Standing on the Salish Sea: The Joys of SUP

When you first see someone Stand Up Paddling (SUP), you may think this person bought a surfboard without the requisite skills to surf the waves, then gave up and just started paddling around on it. Like many first impressions, this would be wrong.

Not only is SUP deeply intertwined with big wave surfing, but it was popular long before surfing. Our ancient ancestors were SUPing before the dawn of history. Ancient peoples quickly discovered that the stability of canoes and kayaks came at a price. You sit low in the water and don’t have a commanding view of upcoming obstacles and wave conditions.

Amy Kashiwa, enjoying upright bliss on the Salish Sea. Photo by Mike Powell
Amy Kashiwa, enjoying upright bliss on the Salish Sea. Photo by Mike Powell

But when you stand up in your little canoe, you can suddenly see all around you. You can paddle further into the water and still keep an eye on the shore. You can see water conditions far ahead and make smart course corrections. Centuries before Polynesians began catching waves, adventurers all around the globe were standing tall on floating boards, paddling toward distant shores and ferrying goods to and fro.

Eventually, Stand Up Paddling came full circle. Polynesians and Hawaiians started bringing paddles with them when they surfed the big waves. The paddles made it easier to cruise far beyond the swells.

Once out there, these paddling surfers had a commanding view of the wave activity and could rapidly situate themselves in the sweetest possible spot to catch the Big One.

Throughout the surfing revival of the 20th century, the sport was practiced as a hands-free endeavor. But like most good ideas, paddle surfing returned to the sport as if it were some kind of modern breakthrough. Many modern surfers now take a paddle with them when they venture out beyond the swells. Stand Up Paddling has been reborn.

From ancient explorers to modern recreationalists, the advantages and joys of SUPing are self-evident.

Brian Smart in Chuckanut Bay. Photo by Mike Powell
Brian Smart in Chuckanut Bay. Photo by Mike Powell

Here in the Pacific Northwest we are blessed with a myriad of water-sport opportunities. We can kayak mighty rapids, surf the waves at La Push, paddle canoes across untold glassy lakes, or sail the stunning coastlines. Ours is a habitat custom-made for Stand Up Paddling. Granted, SUPers smartly avoid turbulent waters. Getting swamped is no fun. But wherever the waters are calm you’re likely to see folks standing tall on long boards, paddling their way across lakes and along the rocky coast.

Among these vertical paddlers is 47-year-old Brian Smart of Bellingham. An avid outdoorsman, Brian enjoys cycling, hiking, running, rock climbing, kite-boarding, and paddling. He started swimming when he was a wee one, and his enjoyment of the water never ceased. Like many SUPpers, Brian started out surfing.

“In 1996 a co-worker took me to Westport for a weekend surf trip. I had no idea what I was doing and his mentoring skills were somewhat lacking. But I had a great time and surfing has been something that I do whenever I get the chance. About three years ago standup paddle boards starting showing up locally. I started paddling different boards and couldn’t believe how easy and fun it was, not to mention an amazing workout.”

Like most SUPers, Brian derives great satisfaction from paddling hither and yon.

“Being on the water on is incredibly calming. It doesn’t matter if I’m racing or just cruising. Last year I started paddling with the Bellingham Bay Outrigger Paddlers club in a six person Hawaiian-style outrigger canoe. While I love the teamwork, paddling on my SUP is an independent endeavor. If I want to stop and take a swim, lay on the board and float, go fast or slow, it’s just me.”

Speaking of going fast and slow, Brian has also stepped up his game by becoming a competitive paddler.

End of day sweetness. Photo by Mike Powell
End of day sweetness. Photo by Mike Powell

“Racing has been both a fun and frustrating experience, but I’ve learned a lot about proper training, diet, and to just have fun. The community is so positive. At a recent race in La Conner one of my friends just crushed the course. He was already loading his board when I crossed the finish line. Yet he was hollering at me from the shore ‘Go man, GO!! 20 yards! Push it!!’ Other paddlers were also cheering and it’s just really great to have people encourage you to keep pushing yourself. In turn, it’s always great to return that energy. I remember finishing Round the Rock last year, a 13-mile race around Mercer Island, seeing  people finish the race after paddling for four hours! Now those people deserved the cheering! I’m not sure how much longer I can race, but I know I’ll continue to paddle and support the sport.”

