“SUP” has become a bit of a curse word in my home; something to mutter when you stub your toe. Not quite damning enough to replace the f-word, but still a suitable vocal offering for mild discomfort, minor distress or slight frustration.
All this because up until now that best sums up my experience of the people who ride them. They’re a mild discomfort, minor distress and slight frustration.
So I was more surprised than anyone when I recently found myself perched up high on a floating pontoon of a craft with a paddle dangerously flapping in one hand. I was even more shocked to find that something precariously close to a smile was threatening to break out on my face. Please forgive me, for I have dipped my toe in the tumultuous world of (whisper this gently) stand-up-paddle-boarding. It sticks slightly in my throat just saying it.
Where did it all go wrong?
I didn’t set out to experience the world from atop a stand up paddle board. This wasn’t a conscious decision to try and understand the appeal of this brave new frontier of wave riding. I was visiting a friend who happens to live on a small stretch of prime waterfront perfection. And there, lying on the lawn, just feet from the ocean and ever so slightly taunting me, was a SUP. The proverbial pink elephant in the room. The term seemed fitting in reference to its size, anyway. After gently poking the board with my toe it was apparent that this ocean vessel had more in common with a small boat than my beloved shortboard. And that was where I expected this day’s contact with the SUP to end. A small poke with my left foot to acknowledge its, let’s face it, unnecessary presence, and we’d move on. The brief contamination was never to be mentioned again except that, buoyed slightly by half a lunchtime beer, I found myself answering the question: “do you fancy a go?” With a hint of trepidation, I decided to set my prejudices aside. Hell, there was no one around to even see. As soon as you could say “who loves to stand up paddle board” I was being pushed towards the horizon with enough floatation to raise the remains of the Titanic bobbing underneath my size 10’s.
I was off. And the first thing I noticed was just how stable it all seemed. You often see people quivering around on the deck of the board, threatening to spill themselves into the water, but I was surprised at just how much confidence the surface of the board inspired. After only a few strokes with the paddle I’d mastered the very basic maneuverability of the board and was heading waveward, albeit in a rather roundabout way. The turning circle is pretty wide, and getting into position requires a little more thought than surfing even a longboard. There’s no quick pivoting in a split second to charge down the line, at least not for me just yet. However, the ability to pick up the slightest lump in the ocean means that time is on your side. Now, I’m always amazed how easily a longboard picks up, but that’s absolutely nothing compared to this. It’s quite frankly ridiculous what you can paddle into – a bump that would normally pass underneath your board with complete irrelevance suddenly becomes a viable target. You can catch virtually anything you want.
Once planing on the wave it’s a slightly odd sensation. You’re immediately conscious of the fact that you’re standing atop something carrying a lot of momentum. The thing creates a bow wave for crying out loud. And initially I felt as if I were aboard a runaway train desperately fighting to stay in control. I was tempted to move the board with my feet, but thanks to the sheer volume of the thing this wasn’t very effective. Several failed turns taught me that I wasn’t going to be whipping the board around just yet. And this is where the paddle comes into play. Not only is it a means to propel your giant vessel into the face of the wave, it’s also your ticket to working the sections. By using the paddle as a means to pivot the board, while at the same time as a crutch to lean on when really anchoring a turn, I began to see how the SUP can be successfully controlled and waves actually surfed. The bonus of such a ridiculously large platform is that when you do finally manage to come down with the lip, or successfully navigate a critical section, the board is so stable you invariably make it because it’s like landing on solid ground. After a few hours I certainly didn’t have it mastered, but I was improving and unexpectedly enjoying the process.
So would I do it again? Probably. I don’t think I’d ever find myself tempted to reach for the paddle over my standard issue thruster. But as another means of having fun in the sea, something to complement rather than replace surfing, stand-up-paddle-boarding certainly has its place.