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SUP?

You've seen Jimmy Spithill and some of the Oracle Team USA guys, among other racing sailors, on stand-up paddleboards. So what's up with SUP? Tim Zimmermann checks out this worthy watersport distraction.

November 4, 2013
Sailing World

Jimmy Spithill Paddleboarding

SUPing is catching on in the racing community; here, Jimmy Spithill races in New Zealand. Guilain Grenier / Oracle Team USA

I will be the first to admit that when I became aware of stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), or at least the version that mere mortals indulged in, I thought it looked boring. I thought it was just another fad, perpetuated by marketers who are always looking for a new angle or new wrinkle which can be used to convince the world to buy something new. So I sailed blithely on, cruising, Laser-ing, beach-catting, and basically staying Old(ish) School. My friends chattered away about SUP, and I politely expressed curiosity and mild enthusiasm, while deep down I figured they were just trying to justify dropping $1K-plus on a new toy.

But the SUP wave didn’t seem to be receding. In fact, if anything, it kept building. And then my friend Ivar, hoping to hook his kids on windsurfing (seems so anachronistic now, doesn’t it?), bought a slick windsurfing board, and a package of sails and rigs. Almost as an afterthought he bought a SUP paddle, so when the board was not being windsurfed all over the Chesapeake Bay it could be used on occasion for a little paddling. Big mistake (at least if he is hoping his kids will grow up to be professional windsurfers). We watched in bemusement as his children and mine indulged him with a brief and dutiful windsurf try-out, and then promptly started using his flashy new board either as a platform for WWE-style wrestling, or for SUPing around the anchorages. And it looked suspiciously like they were having fun.

Maybe they were onto something. I couldn’t ignore SUP any more. After everyone had finished with their fun, I grabbed the paddle and hopped on the board. I dipped the paddle in the water. I propelled myself forward. I gazed around. I was SUPing. And it was good. I took in the natural beauty of Shaw Bay. I quietly invaded the privacy of other boats in the anchorage, slipping alongside and checking them out. I felt lots of little muscles, and some big ones in my arms and shoulders, getting a nice, but not painful, workout. I imagined that I looked like a weather-beaten, iconic waterman, surveying all before me like a conquering Hawaiian warrior. Uh-oh.

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The author, a SUP convert?

Naturally, once I went through all that, my mind was opened to the possibility that paddleboarding might just be a worthy watersport alternative. It was hard to spend too much time on Ivar’s board, since the kids were always swarming all over it. But the waterboard supply problem was solved not long after, when Moondust spent a weekend in Harness Creek on the South River. After yet another afternoon and evening of watching the kids do their best to destroy Ivar’s non-windsurfing windsurfer, I took a pack of them ashore in the morning to stretch everyone’s legs. We dinghied over to the docks used by the Quiet Waters Park kayak rental and the racks were filled with SUP paddleboards. More important, a sign proclaimed that they were selling their 2013 paddleboard inventory at massively discounted prices. Following some browsing and negotiation, Moondust headed home with two fine, and only slightly dinged up, purpose-built SUP paddleboards, and two sweet carbon-fiber paddles. That’s what is known as impulse buying.

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It was a good impulse. Both paddleboards are living at the house on Bear Neck Creek and–keeping my mouth shut lest anyone notice my hypocrisy–I have been taking any spare time I have to throw one into the water, and paddle my way around the Rhode River. I love the Topaz for the ease of launching. But there’s simply no way to get out on the water faster than a paddleboard. You throw it in (45 seconds), you jump on (5 seconds), you leave the terrestrial world behind.

Gateway to solitude

Paddleboarding didn’t really appeal to me in the abstract because it seemed so simple and slow. But now I think those qualities are the heart of its appeal. Boats so often involve too much fiddling about, and too much gear, and too many small bits that fall over the side. The paddleboard involves exactly two pieces of equipment, and it can easily be transported on a car top or a foredeck.

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I haven’t struggled against a lot of chop, or worked up a good set of blisters paddling against a crosswind. Though this does look intriguing:

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For now, truthfully, I feel no urge to battle the elements, or race, aboard a paddleboard. Because SUPing on flat water, in light or no breeze, is sublime, and that’s all I crave. There is something about standing up, and seeing things from a 6-foot elevation, that is surprisingly rewarding. Last weekend I paddled out past Big Island, through an almost deserted anchorage. The leaves blazed orange and yellow. A few geese honked in the distance. The summer crowds were long gone, indoors watching football and turning up the central heating. The most prominent noise was the splash of water when I dipped my paddle. As I glided along the Big Island shoreline, daydreaming about the days we used to camp there, I came across a fisherman in a skiff. He was casting his lure into the shallows, for perch. He paused to check out the apparition that had appeared noiselessly alongside him (I was wearing red Crocs, lime-green board shorts, a purple fleece, and a fleece beanie), but instantly grasped the essence of what we were both up to. “Beautiful day to be out here on the water,” he offered. “Sure is,” I answered, and paddled on.

So consider me at least a flat-water SUP convert. If a good breeze, and a stiff chop, keeps me off the paddleboard, I won’t suffer. Instead, I know exactly what I will do: Get out Ivar’s misunderstood windsurfer, and use it (finally) for the purpose it was intended. After all, it started the whole SUP thing.** **

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