After a year of paddling I almost had to be dragged to do the Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) instructor course. I liked SUP but it was yet to fully captivate me. I was a surfer. I wasn’t part of the SUP world nor wanted to be. I associated SUP with people that couldn’t surf properly but could access wave riding through cheating. Already standing up and using a paddle is cheating right? How wrong could I have been?
Surfers are supposed to be this laid back, open minded group of people that inhabit the fringes of society and live their lives purely for a love of the ocean. If you made a time machine and went back to the 1950’s or 1960’s then perhaps you may encounter this stereotype although even back then line-ups were experiencing hostilities. I’m not attacking surfers here, I am one. I am just merely saying how I and thousands of other surfers out there feel.
What is surfing?
If someone asked me to summarise surfing in a few words I would say overcrowded, aggressive, selfish and commercialised. Who am I to make such brash statements? Exactly, but who are you? We are just other people in the water and another part of the crowd and the problem. Surfing is not mine or yours. It doesn’t belong to anyone and nor do the oceans and seas that we use.
When I was taught to paddle and access the water in a different way it opened my eyes to another world. In some ways I feel I shouldn’t be writing this because I don’t want to let the secret out. I want you to keep hustling and snaking people in the crowd.
I don’t want you to crowd the little secret spots we’ve found that you couldn’t ride on a short board. I want those two hundred metre long rides all to myself and close friends. I don’t want to bump into you three miles out to sea when I’m downwinding on feathering, travelling swell.
Before I started paddling I considered myself to be someone that was competent in the ocean. I daren’t say waterman because waterman in my opinion is a title given to you and calling yourself one is like calling yourself ‘elite’. True watermen or women live the waterman lifestyle without having to shout about it and blow their own trumpet. I think here in the UK there are probably a handful of people out there that are true watermen/women. I am certainly not one of them.
What is a waterman? To me it is someone that accesses the oceans and seas using whatever craft or technique the weather and conditions dictate. It may be through freediving, spear fishing, body surfing, surfing, outrigger canoeing, Stand Up Paddleboarding, windsurfing or bodyboarding.
Surfers see Stand Up Paddleboarding as surf sport. The word is on the tin guys, ‘paddle’. Stand Up Paddling is an ancient art that has been around for a long time, far longer than Alley Oops or the Quicksilver Pro. SUP is not attached to anything else. It isn’t a sub category of anything. SUP is its own discipline that shouldn’t be compared to anything else. Once you get into SUP then you can explore the sub categories; Surf, Touring, Downwind, Whitewater, Adventure, Yoga and Racing.
I am forever defending and explain what SUP is to everyone but that’s fine. A friend of my mother’s said that she tried SUP when she was in Spain and it was ‘boring’ and she found it ‘hugely disappointing ’. I asked her why and her response was that it was easy, you just went along and nothing happened. Yeah, you know what? It is pretty easy to just move along. Why does something have to happen? If you want a your heart to jump out of your chest then go base jumping, run with the bulls or go swim with Great Whites without a cage.
My best friend’s mum lives by the ocean and has done for over thirty years. She’s nearly seventy and hasn’t been on a board of any description for over ten years. She used to ride one of those classic wooden bodyboards. She gave up when age started take its toll. This summer gone, my friend introduced her to SUP. He got her standing and paddling across the bay she never thought she’d get a chance to use ever again. For her that ‘boring’ and ‘easy’ pastime and just gently going along was literally life changing and gave her an infinite amount of happiness.
Why I like SUP
For me what makes SUP so appealing is that it is so diverse. It can be a gruelling workout, you can race and send your heart rate through the roof, catch waves or slow it right down and catch up with friends while going for a cruise.
I love swimming, both in the ocean and the pool, I always have. I can shut my mind off and concentrate on my breathing, the seabed and how efficient my stroke is. Without getting too over the top, what I enjoy about swimming is the focus. Nothing apart from my current actions are important.
For me, I get exactly that same from open water paddle boarding. There’s always that special moment when I get around the point and I hit deep water, the noise and chaos of the summer beach disappears and the sound of swell breaking onto the cliffs takes over. I have to concentrate more as the swell refracts from the cliffs back out to sea causing the board to feel increasingly unstable beneath my feet. For a moment the horizon disappears as a great, surging lump of sea heads towards me and I ride over it like a cruise liner in heavy seas.
I see a sun fish. I see something else like a Pollock or maybe even an elusive Bass dart between the rocks. My friends that work on a local fishing boat give me a wave and the gulls start dive bombing for fish. It’s me and nothing else but deep water. I stop for a moment and look at my watch. It’s 16.00 on a Tuesday afternoon. I can’t help but think of the thousands of people that are on the London Underground, boiling hot and dreaming about being on a beach somewhere where they could go for a refreshing swim.
There are bad apples in every sport and sadly we seem to only remember these people. I know there are people out there on SUP boards that are greedy in the surf. There are also people out there on SUP boards that are highly dangerous and need to learn to surf before they even think about going back out to the peak. Once one person in the line-up starts behaving badly it becomes infectious and others follow fashion until that placid atmosphere gradually turns into a tense, alpha male display of territorialism and aggression.
A final thought
Don’t tarnish us all with the same brush and if you think SUP is easy then come for a paddle with me and I’ll do my very best to explain that it’s not. Anyone can get into a swimming pool and thrash about, doing what they think is front crawl. Not many people can do it with total efficiency, style, power and elegance. Anyone can go the beach and catch waves but it takes years to understand the ocean and its moods. Anyone can clamber to their feet on a paddle board and move themselves forward but that is just the very beginning.