What’SUP The Good and Bad of Stand Up Paddle Surfing

by Frank Quirarte

Surfing, once again, has gone full circle with the newest resurgence of a genre that was first made popular back in the early 1960s by the Original Beach Boys of Waikiki.

The Beach Boys would use stand-up paddleboards to venture out and take photos of the tourist trying to surf. Back then cameras weren’t quite as sleek and compact as their modern-day counterparts, so they needed a solid shooting platform and a way to keep the camera away from the water. The five-inch thick, 2-foot wide, 12-foot long stand-up paddleboards (SUP’s) were perfect for this.

Like the evolution of surfboards from long to short, so goes the way of the SUP, depending on what your needs are. You go 12-foot for lakes and still water and much shorter 9- to 8-footers for a little more performance on the waves. The real beauty and versatility of these boards are that you don’t need a wave to have fun on one. You only need a board and a paddle and some endurance. You’ll find folks paddling around lakes and rivers; basically any body of water you can throw yourself into. But you must be prepared no matter where you end up. As of 2008 the U.S. Coast Guard classified SUP’s as a vessel, which requires the users to wear a PFD (personal flotation device), or lifejacket.

Back in 2000, pro surfer Rick Thomas almost single-handily introduced the California surf scene to the SUP, and SUPing has been easily one of the fastest growing and most popular variants of surfing since the short board.

And, as the Original Hawaiian Beach Boys first made these boards popular, Big Wave legends Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama of Jaws tow-surfing fame made them popular in the modern sports world.

On any given day at Linda Mar, amongst the surfing masses, you’ll find a handful SUPers in the lineup, and their numbers are climbing. Most are veteran Pacifica surfers that have made the transition, but there are a few first-timers as well. One of the original Mavericks crew and lifetime Pedro Point Resident Jim Kibblewhite has slowly mastered the new sport.

“Feeling blessed these days to be living such a rich slice of Polynesian Heritage,” said Kibbelwhite. “The sport perfectly combines the power of outrigger canoe paddling with the art of surfing. I’ve spent a long time in dry dock and now I’m able to reconnect to the open ocean and play in the shallows like a kid. All respect to its Hawaiian roots.”

Kibblewhites sentiments resonate throughout much of the veterans who have crossed over.

One of the benefits of SUPing is it gives you the ability to catch a lot of waves. With the power of the paddle and the length of the board, you can get into waves early and often. And once your ride is over you can power back out to the lineup faster than most paddle surfers. Of course, this causes a bit of tension in the lineup, but I’ve been out there with the SUPers and most are pretty respectful of other surfers. If they do get out of line, it’s nothing a dead jellyfish to the side of the head can’t remedy.

I actually like having them out there because they can see over the waves. As I watch horizons and other key points of reference to tell when the next set is coming, I watch them because with their point of view, they will spot a set long before us Neanderthal horizontal paddle surfers.

But for some, SUPing is a sore spot no matter where they go or who’s riding them. I went back to my Facebook page and posed a question about SUPing. Here’re a few responses:

“SUP’s should come mandatory with emergency medical kits for the surfers they are sure to run over as well [as] many plastic barf bags for the people who must watch them cavort about,” said Andy Lillestol, a Big Wave surfer from San Francisco. “ Hell, I don’t surf Linda Mar- why should I care?”

“SUPs in any lineup pose some serious challenges once the waves are over waist high,” said Jon Kitamura, El Granada resident and lifetime surfer. “I will always remember a 260 lb. Hawaiian telling me when I was 11 years old and lost a longboard that I was riding without a leash: ‘Eh cuz, you ride a big board like that, you have a responsibility to control it and to watch out for other people’s safety. Otherwise, you gonna eat it!’ I was sure that he would be happy to teach me a lesson in respect if I didn’t learn how to hang on to my board. Same goes for SUP’s.”

“SUP in head high jetty (El Granada) surf in a 10 ft wide takeoff zone and 20 plus surfers on it… Nothing wrong with having fun in the ocean on any board, but wave etiquette on a SUP has to be in effect or someone is going to get really hurt,” said Tim West, Mavericks surfer and lifetime Coastside resident.

It’s clear that SUPing around these parts is still in its infancy stage and users will need to tread lightly around the established breaks if they want to have the welcome mat rolled out for this new sport.

One surfer who has learned to bridge most of these gaps, both at Mavericks and Linda Mar, is Pacifica’s Haley Fiske. Haley has been charging Mavericks and is a competitor in the Big Wave Stand-Up-Paddle World Tour. I caught up with Haley recently and asked him a few questions about SUPing,

How long have you lived in Pacifica?

“I have surfed in Pacifica since winter of 1988. I moved to Pacifica in 1994.”

How long have you been surfing? How long in big waves?

“My father was an avid body surfer. He had me body surfing when I was in Kindergarten. The first time I stood up on a surfer board I was in 4th or 5th grade. I really started going to the beach in junior high. About that time the wetsuits got a lot better.”

When and why did you make the transition to a SUP?

“During the winter of 2005 I took up SUP. For 18 months prior I was having back problems. I went to physical therapy twice a week during that time and my back was still messed up. On vacation in Hawaii, I met Blane Chambers and saw him riding his standup board at Kaisers. I hadn’t seen it before and I asked him why he started. He told me that he broke his back riding enduro (dirt bikes) and did stand up for physical therapy. When I got home and I bought a board.”

First time out at Mavericks on a SUP: What was that like?

“December 2006. It was my birthday. I got out there before the sun came up. I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way. The standup boards are big and I was worried that if I got caught inside I’d likely hurt someone else. I was out there by myself for about 30 minutes and was slowly inching over toward the bowl. It was a very unnerving because it was high tide and a cross wave was sweeping through the bowl. It was moving north to south so that it would catch me by surprise and I would fall.”

“I tried to paddle into three waves and on my fourth attempt I caught one. By this time there were three to four tow teams sitting on the shoulder trying to figure out what I was doing. I remember Ken Collins and Peter Mel being on one of the skis and hooting me into the wave. At the time it was a novelty because so few people were doing standup anywhere, let alone Mavericks.”

“After my first wave, I paddled back out and stood right in the bowl. When the next set came I spun to take off and, as I was starting to paddle down the face, the cross wave got me and I fell. I got mowed by that wave and beat pretty bad.”

Had you ever surfed Mavericks on a regular board?

“I had a couple of Mavs guns and surfed it one to two times a year from the mid-1990s to 2002. I would go out there on days that were mellow by Mavs standard. Nothing too crazy.”

What’s your take on SUP’s in the lineup at Mavericks and normal breaks?

“One thing about standup is you are able to see the waves coming much better than a surfer that is lying down. You can also use the paddle as support while making the drop. But the big bonus is that you can get another four to five strokes when taking off on a wave. A lot of people think that you can paddle (on a SUP) faster, but on a normal Mavericks gun you can paddle (on a normal board) much faster than you can on a standup board. But once you pop to your feet, you can no longer paddle. Lots of times, you think, ‘If I could only have had one more stroke.’ On the standup board, you get those extra strokes. Another advantage is that I can move lateral on the wave while I am taking off. If there is a lump, bump or ridge, I will just paddle around it.”

“For me, the standup board is a nice tool for Mavericks, but it took me two to three years out there to figure it out. I don’t think a lot of people who are currently out there want to make that type of time investment. I think that the standup board is a very appropriate tool for three-times over head at Ocean Beach. It is very difficult for normal surfers to chase down waves there when it is big.”

“The stand up boards change your perception. Your mindset goes from, ‘Will I be able to catch this wave?’ to ‘I can catch whatever wave I choose.’ When you realize you can catch whatever wave you want, it changes everything. The trouble is–and where you run into problems–at normal breaks, when you first realize you can catch every wave, you try to catch every wave. Herein lies the problem: If you catch all the good waves, then everyone else is unhappy. For the most part, most standups try to stay away from crowds. The exception to that is Linda Mar. Unlike back in the late ‘80s, it seems to be crowded there all the time.”

Words to live by…

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