While paddle boarders like Brian enjoy pushing the envelope in local competitions, most folks do it for the pure joy of it. Amy Kashiwa and her teenage son Riley prefer the calm, meditative aspects of recreational SUPing. An Occupational Therapist who knows a thing or two about the human body, Amy is an unashamed “fair weather” paddle boarder.

“It feels peaceful to be on the water paddling. I appreciate living and recreating in such a beautiful setting. Paddle boarding is a nice way to experience the water, fresh air and wildlife while being active.

“It’s a great workout for balance and core exercise. It’s nice owning two boards so that one of my kids can join me on the water. One of them usually stays with our dog on shore and we switch off. I prefer paddle boarding to kayaking because it is such a different kind of workout, incorporating the full body.”

Most sailing sports require a lot of gear and some training. You can take kayak lessons from folks like the Whatcom Association of Kayak Enthusiasts (WAKE) or the Bellingham Canoe and Kayaks Sprint Team, which specializes in youth training programs. There’s a lot to learn for newcomers who want to kayak effectively and safely.

Standing room only. Photo by Mike Powell
Standing room only. Photo by Mike Powell

But SUPing is different. The basics can be learned in five minutes and most SUPers find their feet with little to no formal training. Of course, good balance, good swimming skills and proper safety gear are important, but of all the things you can do on the water, SUPing is the easiest to jump into. Here’s Amy about her introduction to paddle boarding:

“I was introduced to the sport when my daughter Aspen wanted to try it out in Hawaii. After that trip, we decided to rent one from Bellingham Kite/Paddle/Surf. Took it out on Lake Whatcom and really enjoyed it.

“We later purchased one from the Kite shop, who gave us a discount towards the purchase since we had already demo’ed the board. We have acquired another board since then and have also purchased safety equipment from the shop: booties, rash guards, leashes, etc. One of the reasons I wanted to get into the sport: the portability of the boards is easier than a kayak. I can put the boards on the car by myself, so I can paddle alone.”

Paddling home. Photo by Mike Powell
Paddling home. Photo by Mike Powell

So, you’re probably asking yourself how you can become one of those paddle boarders slipping silently along the bay. Fortunately, it’s easy to learn and it won’t break the bank. The first thing you’ve got to do is find a retailer who can guide you into the water.

Here in the Fourth Corner it seems every SUPer has some level of affiliation with Bellingham Kite/ Paddle/Surf. They maintain an attractive and bustling shop on the Bellingham Waterfront and carry a huge array of boards, paddles, safety gear and accessories. They can get you the hardware you need and the instruction to get you going.

I asked the company’s Dave Sanford how a newbie like me could get started paddle boarding.

“Our lessons are done right out of the shop and take place in the marina and in the bay just outside the breakwater. Lessons typically start in May but we offer product demos all year. We also supply boards for the 3 Oms Yoga paddle board classes and we offer demos at Lake Padden all summer long.”

In case you think you read that wrong, let me be clear: yes, you can take a yoga class that is taught and performed on stand-up paddle boards. Just when you thought you had achieved that nirvana level of balance, along comes the ninja level.

Summer is here, people. Go get wet!

Learn to SUP

The Community Boating Center is offering classes to help you get started. Paddleboarding 101 classes are being offered on July 27 and August 30. Paddle along Boulevard Park for a leisurely afternoon, or pack some water and paddle down to Chuckanut Island for a memorable workout. Classes start from the beginning and cover appropriate clothing, balance techniques, paddle strokes, and self rescues.  Register here.

Adventures_NW_-Ted Rosen is a avid urban hiker who enjoys interviewing people who do things he wouldn’t consider. Ted also enjoys traveling overseas to do more urban hiking and has been known to snap a photograph or two. He much prefers New York style pizza over that Chicago-style casserole.

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