Stand-Up Paddle Boarding

When I was a kid there were four major sports: baseball, basketball, hockey, and football. Paddle boarding was something your father did to you when he took you out behind the woodshed. And yes, I’m 106 years old. But now it seems as though there are hundreds of sports to choose from and one of the fastest-growing is called stand-up paddle boarding, or SUP.

In the early 1960s, photographers in Waikiki would stand on their long boards and paddle out to take pictures of tourists learning to surf. But in 1996 two Hawaiian surfers, Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, started standing up on tandem surfboards and paddling out to actually catch waves. And a new sport was born.

Within about ten years, companies began manufacturing production boards and paddles, and the sport really started to take off. The early boards were about eleven to twelve feet long and about a foot wider and a couple of inches deeper than a normal surfboard. The extra size provided enough stability to enable the surfer to stand on the board without tipping. Thanks to today’s technology, boards can now be smaller while retaining stability. But at the other end of the spectrum, some long-distance racing boards are twenty feet long. In general though, most people ride nine- to twelve-foot boards.

Patrick Broemmel of Oak Bluffs has been stand-up paddle boarding for about ten years and makes his own boards. He says one of the benefits of SUP is that it’s much less stressful on the shoulders and the lower back than traditional surfing. It’s also considerably easier than traditional surfing since the board is so stable, and you don’t have to transition from a prone to an upright position.

The sport has also expanded well beyond surfing. Flat-water SUP has become a very popular alternative to kayaking. Since you’re upright, you not only get less glare and a better view into the water, it’s also less stressful on your hamstrings and lower back than sitting with your legs outstretched in a kayak.

“For most people,” Patrick explains, “it takes about a minute to learn how to stand-up paddle board. You get on the board, start paddling, and that’s it – it really doesn’t take any great skill.”

Like any new sport, people tend to take SUP to extremes. Expeditions are popular; Patrick has friends who have paddled from Key West to Portland, Maine. Others go in for white-water paddling and take inflatable boards down class-four rapids.

There’s also a lot of interest in SUP fishing. Boards are now available with fishing accessories and being able to stand up is a big advantage for casting, especially if you’re fly-fishing.

But the fastest-growing category is SUP racing. Generally speaking, there are three types of races: flat-water, downwind, and Battle of the Paddle–style. With flat-water racing, you propel yourself over a prescribed long-distance course on a calm body of water. Downwind races are held on the open ocean with the wind at your back; you actually surf on the swells. Battle of the Paddle–style racing is a hybrid type of competition named after a famous race that originated in California; it combines running up the beach and navigating a buoy course on the open ocean.

Patrick claims that the Vineyard is a few years behind places like California and Hawaii when it comes to SUP, but people have been doing it here since about 2006, and a couple of years ago paddle boards started showing up all over. And in fact, the Vineyard is very well-suited for the sport. You have the Sounds and ponds for flat-water boarding and the south side of the Island for surfing. And the great thing is, you don’t need big waves to surf on a stand-up paddle board. Patrick has actually surfed at Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs.

There are no races here on the Island yet, although Patrick competes regularly and with great success throughout New England and has even raced as far away as Hawaii.

There’s much to be said for stand-up paddle boarding but one of the things Patrick likes best is that you can go anytime and pretty much anywhere you like. “I find myself surfing a lot less now,” he explains. “Rather than go up to Squibnocket and compete for waves with about thirty people, sometimes I’ll just drive up to Menemsha and paddle down to Lambert’s Cove, leave my board on the beach and then take the VTA [bus] back to my car.”

The price of entry for SUP could be as little as the cost of a used windsurfing board you pick up at a yard sale, plus a paddle. Manufactured boards start around $500 – they even sell them at Costco. Or you can spend close to $4,000 for a state-of-the-art carbon fiber board complete with tiller. But as a rule, the average board costs somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000. Then again, you could have Patrick make a custom board for you – he’ll make you a beauty.

The Boneyard Surf Shop in Edgartown and the Green Room and Wind’s Up! in Vineyard Haven rent and sell paddle board equipment. Patrick Broemmel (508-287-9528) makes custom boards.