I'm not one to follow the latest fitness fads, but I've got to admit, SUP - as it's called for short - has it going on. It's kind of like surfing and kind of like canoeing, just depends on where you do it. Whatever the venue, the premise is the same: you stand on a board and navigate through the water using a one-bladed paddle.
Cool? Absolutely! New? Not so much. Turns out stand up paddle boarding has been around for ages. The Beach Boys of Waikiki pioneered the sport back in the '60s teaching tourists how to surf. It would be another 40 years before SUP would make its debut in the continental U.S.
Southern California surfers first started paddle boarding in 2000 as an alternative to surfing when there wasn't much wave action. Soon others were paddling for exercise, touting it as the perfect low-impact core workout.
In the last several years, SUP has continued to gain popularity as more and more people discover the versatility of the sport. In a lake or quiet creek, paddle boarding is a lot like canoeing only with a higher vantage point to better observe nature. In the ocean, it's a whole 'nother animal. Using the paddle to carve into turns, you can rip through swells like the watermen of Waikiki.
For flat water cruising, the boards are big and buoyant, running 11 to 14 feet long. Shorter boards with smaller tails are used for surfing. For those who want to do both, there are hybrid models.
I finally decided to try stand up paddle boarding on a recent visit to Hilton Head Island. Rather than rent a board and set out on my own, I took a two-hour introductory class with Outside Hilton Head to learn the basic paddling strokes and the proper way to stand on the board.
"It's as easy as kayaking," Outside Hilton Head owner Mike Overton assured me.
Sure, paddling I can handle. It's the standing-on-the-board part that had me worried, especially after getting whipped earlier this summer trying to surf on Folly Beach. Even with the help of a very patient instructor, I never managed to stay upright on the surfboard more than a few seconds. I fully expected to encounter the same difficulties on a stand up paddle board.
Mike set me up with SUP instructor Sam Boyd, a California transplant who took up the sport after moving to the Lowcountry several years ago. Because I was a beginner, she selected a Yolo (that's a clever acronym for "you only live once"), a monster board with a foam traction pad in the center.
After setting the board in the water from a specially designed launching dock at Shelter Cove Harbour, I climbed on top, taking my first few strokes from a sitting position. Once I was away from the dock, I rose up to my knees and then to my feet, being careful to keep my body weight balanced over the center of the board.
The stance for paddle boarding is very different than for surfing. Your feet should be positioned facing straight on the board and about 18 inches apart. As I adjusted my feet, I quickly realized any false move to one side or another and I would be taking a swim.
You paddle the board much like you paddle a canoe, alternating strokes from one side to another. Just as Mike had promised, it was smooth sailing once I got going. The protected waters of Broad Creek make it a great place to find your sea legs. And you can paddle deep into the narrow channels that wind through the Spartina grass where wildlife often feed.
In the wide open part of the creek, the paddling became a little more difficult as the wind picked up. You body acts like a sail, requiring you to paddle with more oomph.
By the time we returned to the dock I fully understood the concept of a core workout. It seemed as if every muscle in my body had done its part to keep me balanced and upright. It's no wonder SUP has become such a sensation. Why exercise in a stuffy gym when you can enjoy the great outdoors and burn a boatload of calories to boot.
Stand up Paddling Boarding
Outside Hilton Head
Private Instruction: $50 an hour.
Stand Up Nature Walk: 2-hour guided paddle of the coastal salt marsh.
Board rentals: $55 for one day; $95 for three days. Includes board, paddle, leash, rack pads and tie downs.
For more information, visit www.outsidehiltonhead.com or call (800) 686-6996.