"Wassup!" With SUP?

By Ted Sensenbrenner

Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) can be enjoyed with minimal equipment and minimal cost, and any age can participate. It's also a great workout. Grab the paddle — but not just any paddle.

Photo of a group of stand-up paddleboarders on the beachCourtesy of MTI Adventurewear, Bethany & Dan Photography

A stand-up paddleboard is wider than a surfboard, usually greater than 30 inches wide, and is typically thicker and longer to give it the flotation needed for a participant to stand, even when not moving. SUPs typically have a foam core wrapped with epoxy resin or fiberglass cloth and have rigid fins to help track a straight line in the water.

Paddles are made of carbon, aluminum, or wood and will float if dropped in the water. The paddle should be six to 10 inches taller than the participant and should be of good quality. Some paddles come in adjustable sizes but should be stiff so your stroke converts the power exerted into forward motion instead of flexing the paddle.

Stand-up paddleboarding has been evolving slowly with surfers in the last 10 years but has really boomed in popularity with water lovers and paddle sport enthusiasts of all types in the last five. Initial growth started near ocean surf zones where surfers found it could help them catch larger waves and extend their overall number of days spent on the water. Initially, there were no rules other than to respect Mother Ocean and share the waves, typical surfer etiquette.

Rules of the Water

As others recognized the obvious fun, the workout benefits, and the potential to paddle in areas other than in the surf, stand-up paddleboarding exploded in popularity on lakes, bays, and rivers. Anywhere there was reasonable access and navigable water, these areas began seeing more enthused participants and further evolution of the sport.

The increase in popularity and the fact that SUPs and other recreational boat traffic now share the same waters prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to classify SUPs as "vessels" in 2008. This subjected them to the same regulations as canoes and kayaks when operated outside of surf zones. As such, SUP participants must comply with the equipment regulations as set by the U.S. Coast Guard for non-motorized craft and for boats under 16 feet in length.

What's Required?

For starters, a life jacket is required if you use your SUP beyond the limits of a surfing area. This means that if you're not catching a wave and surfing it toward the beach, you must have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vest aboard or be wearing it. In most states, children under the age of 13 are required to wear their life jackets. Some areas even have requirements to wear them on certain local bodies of water or during winter months regardless of age.

Participants must also comply with the requirement to carry a sound-producing device, to alert others of an emergency, and to make others aware of your presence. The easiest way to comply with this requirement is with a plastic whistle, which can be found at an outdoor or marine retail store and then clipped to your life jacket.

If operating after sunset or in low-light conditions, you must have a white light to comply with the running lights requirements. For this, a small headlamp will suffice and keep your hands free for paddling. Some headlamps have a switch for blinking, strobe, and SOS modes and will comply with the requirement to carry a visual distress signal when operating at night.

Don't Leave Me Now

Although not required, a leash that attaches to your ankle with Velcro is a very important piece of safety equipment. In the event of a fall, currents and winds can quickly sweep your paddleboard away from you. In ocean waves, a runaway board can be an extreme danger to others. As a general rule, leashes should be about the same length as the board.

There are two types of leashes. Coiled leashes that lie on the deck of your board are best for recreational flat-water paddling. The coil action keeps the leash from dragging in the water or inadvertently snagging something. Straight leashes are best for surf. Experts emphasize that you do not want to use a coiled leash in any situation where the board is likely to re-coil or spring back at you. And finally, when paddleboarding in swift-moving or white water, experts agree that a leash with a quick-release feature that attaches to your life jacket — not your ankle or calf — is best, or don't use a leash at all.

Taking It to the Next Level

In a survey conducted by SUP Magazine in 2011, over half of the respondents taught themselves to paddleboard and another 25 percent said they learned from a friend. Fifteen percent learned from an instructor. Retail and rental shops are great sources of information, too. A great resource for instructions on anything paddling, including SUP, can be found at www.americancanoe.org. 

This article was published in the Winter 2013 issue of Trailering Magazine.

Did You Know ...

Photo of boy standing on a paddleboardPhoto by Laura Davis

  • That Hoe He'e Nalu is Hawaiian for surfing with a paddle?
  • Or that the elbow bend in the shaft of the paddle is designed for efficiency. It gives you a slightly longer forward reach, and aligns straight up and down when it comes alongside, which is the point where the stroke is most powerful.


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