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If you read last week’s post about our recent car-camping trip to Lake Ahquabi, then you already know that I went Stand Up Paddle Boarding for the first time during that trip. I rather enjoyed my time on the water and it proved to be a good full body workout, so I’m glad that there are places here in the Quad Cities where I’ll be able to do pursue this again, hopefully soon.
If you’re comfortable on the water then stand up paddle boarding, or supping, is fun and enjoyable. It’s relatively easy to get the hang of, to the point where you can paddle around for an hour or so. That isn’t to say that you’ll have it all figured out in that hour, because I certainly didn’t. Like anything else, it will take time and practice to really master this sport, but you can have a lot of fun your first time out. There isn’t a lot that you need to get started, and all of it is available to rent; the board, the paddle, and the PFD (which you should definitely wear), for a reasonable cost.
This article isn’t a “How-To” in the strictest sense. There are plenty of those out there, as well as instructors at various places you can rent SUP boards. I recommend doing a little reading, or talking to instructors if you’re not entirely comfortable in the water. I went into it without doing either (a mistake I’ll discuss later) because I spent so much time on the water in my twenties, as a lifeguard and instructing scouts on boating and swimming. Instead of giving you step by step instructions, which I’m not qualified to do with this watercraft, I will tell you what I did right, what I did wrong, and any suggestions that I might have for you.
What I Did Right:
I found my balance before really going after it.
When you start out, it’s easy to want to just go for it and get to paddling! It’s an exciting new thing to try, so that reaction makes sense. Luckily, I’ve spent time on the water before, trying out different boats, so I know that when stepping into/onto a new watercraft your balance won’t necessarily be as good as you expect it to be. What worked for me was to start out on my knees, a little behind the center of the board. This allowed me to figure out how my weight affected it. I knew that I didn’t want the nose to submerge or stick too far into the air, so I adjusted where I centered my weight until the board was mostly level.
I settled into a (mostly) proper stance (eventually).
Admittedly, I didn’t do this instinctively. In fact, when I first stood up, I tried to take a right leg forward, left leg back stance. If I had stayed in that position, this would be in the “What I Did Wrong” part of this article. Almost immediately, however, I realized that this position left me unbalanced, and unable to paddle on both sides of the board. A more experienced boarder might be able to do something in that stance, but I sure could not! Very quickly I shifted into a much more appropriate stance. My feet were pointed forward, roughly hip-width apart, and equidistant from the board rails (edges). I straightened my back and kept a slight bend in the knees, while keeping my head and shoulders up and level. This stance enabled me to shift my weight through my knees and hips, so I stayed much more balanced. At this point I was pretty comfortable on the board and even as a strong wind started to blow against us, I didn’t feel at all like I might fall off.
I fell really well.
Despite my stance making me feel as though I wasn’t going to fall off the board, I eventually did. The majority of our paddling had been in one general direction, so on my first turn, I lost my balance and made my way into the drink. I have jumped/fallen off of a lot of docks and watercraft, so I know that if you’re going down, you want to fall into the water; it’s much less likely to hurt you than something solid, in this case, the board. If you lose your balance and you can’t regain it, it’s better to stop fighting it and let yourself fall to the side and into the water. If you continue to fight it after your balance is lost, you’re more likely to tumble forward or backward on the board, you’ll probably still end up in the water, but with an increased chance of striking a knee or an ankle against the board. An injury is never a fun way to end a new adventure, so reduce the risk as much as possible. Don’t worry about losing your paddle during the fall; they float so you’ll be able to grab it again. We were in a calm spot when I fell, so I was able to just grab the board, grab the paddle, and climb aboard. If you’re separated from both of them, swim to the board first, then use your hands to maneuver to the paddle. In moving water you may have a leash that connects you to the board, but we didn’t, so I can’t comment on it yet.
What I Did Wrong:
I didn’t wear enough sunscreen.
This was a mistake that I shouldn’t have made. Years of working a waterfront taught me that you need to wear plenty of sunscreen on the water. Not only do you have no cover from above, but the water will reflect the sunlight, so you get a double dose! I did wear sunscreen and my skin stands up well to sun exposure, but I did get a little burnt on my face and shoulders. Where I really suffered was the top of my feet. Apparently I had no sunscreen on them at all, so they got toasted. Cramming them into hiking boots later in the day was incredibly unpleasant, and wearing shoes wasn’t much fun at all for the ensuing days. So, lesson relearned, and I urge you to learn from my mistake as well and wear plenty of sunscreen.
I used poor stroke technique.
For some reason I felt like the SUP would steer similar to a kayak. I had no particular reason to have this misguided idea, but it really flavored my experience, and not for the better. In a kayak, the curve in the paddle faces rear, acting like a swimmer’s cupped hand, helping to propel you forward by displacing more water. This isn’t what you want to do with the SUP paddle; the curve facing forward will lead to a much smoother ride by creating lift so that your board glides along the water instead of plowing through it. This was an honest mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.
Another error in my paddling was lengthening my stroke too much. I was reaching far to the front of the board and pushing all the way to the tail, in a sweeping arc. This is horribly inefficient, and is probably to blame for my inability to move forward in a straight line. I wasn’t zigzagging across the water, but I had to alternate sides much more frequently than I felt I should, and now I know why. I was simply trying to overpower the board, and that doesn’t work. Aside from overreaching, I did use my core to paddle more than my arms, which is good technique, and despite holding it backwards, my hand placement on the paddle was good. So I wasn’t all bad at paddling. I just wasn’t very good. I’ll rectify that the next time I get on a board.
I turned poorly.
This is related to my poor stroke technique, as it directly contributed to my bad turn that dropped me in the water. That being said, I also expected the board to turn on a dime, used overpowered strokes, and I didn’t adjust my center of balance or shift my weight at all. It was really poor execution, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that I ended up wet. Trying to force the board to turn without adjusting my body to accommodate the turn just won’t work. You can’t bullshit water, a paddle, and a board. They do what they do, regardless of what you think they ought to, and expecting otherwise is silly. Next time I’ll do better; I’ll turn my torso the direction I want to go, paddle in the water on the opposite side of the board, lower my stance and center of gravity, and pull the paddle towards the tail as I lean and twist slightly in the direction that I want to go. It sounds pretty easy in type, but I doubt that I’ll get the hang of it as easily or instinctively as I can write it.
Literally all of my mistakes could have been remedied by applying knowledge I already had (in the case of my sunburned feet) or by researching the sport a little more so that I’d have a better idea of proper technique. There are lots of resources available and I have linked to a few at the end of this article that I used to help diagnose what I did wrong. I suggest reading them and even looking for more information. Proper instruction, if it’s available, will be helpful if you want to get a jump start on proper technique or if you learn better that way. But in my opinion, nothing beats getting out there and trying it, experimenting, and feeling it out. Find out what you do right, what you do wrong, and how you can get better.
Even with the mistakes I made, I had a great time on the water. So don’t let fear or inexperience stop you from trying this (or anything) out and seeing if you enjoy it. There were lots of people out on the water at Lake Ahquabi when I tried this out; some were better on the board than I was, some were worse, but everyone I saw was having a good time, and everyone I spoke with said they’d love to do it again. So go out and give it a chance when you get the opportunity.
The following articles were incredibly helpful in helping me figure out what mistakes I made and how I could improve. I highly recommend giving them a read before your first SUP board experience.