle boarding, originated.  The sport has been described as a cross between outrigger canoe paddling and longboard surfing. 

In the surfing mecca of Mount Maunganui, one or two early adopting paddle boarders have been in action for more than a year, but it’s only now that when the surf’s up, that you’ll see as many four standing surfers dipping a paddle at spots like Owhare or ‘Long Lefts’ just south of the main  beach.

Paddle boarder and surf shop manager Matt Watkins recalls first trying the sport about a year ago when he and the store’s co-owners took out some ‘demo’ boards. The sport was starting to feature in surfing magazines and taking off in places such as Noosa in Australia.

Watkins admits he had some doubts about stocking the large boards as ‘something that maybe wouldn’t take off.’ He was wrong, he says, and in the last year the sport has become much bigger, even if it’s still in its infancy.    

At Mount Maunganui there’s been steady growth rather than a boom, with a ‘solid crew’ of paddle boarders at the Mount, locals who know each other and often paddle board together. ‘There’s a little community starting to build, which is a good thing because a lot of guys are into their second board - they’ve progressed through into a different type of paddle board. So it’s got a good core and from there, it’s definitely starting to branch out. People are starting to learn about it,’ he says.

The Mount Surf Shop where Watkins works, has sold dozens rather than hundreds. Who are the buyers?  Intriguingly, quite a few people are using paddle boarding as a stepping stone into normal surfing. They can use it to stand up and get their balance sorted out – one of the hardest parts of surfing, Watkins says.

Other buyers are surfers wanting ‘something a little bit different’ and it’s not just a male pursuit; females like it because they can go out on smaller days and it’s not as intimidating for them as ordinary surfing.

Given the set up costs of buying a paddle board and paddle that can run well over $2000 for new equipment many buyers are in an older age bracket. Although many younger people have tried it and loved it, says Watkins, and now that the initial buyers are getting into their second paddle board, there’s definitely a ‘second stage’ of selling developing, which provides access to cheaper, second hand boards.

The early buyers are more selective with their purchase of a second board, says Matt Watkins, going for a board with particular characteristics; it surfs or nose-rides better, or is more suited to ladling over flat water. The more experienced boarders also upgrade their paddles,   buying more advanced models made of materials like carbon and Kevlar. 

So will the more serious surfer end up with a long board as an essential part of his or her quiver?  For the sake of sales he hopes so, Watkins grins. But he’s also convinced of its value to learner surfers. ‘I think a lot of people who want to get into the sport of surfing can start from there (paddle boarding) – go that way,’ he says. ‘So I think there’ll be quite a few paddle boards in the water in the next year or so, for sure.’

The advice to would-be paddle surfers is of course, to give it a go – borrow a friend’s or take out a demonstration board from a surf shop to get a feel for the sport. Then if it grabs you, look at price ranges and what you can afford to spend. ‘Longer is better’ for someone starting out, with suitable boards ranging in length from around 11 foot to 12 foot.  Such boards have more volume which means they are buoyant, and easier to paddle on flat water, but they can still perform quite well in the surf.  If you’re progressing well says Watkins, your next board can be shorter with less volume.

Most SUP boards range in price from about $1500 to about $2,500, depending on whether it’s a high performance board or more of an all-rounder. They are generally longer than 9 feet, fatter and wider than a longboard, with features such as deck grip and concave hulls, and generally have one or three fins in the tail.  The paddles are made of light weight materials with a handle to grip at one end. Most surfers use a leash to attach the board to their ankle, like other surfers.   

Given the size and weight of paddle boards, safety considerations are important. If you’re out in the waves where others are surfing, or there are swimmers nearby, definitely wear a surf leash says Watkins. ‘When one of those boards gets going,’ he says referring to their weight and momentum, ‘they definitely get going.’ 

It’s no surprise the sport has taken off fast in Australia, a fanatical surfing nation, and home of many surfing pioneers. ‘I was intrigued. Yeah, absolutely intrigued. It, it actually came right at the right time when I was looking for something’s set the surfing world abuzz,’ Brian Wilkinson of Quicksilver Australia told the ABC channel. Former world champion Tom Carrol told a similar story and hit on the work-out benefits: ‘It's fresh, for me. It's very fresh and it's a big challenge physically for me.’

The sport, according to aficionados, benefits participants with a strong 'core' workout. SUP promotes balance, strength and general fitness. It’s quite obviously an excellent workout for surfers, but also benefits non-surfers, by providing an isometric workout that strengthens your core muscle groups, while giving you a fun way to hit the great outdoors. Cross-over athletes are training with SUP and the sport is being spotted around the globe – including Europe and places where it’s practised on lakes. 
 ‘Join the stand up revolution,’ they say.... (Pictures courtesy & Matt Watkins)

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