I’m up way too early for a Saturday morning. San Diego is just starting to roll out of bed, and here I am, standing ankle-deep in the nipple-firming waters of Mission Bay. A light breeze and a few small clouds overhead remind me that we haven’t broken through winter yet. I’m not alone. Four strangers join me, and together we cast out a fleeting prayer that the parts of us above the knees will stay dry.
“Now, remember, momentum is key,” our instructor assures us as we step onto the boards that will carry us. “It is far easier to maintain balance while moving.”
He’s right, of course, and as we pick up speed with each paddle stroke, the beasts beneath our feet become more docile. In the time it takes to pop a bag of microwave popcorn, we’ve all learned to stand-up paddleboard.
Stand-up paddleboarding—SUP for brevity’s sake—is a relatively new sport. It combines aspects of canoeing, longboarding and windsurfing and can be enjoyed in places as diverse as the flat waters of a bay or lake and the swells of an angry ocean. The board is basically a beefed up longboard with a heart of foam and a soul of epoxy resin. A paddle is used to generate speed and can be adjusted according to each paddler’s height and skill level. The equipment is varied, and the sport branches into several subcategories, but for beginners, it’s as straightforward as learning how to ride a bicycle.
After our two-hour session on the calm waters of Mission Bay, I get a chance to talk to our instructor and organizer of the San Diego Stand Up Paddlers Meetup Group. Brody Welte heads YOLO Board’s West Coast operations and runs his own SUP fitness business called Stand Up Fitness. “My whole goal when I am taking someone out who is a first-time paddler,” he says, “is to make sure that they are safe and having fun.”
Welte picked up the sport while living in Hawaii. “Most people love the fact that it is simple and has a short learning curve. The simplicity of just needing a paddle and a board and the fact that almost all people are able to get up and paddle their first time—these two things are a huge factor in the enjoyment of paddling,” he says as my muscles start to realize just what a workout I put them through.
Stand-up paddleboarding is a major but sneaky workout. I like to consider myself in decent shape—like run-down-a-purse-snatcher shape—but put that same purse snatcher on an SUP and Grandma isn’t getting her purse back. After our session, I can feel the muscles in my shoulders, core, legs and feet start to calculate the energy I just exhausted during our four-mile paddle around Fiesta Island.
A few days before trying my luck on an SUP, I did what any self-respecting neophyte would have done: I Googled the sport and watched a few clips on YouTube. I found that a serious SUP subculture has emerged—and then I watched a cat jump into a cardboard box.
“It became obvious to me, pretty early on, that the community aspect of the sport was one of its greatest assets,” says Andre Niemeyer, founder of SUPConnect.com, a website dedicated to the community of stand-up paddlers around the world. “Many action sports have an ethos of exclusivity, like ‘I’m cool and you’re not’ or ‘I’m a local and you’re not.’ But not in stand-up paddling.”
With a background in professional surfing, Niemeyer saw the growth potential of SUP and resolved to create a digital platform to promote the sport and bring other paddlers together. “Standup paddlers are known for encouraging others to try the sport, to become involved, to participate in events and, together, live a healthier and more wholesome life.”
Boardworks, a San Diego SUP manufacturer, began constructing SUPs in 2007 and now offers a range of boards to fit any skill level. Bob Rief, operating officer and co-owner at Boardworks, knows exactly why San Diego is the perfect place to SUP. “Water, water everywhere,” he says, “and better yet, different types of water. We have shore breaks, point breaks, lagoons, bays and blue water.”
With only one SUP session under my belt, I’m already plotting an expedition out of Mission Bay, taking on the open ocean with a paddle around Point Loma. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, but, after only a few hours, I’m hooked.
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