To Paddle Or Not To Paddle?

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

That is the question facing surfers these days. By paddle I refer not to prone paddling a surfboard with arm power but to paddling after waves on a stand up paddleboard, hereafter referred to (for brevity's sake) as a SUP. In case you hadn't noticed, there are now SUPpers riding waves at just about every break imaginable and then some - on a SUP it appears that you can catch waves no surfer would bother with, and still have fun riding.

For better or worse, these walkers on water have altered the surfing landscape. Since I have only tried to surf a SUP half a dozen times with minimal success, I thought I'd turn to a friend, John Cawrse, to get the lowdown from someone who knows how to do it. John's been surfing for ten years and took up SUPping about two years ago. These days almost every time I surf with him, he's standing on his board, paddle in hand. I consider John to be a pretty good surfer, able to handle himself on a longboard or a shortboard in challenging waves. But since he's taken up the SUP, his skill level seems to have ratcheted up. He seems to surf better on a SUP than he did on a surfboard.

Why? What's the deal? Well, John comes from skiing, and he uses the paddle sort of like a ski pole. He leans and pivots on it to do hard, fast turns and cutbacks, extending himself out farther over the water than he ever could on a surfboard. He paddles to generate speed on the wave, making it possible to make more waves. He's re-deploying well-honed skills from another realm, and the experience shows.


But-in search of motivation--let's take it back two years, to when he picked up the paddle. "I wanted something that I could do with my family, so we got two long paddleboards. My daughter can ride on the front of mine. Plus it's a great core workout, and you can ride it on a ripple day and still have fun." But there's more than family fun here, of course. Over time his SUPs have been getting shorter and more maneuverable, as they have for most SUPpers. The boards are rapidly shrinking into more surfboard-like dimensions as designers figure the sport out, on the fly as it were. As we witnessed at the recent contest here in town, paddleboard surfers are ripping.

As for learning to SUP, John notes two skill sets required. "Kayakers know how to use the paddle for bracing, and speed, while surfers know how to ride waves." The sport comes relatively easy to someone who knows both kayaking and surfing. For me, coming strictly from surfing, I have fun paddling into waves--using, per John's advice, short, fast strokes in a wave-catching sprint. But then, once I'm in the wave I find I just flail the paddle around uselessly while surfing what essentially feels like a really long longboard. Not a bad thing, but missing the SUP point. So I need to work on the paddle elements - use it to get greater speed down the line, learn the "j" stroke with a pull in at the end to keep the board going straight while paddling on one side, and learn how to put all my weight on the paddle to pull big turns and cutbacks - it's a tool, an extra arm, an extra fin, another limb-and should be used as such. I need to learn to trust the paddle.


Let's talk SUP etiquette for a minute. There are two sources of trouble here. First, there is the lamebrain dude who rents a paddleboard, figures out how to stand up and paddle without falling down, then plants himself in the middle of a big, fast surfing break and attacks the waves. Picture 250 pounds of out-of-control guy on a 12- foot hardshell board coming at you, wood or carbon fiber paddle flying free, big wave...holy shit! I've been in that position at La Lancha and Anclote a few times, and it is a scary thing. So I would suggest that SUP beginners learn to surf a little before they start riding waves. On the other hand, the really good surfers who usually get many of the best waves on their short or longboards take up SUPping and get even more of the best waves, since they can get back out into the line-up so much faster after each ride. This sucks, but get used to it, surfers, because the stand up paddleboard is not going away.

When you surfers get too old and tired to manage the pop-up, what could be better than riding a board where you are already on your feet before you catch the wave? I have seen the future of waveriding and it seems to be carrying a paddle.

John Cawrse shot these photos of himself in action with a GoPro video and still camera mounted on the nose of his paddleboard. You can check out some video from the same perspective at his blog: