Stand-up paddling proves exhilarating

Straight from the shores of Hawaii, stand up paddle boarding has surged in popularity. In fact, it is one of the world’s fastest growing sports. It’s not an exclusively West Coast phenomenon, either — it can also be found on the lakes and rivers of the eastern reaches of the country.

Stand up paddling, also known as SUP, seems on the surface to be an easygoing water activity. My abs and arms, however, will tell you a different story. Even just an hour of paddling proves to be a nice workout that doesn’t feel strenuous at the time but reminds you later just how hard your muscles actually worked.

Since I grew up in a Southern California beach city, some might assume that I also grew up with a surfboard permanently at my side. Though my house was about 10 minutes from the beach, my life, and those of most of my friends, was not like an episode of Laguna Beach. If anything, I’m more of a Seth Cohen from The O.C.—and I think we can all agree that Seth and surfing would be an odd mix.

During the summers of my elementary school days, however, I participated in the California Junior Lifeguard Program. We learned the basics of CPR, how to escape riptides and most importantly, how to eat a sandwich on the beach without getting sand in it. One day the instructors even offered us surf lessons. Finally, a chance to realize my locally grown, hidden talent of surfing!

Unfortunately, being the athletic champ that I am, I was last in line and thus got stuck with a board way too big for me. That was the first and last day of my surfing career.

So, naturally, I didn’t expect a lot of success to come from stand up paddling. In simple terms, it is standing on a slightly wider surfboard while driving through waves with a stickshift. As is the case with so many other exercises, there are aspects of stand up paddling that are easy to grasp and others that require more skill, whether natural or acquired.

The L.A. coastal area is filled with many options for places from which to rent, buy and receive paddleboarding lessons. Poseidon Paddle Boards, a company offering all three, can be found in multiple locations, including Malibu, Santa Monica and Marina Del Rey.

Though my paddleboarding fantasy involved me “shredding gnar waves” in the ‘Bu, as a beginner it’s recommended to start in the calmer waters of Marina Del Rey, a harbor located next to Venice Beach. Considering the sometimes vicious reputation of Malibu surfers toward overly eager novices such as myself, this change of location was probably for the best.

Chris, our instructor, was an excellent tour guide into the watery world of SUP. Our instruction began on the sand, where we learned a paddleboarder should stand in the middle of the board with feet approximately shoulder-length apart for optimal balance. The paddle used for paddleboarding is adjustable in length, calculated using your wingspan and height, and must be switched from hand to hand, side-to-side when atop the water.

This paddle handoff proved to be slightly tricky, but Chris assured me it’s perfectly normal to constantly batter your own board with a wayward paddle. After a few practice strokes, we were ready to hit the water.

For me, balancing on the board was initially — please note I say “initially” — not an issue at all. The waters of the Marina Del Rey harbor were calm, enabling me to perfect my paddling technique. Chris advised that it helps to remember that your paddle is meant to pull your board through the water, not to move the water around your board.

In other words, you can’t expect to control the water using a paddle, so instead, you have to focus on using the board’s momentum to glide through a path created by your own strokes. It’s also necessary to push in with your paddle so that you get some leverage; just slapping the water with the broad side of the paddle will get you nowhere fast.

Speaking of speed, the above sections might make it sound like I’m now a semi-expert at paddleboarding, but do not be mistaken. Though I can operate a paddleboard with minimal success, I definitely won’t be winning any SUP races in the near future. You know you’re lacking in speed when an elderly couple passes you on foot.

Probably because of my desperate need for speed, paddleboarding, though enjoyable, started to feel monotonous as we glided through the main channel of Marina Del Rey. Just when I thought I couldn’t tolerate the same view any longer, the jetty opened up to reveal the open ocean. This change of scenery was at once exciting and anxiety-inducing.

Up until this point, I hadn’t fallen off the board. Once we reached the real Pacific, where waves are bigger than the wake produced by a boat traveling a measly five knots per hour, stable footing was harder to maintain. I won’t say that I fell overboard a lot, but I also won’t say I didn’t.

Out there on the actual ocean, though, is where I found my Zen moment, a concept that is actually relevant to paddleboarding since many boarders also practice yoga while paddling. And while my downward dog remained on land, I did discover a peace inspired by the gentle roll of the waves that could never be achieved anywhere but on a paddleboard in the middle of the ocean.

This, I realized, must be the reason surfers and other ocean sport enthusiasts covet their domains so vigorously. Looking out on the Southern California coastline, straddling a paddleboard, I could let my mind wander, enveloped and cleansed by the salty Pacific waves.


Nick Cimarusti is a senior majoring in English Literature. His column “#trending” runs Wednesdays.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickCimarusti