Has surf helped or hurt the growth of SUP?

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In the beginning, after Laird created the heavens and the earth. … he said, “Let there be a big board,” and there was a big board. Laird saw that the board was good. And he said, “Let there be a tall paddle so we shall stand at all times,” and there was a tall paddle, he said “Let there be light between my belly and the board” and his belly separated from the board and light appeared from the darkness and he stood. And it was good.

In this beginning, there were all these top surfers like Laird and Kalama and Chuck Patterson, Jamie Mitchell and others who were at the pinnacle of the sport. Now they were standing up, catching waves others either couldn’t reach or catch, and having fun. It was contagious. They had nothing to prove because they were already at badass status.

SUP spread through the surf-based communities as a way to catch waves, to paddle distances. But they were still part of the core surf world and culture. In order to make this new sport core, they rode bigger and bigger waves. BOP created an in-and-out-of-the-surf (BOP-style) race that used words like “carnage” in the “pit.” It was all in an effort to say that even know this new sport was easier to learn, it was no less core. In fact, it was trying to say it was even more core.

As the sport grew in that first wave through the coasts and surf shops, the draw and street cred battle persisted. SUP surfers didn’t want to appear to be less CORE or that they’d lost their soul. You have half of the argument claiming CORE, and the other half as an apologetic shrug. An embarrassed, “yes, I liked the moped.” Just look at the way Tom Keyes described his SUP experience on Theinertia.com in his October 12 post, “Forgive Me, Lord, for I Have SUP’d.” At first, Keyes writes, “‘SUP’ has become a bit of a curse word in my home; something to mutter when you stub your toe. Not quite damning enough to replace the f-word, but still a suitable vocal offering for mild discomfort, minor distress or slight frustration…All this because up until now that best sums up my experience of the people who ride them. They’re a mild discomfort, minor distress and slight frustration.” But then he describes his experience in the same way many of us first caught the bug. He continues, “It’s quite frankly ridiculous what you can paddle into – a bump that would normally pass underneath your board with complete irrelevance suddenly becomes a viable target. You can catch virtually anything you want.

Surfers battle with the difficulty in doing what they do and the culture that puts people atop the peak who are the most proficient, most experienced, or have the most tenure. With scarcity, the aloha inclusivity of surfing has all but disappeared in most crowded spots. All you have to do is watch kookslams on instagram to see the mayhem that is the popular modern surf break. (note from the editor: Sorry if you now get addicted to kookslams. It’s like watching a train wreck and I love it.)

The need for street cred extended to race boards. In the beginning, it was very common for people to put a beginner on an advanced race board to show them that it took skill—to show them how hard it was and how skilled you needed to be to ride it. It was a matter of pride.

People were often buying boards above their abilities and trying to increase their level to meet their new purchase. Often, it was demoralizing and many of those early boards were hard to sell because no one could ride them outside of the Danny Chings of the sport. Now, people take new paddlers out on more stable boards and the progression is more often up to more advanced shapes and widths than it used to be. They are meeting them where they are and progressing from there.

This is a personal example only with a surfski. In 2008, I had a lesson in which a friend who was a competitive surfski paddler. He brought his surfski out and let my try it. He said, “Even if I hold this, you won’t be able to paddle it.” He was right. It was a mess. I was a disaster. I never wanted to try a surfski again. Why would I?

Then I met Jim Smith with Epic Kayaks and he offered to give me a different surfski experience. He started me on flat water, no wind or waves on a V8, which is a very stable surfski. He gave me land instruction, then showed be how to sit in the boat, fitted the foot straps and seat, adjusted the double-bladed paddle.

I had immediate success. He said that I had to accept that there was a progression and that if I got better, I’d go to a more advanced boat, but for now, I had to simply learn the skills necessary to paddle a surfski. It wasn’t the other way around. After I had the basic skills, I could introduce different conditions. I thought that if I had access to a boat and paddle I’d love to paddle a surfski. This is the way most people now teach SUP, but it wasn’t always like that. The experience and introductions are getting less core.

Things have changed.

The growth isn’t in surf. It’s everywhere else. It’s a new world now. Growth has been in women and board sales are increasingly in the inflatable range. Europe has already bought into the inflatable nature of SUPs. The demographic is changing. Less testosterone. More portability and access.

