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What's SUP?

What's SUP?
By Traci O'Dea

The origins of stand up paddling (SUP) are the subject of some controversy. Naysayers claim the sport recently entered the world of watersports as a marketing ploy while the Stand Up Paddlesurfing website asserts that it started in the fifties when cruise ship tourists took surfing lessons from Hawaiian “beach boys”—they stood up with a paddle in order to keep an eye on their charges and take photos to sell them. Last year, while visiting some friends in St Thomas, I saw about a dozen people on the boards—two were paddling around the flat, calm waters of Hull Bay—one had a viewing window in the middle of her board to see the marine life below—while out at the point, a group of surfers with paddles were catching waves that conventional surfers probably would have found difficult to paddle out to with just their hands. The sport instantly made sense as a means to explore the sea and also to ride previously hard-to-reach breaks.

It's easy to see why stand up paddling is often compared to walking on water. Photo by Traci O'Dea.

A year later, the sport has exploded in the BVI. Andy Morrell added SUP to the Highland Spring HIHO last year and started a BVI SUP club, Cedar School offers after school SUPing, Bob Carson shapes the boards in Cane Garden Bay and watersports centres from Trellis Bay to Sopers Hole have started giving lessons.

For my first SUP lesson, I met Scott Hustins from Island Surf & Sail at Smugglers Cove on the morning of St Ursula’s Day. After a quick briefing on land, he got me out on the water. I stood up pretty easily and found my balance, but I couldn’t stop looking down at the board and the paddle. This is the equivalent of watching your feet while running. Not exactly effective. And when I glanced over at Scott—lighthouse straight and effortlessly moving through the rippling waves with even, steady, silent strokes—I felt like a wobbly, flailing, noisy windmill. When I was finally able to look out in front of me, Scott assured me I was doing fine, but I cringed each time I heard my paddle bang against the side of the board.

Flat water stand up paddling is popular, mainly due to the fact that “the learning curve is very rapid,” Scott said. Everyone can learn—from kids to seniors. In that respect, it’s similar to cross country skiing or kayaking. Bob Carson from Cane Garden Bay Surfshop, who custom makes SUPs for BVI residents and visitors remarked that SUPs are “versatile water toys,” adding that the boards have “definitely become the new gotta-have toys on the charter boats." In fact, he’s made SUPs that match the yachts they are on. “I can put the boat logo on it or the company logo, and it’ll look like it belongs to the boat,” he said. He’s also talking to Adam Cole, the new PE teacher at Cedar School about making some boards for the afterschool Paddleboard Club.

Most people that SUP are interested in it as a mellow activity that gets them out on the water. But wave riders are drawn to the sport for other reasons. Laird Hamilton, undoubtedly the most popular big-wave rider, is now the biggest champion of stand up paddle surfing. When asked on an episode of Good Morning America, if he could do only one sport, he said it would be stand up paddling “because of the diversity of it.” The August issue of the Deseret News reported, “While some see Laird's innovations and promotions of the budding sport as a betrayal of traditional surfing, he sees it as a way to allow more people to enjoy the sport he loves.”

I spoke with one wave surfer who said that he’ll SUP surf at Apple or Josiah’s on smaller wave days, but for the most part, “crowded areas are a no-no because you have other options.” If he does happen to be in a spot with surfers on short boards, he added that “understanding the etiquette of surfing is pretty important.” For other surfers, who have suffered injuries, SUP surfing offers an alternative to the strain of jumping up from a prone position to catch a wave. scott said, “sUp has been very important in lifestyle changes for me as I have had bad injuries and not able to do much as far as watersports anymore…I’m by no means an expert surfer, but I caught my first small wave in ten years the other day, and I don’t think I stopped smiling for a day.” Bob Carson makes Scott’s boards for him. “I get good feedback from Scott,” Bob said. “He tells me what he likes and what he doesn’t like, and when you do that, you’re building a superior product because you get feedback from people who are actually using them. Those guys in Thailand aren’t getting any feedback, they’re just mass producing those things.”


SUP couple Bari and John Denney at The Baths during last year's HIHO event. Photo courtesy of Ocean Promotions.

On that first day, when I was out with Scott, he apologized for the swell at Smugglers, saying that it had been dead calm an hour before, but I loved the little boost I felt beneath my feet each time a small wave passed below me. For the first time in my life, after my friends have tried for years to get me to try surfing, I understood the attraction of wave riding, of being propelled by the sea itself.

But, Andy Morrell reminded me when I went out with the BVI SUP Club one saturday afternoon, the thing that has made the sport so popular is not the wave riding aspect of it but the flat water exercise. Six of us paddled around between Beef Island and Tortola above the reef and seagrass meadows. Andy called the sport a “safari on the water” as we saw pelicans, tarpon, starfish, rays, conch, sea cucumbers and schools of fish around us. Though I still had some issues with steering on my SUP excursion, I was able to keep up with the group, I didn’t flail too much, and I barely looked down at my board at all.

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