At MF, we love a surf, so we were “skeptical” about paddleboarding. We decided to spend a day on the water, putting the increasingly popular sport to the test.
With the morning sun spilling over Sydney’s Long Reef beach, I meet Naige from Manly Surf School for my first SUP (stand-up paddleboarding) lesson. I’m interested to get a taste of the sport – pioneered in the early ’60s, on the shores of Waikiki – which has become increasingly popular in the past few years. In its early form, it was used by surfing instructors who would stand on longboards and use outrigger canoe paddles while shouting instructions at their students. Today it’s a hit with fitness enthusiasts, personal trainers and surfers looking to make the most of smaller waves.
After hauling a couple of giant boards from Naige’s van, we set them down on the grass, along with paddles and wetsuits. The SUP boards come in a range of shapes and sizes, each designed for either surfing, cruising or racing. Today, I’m using an 11ft Global Surf Industries (GSI) board, which has huge rails and, according to Naige, will be perfect for learning on, and doing some gentle cruising and wave riding.
We slip our boards into a small reservoir opposite the shore – unsurprisingly, they have stacks of float. Once we’ve hopped on, Naige gives me some pointers on balance and paddle technique. “Start paddling on your knees, get a feel for it, then stand up with your feet facing forwards and give it a go,” says the former Tracks magazine photographer, who used to teach surfing and paddleboarding in Baja California, Mexico, but now works full-time at Manly Surf School, instructing surfing and paddleboarding.
I paddle forwards on my right-hand side, giving it 3 strokes, before moving over to the left, all the while going deep with my paddle. Gliding along, attentive to Naige’s instructions, I get going quickly. It feels a little unnatural standing with my feet parallel, but soon I’m moving across the surface of the water. Standing high on the water does make you feel like a bit of a turkey, but the advantage of being upright is you can see sets coming from much further than when paddling prone. And if I’m perfectly honest, it’s pretty easy.
“Now turn it around and paddle back towards me,” says Naige. Following his instructions, I give it some oomph on my left side, but suddenly get a wobble on and the board slips out from under me. Bugger. Once he sees I’ve safely re-emerged from the cold lake, Naige decides it’s time we try it on open water …
INTO THE BLUE
Spluttering as another wave breaks on me, I close my eyes, dig the paddle in deeper and push through the white water. Balancing on your knees makes life much easier when paddling out, but it’s a huge board to manoeuvre and, because of the stacks of float, you have to ride over the tops of waves rather than duck-diving.
“Paddle! Paddle!” shouts Naige, having seen a break in the madness. Shifting like hell, I make it out to the back, wet and knackered. In the clear, I manage to stand up on the board again, flexing my knees and adjusting my thighs to synch with the pitching swell. Manoeuvring in open water is much trickier than on the lake, and occasionally I’ll jerk madly like someone has jabbed me with a cattle-prod. Constantly “Battling to balance, my nervous system goes into overdrive and I start to feel the burn, engaging virtually every muscle in my body”
A wave approaches on the horizon, so I point the board straight at it and start to paddle. This allows me to paddle constantly on my strongest side (my left) and build up some momentum. Going like stink, I guide it into position just as the wave reaches me. Forging forwards with the power of the wave behind me, I jump into a normal surfing stance and ride the wave until it breaks. At which point I stack it.
Three hours later, I’m spent. My arms feel like I’ve been doing dumbbell curls all morning. My core is aching, my shoulders and neck are sore, and my thighs are utterly worn. It’s a great isometric workout that strengthens your core muscle groups, as well as promoting balance, and general all-round general fitness.
SUP has blossomed recently, but how is it being received by surfers in general? Speaking to some guys in Sydney, it’s seems some bad blood exists. In much the same way that shortboarders can get pissy with longboarders for hogging waves with their chunky “easy” options, SUPs have upped the ante with their epic size and use
of paddles. However, as Naige explains to me, it’s all about giving other surfers plenty of space and respecting their area. (At one point we paddle north, keeping clear of a bubble of shortboarders who don’t look like they’d appreciate an amateur paddle-wielder getting in their way.)
Big-name surfers like Laird Hamilton, Rob Machado and Richie Lovett are giving the sport credibility among the surfing fraternity. And celebs like Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson are also big fans of SUP and incorporate it into their own fitness regimens (which may or may not give it credibility).
The beauty is that you can make as much or little of it as you want, whether it’s a quick 10-minute morning paddle, or kilometre upon gruelling kilometre of open ocean cross-training. In addition to the cardio element, you can actually do workouts on the board. Think push-ups, crunches, lunges and back extensions – all while at sea. Likewise, SUP is pushing the confinements of small wave surfing and opening doors to a new world of wave riding. And for those seeking solitude, there is a peaceful, therapeutic element to it. But whichever way you approach paddleboarding, you’ll be sure to reap the fitness benefits.
Where to do it
Manly Surf School, Sydney
A high standard of training, and excellent quality equipment.
Roar Industries, Gold Coast
The largest fleet of SUP boards available to hire on the Gold Coast.
Learn SUP on water, or street SUP (using longboard skateboards) in St Kilda.
West Oz Board Sports
SUP hire boards and lessons around Penguin and Seal Islands at Shoalwater Bay.