In the spring, I was in Annapolis hanging out with our friends at Capital SUP and they mentioned that they were waiting on an order of the new Hobie Eclipses. Someone rolled their eyes and they said, “That’s the problem with you coasties. You’re so CORE! So CORE! We don’t see it that way. We just want to get people on the water. Whatever gets them there, having fun, and appreciating the harbor is fine by us. We got 6000 people on the water last summer. This is going to change the whole dynamic of our harbor.” This summer they got more than 7000 people on the water and that was in September.

Incidentally, Hobie has recently become the largest manufacturer of standup paddleboards in the world as a result of the introduction of the Hobie Eclipse. While the eclipse a leg-driven with its miragedrive, it can be converted into a SUP with about 15 seconds of clicks and modifications. It’s technically a SUP. It will get people on the water. This is a good thing. There will be issues. But the more people who can be on the water, the more they will take care of our waterways, the more they will care about our environment.

Migration to other crafts

The other phenomena is that there is a migration of sup paddlers to other watercrafts like prone paddleboards, Surfskis, and outrigger canoes. SUP brought many people back to the water and gave access to others who perhaps never felt comfortable on the water.  People are taking out whatever seems like the most fun in the conditions that day or in their location. There is a revival out there. Hobie Cats. Hand planes. Canoes. It’s happening. We have to embrace the idea that we are part of something bigger than surf.

So here’s the question again, “Are surf and core the future for the majority of the growth of the sport or community?” As the coastal areas started getting increasingly saturated with boards and inland paddlers started coming online, the dynamic has changed. These people don’t care about CORE. They just wanted to have fun. They wanted exercise and to explore. They aspired more to be better skilled paddlers than to establish street cred or perhaps to get a different kind of street cred attributed to the endurance world. The kind they can share with non paddlers. A surfer can’t brag to a non surfer about getting pitted without receiving the Kermit look. A paddler can describe paddling 26 miles around New York City or taking a dawn SUP yoga class and people are interested.

Let’s take the latest events such as the Redbull which is called like the Eddie and requires 10 foot Ocean Beach surf. This appeals to less than 1% of the population of paddlers. And it no longer represents the aspirations of the majority of the new paddlers. I’m not saying it’s not an incredibly entertaining event to watch. The PPGs were amazing to watch. They also had the distance race which allows open paddlers to compete in the ocean, but not through the surf except on the way into the beach.

In contrast, Chattajack has no prize money and there will be 500 paddlers (100 more than PPG) hitting the water next Saturday. It is a mixture of SUP, prone, kayak, OC, canoe, and surfski. It embraces the idea that we are not a small part of surf, but a part of all paddling. They sold out in hours this year and if they open up registration to more paddlers next year, they could easily be the biggest event in our sport in 2017. They even had 120 volunteers register and actually had to close volunteer signup.

Then, take the OABI Detroit race. They did something amazing. They had an event company who does huge food and music events handle it. They got food trucks, advertised, got a band and yoga practices, and they sold general admission tickets. That placed hundreds of people who had never seen paddling like this in the same place as the demos. The same place as the racers.

The Carolina Cup has been able to maintain success because they’ve always bridged this gap between CORE and flatwater. They have always had an inclusive, “anything you can paddle” philosophy. They have the ability to have both types of races and create a festival atmosphere. But the Graveyard is again, a difficult CORE event. Depending on the conditions, it can be either amazing for a large majority of paddlers, or a nightmare for even the most experienced. But there are options. And if racers come and see ocean conditions are beyond their skill set, they can go to the flatwater course without judgement. One race is not better than the next. They are simply different. (Disclaimer: I am one of the original organizers of the Carolina cup).

For most people entering the sport,  paddling in and out of rough surf is no longer an aspiration. I think it started to lose it’s charm at BOP Salt Creek.

So here we are and the questions continue, “Does the increase of core events match the growth in the SUP population? Does surf contribute to the new growth? Or are we all moving in a different direction? And if the market is growing more female and more inflatable SUPs are being sold, do the events match the areas of growth? Or do they alienate these new groups?” I can’t say where it’s definitively going from here, but the more events that include other crafts, create an experience that is challenging and unique but not demoralizing and dangerous, and makes an effort to accommodate families, open racers and attract new people to the water, the better off we’ll be as a community.

—JB

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