A few weeks ago, while on vacation in Kauai, I tried stand-up paddle boarding for the first time.
I loved it.
Of course, my introduction to the sport known as SUP took place on Hanalei Bay on an 80-degree day under clear, sunny skies. I wore nothing but a swimsuit. When a couple of waves knocked me of the board, the warm ocean water felt invigorating.
Coming home, I wondered: Could SUP be anywhere near as fun in the cool, damp, dark Pacific Northwest?
I knew the sport had a following here. I’d watched a growing number of SUP boarders paddle along Lake Union, the Ship Canal and Puget Sound. While rowing at 5 a.m. at Green Lake, I even witnessed one particularly hardcore SUP’er paddling regularly in his black wet suit, almost invisible in the early morning darkness.
Even so, I had my doubts. After learning how to surf several years ago in Sayulita, Mexico, I followed my friend Pete out to Westport. It took just a half-day in the chilly Pacific waters to convince me that Northwest surfing was not for me.
I needed to experience SUP in Seattle firsthand to give fair judgment. Following a friend’s recommendation on Facebook, I enlisted SUP instructor and enthusiast Rob Casey to bring me up to speed. Casey operates Salmon Bay Paddle in Ballard and recently penned the book “Stand Up Paddling: Flat Water To Surf and Rivers,” which was published by the Mountaineers and comes out April 1.
Before venturing out on the water, Casey filled me in on the background of SUP. The sport’s origins date to the 1940s in Hawaii, when a handful of surfing instructors used stand-up paddle boarding to snap photos while teaching tourists. One of the early adopters, John Zapotocky, appears in this video talking about the history of the sport.
SUP didn’t gain wide appeal, however, until professional surfers Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama adopted the sport to stay fit on days with no waves. Hamilton hired a friend to build his first SUP board in 1995. The pair discovered that not only did SUP provide a good workout, but it allowed them to catch waves farther out and ride them longer than is the case with traditional surfing.
Hamilton’s enthusiasm for SUP eventually helped introduce the sport to the masses. Curious observers watched Hamilton paddling in both Hawaii and his summer home in Malibu, and surfing magazines ran photos of him SUP boarding. Many of his fans decided to give SUP a try, and soon the sport began to catch on with the mainstream. Now, three publishers produce magazines dedicated to the sport, and SUP’ers swarm the offshore waters of warm beaches.
“Today, you’ll see so many people doing SUP on Waikiki, it will blow your mind,” Casey said.
In chilly Seattle, it took a bit longer for SUP to catch on. Casey recalled first seeing someone SUP boarding on Lake Union in 2007, when he was out in his kayak. By 2009, the craze had fully hit. REI and surfboard and kayak retailers around town began renting and selling the gear.
SUP in the Puget Sound area today ranges from the casual flat-water paddler to those who surf big waves at Westport to competitors in local races. Novices can take lessons from Casey ($60 for three hours) or venture to a number of other Puget Sound-area SUP shops. On Lake Union, Urban Surf and Northwest Outdoor Center offer rentals and lessons. Surf Ballard draws clients to Shilshole, and Alki Kayak serves West Seattle. Across Lake Washington, Perfect Wave in Kirkland serves SUP enthusiasts. Up in Everett, athletes can try out Popeye’s Marine and Kayak Center.
For those who want to race, large local SUP races include Round the Rock, a 13-mile race across Mercer Island in September, and the Deception Pass Dash in December. In the summer, Alki Kayaks holds races each Tuesday night, and Urban Surf puts on competitions each Wednesday.
With proper background on the local SUP scene, I felt ready to join Casey for an afternoon outing. We met at a small beach on Shilshole Bay. I pulled on a full wet suit, booties, gloves and hat. Casey also has his clients wear a life jacket, both for safety and for additional warmth. Though it’s possible to SUP without ever going for a dip, Casey recommends everyone dresses appropriate to the water temperature. Casey’s a pro, but he still wears a wet suit every time he goes out.
“With a wet suit, you’ll have more fun, because you don’t worry about falling in,” Casey said.
We carried the wide boards down to the water, waded in, and hoisted ourselves up to a standing position on the boards. SUP has proven popular, Casey said, because any relatively fit person can stand up on the first try. It’s not nearly as challenging as standing on a surfboard to ride a wave. If someone feels uncomfortable standing, they can drop to their knees or sit. Catching waves takes a bit more confidence and skill, but Casey said that comes quickly as well. Casey has taught elderly people and two individuals with multiple sclerosis how to SUP.
That afternoon, the wind off the Sound produced a constant current and small swells, making it impossible to stay in one place for more than a second. Casey showed me how to turn my torso to propel the paddle through the water, much like a kayak stroke. By using the core, he explained, the arms won’t fatigue.
Though the basic set-up and feeling of SUP boarding remained the same as my Kauai experience, I realized one immediate difference. Out on Puget Sound, I really, really did not want to fall in. I’d waded into my knees to take the board into deep-enough water, but a full plunge seemed another, far colder scenario.
The fear of icy water immediately made me tense, and Casey reminded me to relax my body, bend my legs, and use the paddle for balance in the swells. As we played around, I grew more confident, but I still didn’t want to go for a swim. I am someone who can’t stand being cold, and once I start shivering, it’s difficult for me to get warm again.
So is SUP boarding in Seattle for me? In the summer, definitely. I could think of no better way to spend an afternoon than on the water, with the Olympic Mountains in the distance, and seagulls flying overhead. I could see the potential for a great core, balance and aerobic workout, as well, once I felt confident to tackle long distances. After I departed, Casey planned to paddle a full five miles, out to the Discovery Park lighthouse and back. He’d likely take the time to play in freighter and boat wakes along the way as well.
As for SUP in the winter? Fully doable for the adventurous. I think, however, that I’ll wait a few more months before I pull on the wet suit again.