(Published by the San Jose Mercury-News and its affiliates on August 17, 2014.)
When the surf is down, and the winds are slight, it’s time to walk on water — or so say an increasing number of Bay Area residents reveling in one of today’s hottest sports, stand-up paddleboarding.
Nicknamed SUP — and pronounced like a slacker’s greeting — this splashy rec activity can be enjoyed by nearly anybody anywhere there’s a body of water. And it’s gloriously addictive.
“We got hooked,” Oakland SUP-er Parker Page confesses. After just one lesson in Alameda, Page and his wife, Laura, bought their own boards and paddles. Now they scour weather reports so they can rush out and paddle on calm mornings.
“We’re honing our skills,” Laura says. “We want to make sure that if a boat wake comes at us, we’re good.”
What began as a niche hobby — albeit one with a Polynesian past — hit the mainstream in 2010, when the Outdoor Industry Association’s annual survey of outdoor pursuits counted a million passionate paddleboarders in the United States alone. By last year, it was 2 million — and SUP had more first-time participants that year than any of the other 40+ outdoor recreational activities included in the annual study. The sport is popular in lakes, rivers and coves from Russia to Peru. It has its own competitions and even its own magazines.
A huge part of its popularity is its equal-opportunity aspects, says Jane Cormier, who owns Boardsports School & Shop with partner Rebecca Geffert. “We get a lot of couch surfers who don’t do a lot of other sports,” Cormier says.
Although their operations in San Francisco, San Mateo and Alameda also focus on kiteboarding and windsurfing, Cormier says, “Paddleboarding appeals to the masses more than anything else that we do. It’s so approachable. It’s so easy — it’s very social.”
Cormier sees a wide range of ages, both genders and every level of fitness among customers, who take lessons or just paddle around in happy groups, followed by the occasional curious baby seal, as rays and fish glide below.
San Francisco Bay paddlers will likely see an array of birds wing past — gulls, cormorants or loons, depending on the season — while they admire the ever-present views of cityscapes and the towering hills that ring the Bay.
“I really love the idea of standing up on the water as opposed to sitting in a kayak,” Parker says. “It’s a very different experience.”
Whether around a bay, in a lake or river or on the coast, SUP delivers quick, positive reinforcement, says Scott Ruble, who owns Covewater SUP in Santa Cruz with his wife, Leslie. “Within three or four minutes, that feeling of instability — maybe you’re shaking a little bit — goes away.”
Students learn the basics in an hour and a half, Cormier tells her beginning students, and serious upper-body strength is not a requirement. Ruble makes similar assurances. That first lesson, he says, is spent learning “how to stand up, how to turn, how to go straight, how to stop. All the things needed to be sufficient on a shore or a lake. That’s all you need to next get on any body of water and have fun.”
A few SUP newbies forgo lessons, a shortcut that may end up taking far more time, says Mitch Powers, a manager at Sausalito’s Sea Trek Kayak & SUP. “I can’t tell you how many people I see out there who do it on their own, and they have poor technique,” he says. They struggle with their balance, hunching their posture and bending over too far — which skews the odds toward a dip in the drink. They stare at their feet instead of the horizon, lock their knees instead of bending them and some even hold the paddle backward. A learning curve that could be swiftly conquered gets very steep indeed when you’re holding your paddle the wrong way.
So take a lesson, the experts say, and keep an eye on the weather. Ideal paddling conditions involve “little wind and calm water, because most people haven’t invested enough in lessons and practice to take windy, choppy conditions,” Powers says.
Parker is even more blunt: “If it’s too windy, your body becomes a sail and that makes it much more difficult.”
Windy or not, SUP is serious exercise, a bit like straddling an ever-moving balance ball while rolling your arms. It’s a full-body workout that strengthens the core muscles — and there are more advanced forms of the sport, too, including stand-up paddle surfing. Now it turns out, SUP and paddle surfing are wooing some former surfers, including Santa Cruz firefighter Frank Laguna, back to their sport. Laguna took up SUP eight months ago.
“Once I tried it, I never looked back, and I’ve had a great time,” he says. “It got me back in the water again and enjoying life.”
Now, Laguna paddleboards or stand-up surfs with his whole family and savors one particularly enviable benefit: While regular surfers wait for that elusive wave, “you can catch one- or two-foot ankle-biters and just cruise on those.”
Another red-hot SUP offshoot is paddleboard yoga, which increases the usual yoga perks by working new muscle groups to stay balanced on the board. And then there’s the environment.
“I teach yoga at indoor studios, and the only place where you really feel connected, awake, aware is on the water,” says yoga instructor Malia Hill, whose SupAsana East Bay offers classes in the 80-acre lake at Pleasanton’s Shadow Cliffs.
If you’re worried that your downward dog will end up a waterlogged pooch, don’t fret. Wider boards with built-in mats and modified yoga poses make this version of yoga accessible to both novices and experts. “When people fall off these boards, it’s because they’ve gotten so comfortable on them that they walk off,” says Kathleen Carpenter, Hill’s business partner. “Or they fall in to cool off.”
Like many fellow SUP-ophiles, Carpenter became so enthusiastic about the sport, she got her husband and daughter hooked on both SUP and its yoga variation. They love the exercise, the peaceful environment and the escape from stress.
“We’re so passionate about it,” she says with a laugh, “we need an intervention.”
More About SUP
When to do it: Mornings are by far the best, with spring and fall being peak seasons in the Bay Area because of milder winds.
What to wear: During warmer months, board shorts, light tops or bathing suits are fine. Rougher weather, colder seasons and more advanced versions of SUP like paddle surfing and “downwinding” (using the wind at your back to go longer distances, fast) usually call for wetsuits.
Best places to SUP: The majority of people seek flat water and low winds. Optimal locations are: Richardson Bay in Sausalito; Tomales Bay; Bolinas; Quarry Lake Regional Park in Fremont; Leo J. Ryan Park in Foster City; Crown Beach in Alameda; Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore; Pillar Point Harbor at Princeton; the yacht harbor, Capitola and New Brighton Beach in the Santa Cruz area; Lake Tahoe. Some smaller lakes like Shoreline in Mountain View and Vasona in Los Gatos can be less enjoyable due to residue from the over-abundant goose populations. For dozens of launching spots throughout the region, go to: http://watertrails.info/SFBayPutIns/
Lessons and tours:
Boardsports School & Shop – The best location to learn SUP among this operation’s three sites is Alameda’s Crown Beach. Introductory classes are $69 and semi-private or private clinics run $99 and $139, respectively. Tours ($39-59) and custom trips are also available. (415) 385-1224. http://boardsportsschool.com/stand-up/lessons/
Sea Trek Kayak & SUP – Located at Sausalito’s beautiful, protected bay, this operation offers introductory lessons for $60 and runs a few tours for $60 and $75. (415) 332-8494 http://www.seatrek.com/stand-paddle/stand-paddle-classes/
Covewater SUP – This Santa Cruz operator runs beginner’s classes in the protected harbor ($59) and introductory ocean SUP classes in calm Capitola ($69) as well as offering a coastal tour ($69). (831) 600-7230 http://covewatersup.com/classes-tours
SupAsana East Bay – Popular SUP yoga sessions are held in the lake at Shadow Cliffs Regional Park in Pleasanton. Introductory lessons start with SUP instruction and cost $35. An extended class is $45. Custom events can also be created. (925) 819-6770. https://www.facebook.com/SupAsanaEastBay (information); http://bookwhen.com/supasanaeastbay (booking).