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Give It A Try: Stand Up Paddling

It Could Be The One Sport That Fits All

author image Mike Scarr
Mike Scarr is a features editor and writer with Demand Media. He has been a sportswriter and editor for more than 25 years working in multiple media and covering a variety of sports.
Give It A Try: Stand Up Paddling
Give It A Try: Stand Up Paddling Photo Credit Cameron Spencer/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images


The sport of stand up paddling may have its roots in Polynesian culture, but its popularity has grown in the 21st century. Surfers and nonsurfers alike are being drawn to the water and getting to their feet.

It's fun; it's good fitness; and you should give it a try.

The act of doing it requires concentration, and your mind is focused so that it occupies your mind throughout your workout, unlike anything I've done before.

Blane Chambers, Paddlesurf Hawaii

Hooked on Board and Paddle

He is a simple and solitary figure.

Slowly, silently he glides through the water beyond the surf line and is largely unnoticed except for the silhouette he cuts across the horizon.

It's a scene from any era -- board and paddler -- but altogether contemporary and emblematic of timeless travel connected to a sport with grass-roots appeal.

"You're going to get hooked," said Nate Burgoyne, editor and founder of "Stand Up Paddle Surfing Magazine." "All you have to do is try it once."

There isn't much to it, this sport of stand up paddling.

All that is needed is a board, a paddle and a body of water, but in that simplicity lies its true beauty. Or so its devotees will tell you.

"The act of doing it requires concentration, and your mind is focused so that it occupies your mind throughout your workout, unlike anything I've done before," said Blane Chambers, who owns Paddlesurf Hawaii. "That is why I started, because it is the way it occupies my mind. ... This is awesome and makes you want to go out and do it again."

Blame it on Laird

The sport, according to folklore, can be traced to a distant Polynesian past, but some believe it took root around Waikiki where beach boys would paddle out to take photos of tourists learning to surf.

Surfing legend Gerry Lopez recalls seeing stand up paddlers in the early 1960s, but wrote in SUP of eyewitness accounts that predate his first viewing by at least 10 years.

"George (Downing) said Scooter-Boy (Joseph Kaopuiki) would carry his big, heavy 'kook-box' surfboard on his shoulder, beach-boy style, down to the water's edge, toss it in, jump aboard and paddle out from a standing position using his feet, one foot at a time. With an outrigger canoe paddle, it was even easier."

Both Lopez and Laird Hamilton give credit to Duke Kahanamoku for being the link to stand up paddling's past, but it was Hamilton, generally regarded as surfing's greatest big-wave rider, who helped to bring the sport to the masses.

Hamilton told Lopez in a SUP magazine interview that he initially used the paddle board to surf with his daughter, but later found with fellow big-wave surfer Dave Kalama that it was far more than a mode of transportation or a way to catch a wave.

It was a training tool.

"Most surfers really are leg weak. We're more like swimmers where we have big upper bodies and bird legs. And when you get a wave that's a minute long, you're shot, your legs are like rubber," Hamilton told SUP. "I feel like I've never been stronger. There's not one thing I could've done in my life that enhanced my surfing like standup has. I just feel the benefits instantly."

Growth over the last 10 years has taken stand up paddling from Hawaii to California and abroad, and from the ocean to inlet bays, rivers and lakes.

"The first time I saw it, I just kinda said: 'Wow. Look what those guys are doing,' and the only thing I thought was maybe that would be a good way to fish," said Chambers, who designs and shapes paddle boards. "But anytime Laird does something, everyone thinks it's a pretty cool thing to do, and it just sort of blossomed from there."

Fitness on the Water

While the sport has accelerated, exact participation numbers are not available. But the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association will include data in its next study, said Mandy Lausche, SIMA communications manager.

Anecdotal evidence exists, and the fitness component of stand up paddling is being included in exercise regimens.

Estimates for calories burned per hour range from 250 to 1,000, depending on the level of exertion as it works the body's major muscle groups including shoulders, arms, legs, back and core.

"The benefits I'm seeing are people are improving their balance; they're improving their stamina. People are losing weight naturally because they're finding a way they like to move around. It is very stimulating visually and physically," said Jodi Kealoha, a personal fitness trainer who teaches stand up paddling for Rainbow Water Sports in Maui. "People lose the weight, and their lifestyle quality improves. They love it."

Kealoha spent about eight years in Los Angeles, where she started her career in personal training. She first saw stand up paddling around that same time.

Back on her home island of Maui, Kealoha took to the sport of stand up paddling in 2010, and fell for it immediately. She said she gets students in all ages and body types to her classes, and most students pick it up in less than a day, especially if they practice first in flat water like a slow-moving river or lake. Some water and a good instructor can make it part of any fitness routine.

"That is a great thing; you can use it in any body of water," said Kealoha, who owns her own training business, Luv Urself-Fitness. "When you're surfing, you might need perfect conditions. But when you're paddling, you can be on flat water or sunbathe or do your workout. The options are kind of limitless, so that is great."

Its Own Craft

Today's paddle boards are not just your old man's castaway log, but specifically designed to maximize stand up paddling's nuances.

A paddle board is noticeably wider with a standard of 33 to 34 inches recommended for an entry-level board, but a racing board can be 28 inches or fewer. Board lengths range from 10 to 12 feet for beginners and 18 feet for racing.

The main issue for a paddle board is stability, and the wider and thicker platform gives the paddler a better base on which to stand. One can paddle on smooth water, compete in long-distance races or get a little of both by paddling into waves for a more traditional ride.

"It is a unique industry," Chambers said. "There is nothing like it."

And that, too, can be said for a sport that has withstood the test of time.

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