MALIBU, five years ago: The sun is edging toward the cliffs at sleepy Paradise Cove as a cluster of surfers sit idly on their boards, rising and falling with the swells, scanning the endless blue. Off in the distance a lone surfer drifts toward them. They exchange glances. The surfer is standing -- standing -- on an oversized board, using a long, outrigger-style paddle to snake through the water like a gondolier.
Some of the surfers wince. Put the clown in a red-striped wet suit and he might start belting out an Italian love song.
As the figure slowly comes into view, they do a double take. The clown is the brawny alpha dog of surfing, Laird Hamilton. Dipping his paddle into the swells, Hamilton maneuvers along the breakers, occasionally riding them in -- but without ever lying or sitting on his board.
Once in full view, "it looked like the most natural thing in the world," recounts Ray Sheehan, a 56-year-old retired sales executive.
Since then, a small but perceptible shift has occurred in the Southern California surfing community. Seasoned surfers and neophytes alike are now grabbing paddles and taking to the water from a stand-up position. On any given weekend, stand-up paddle surfers can be seen scattered along the coast, particularly at Point Dume and in protected harbors and coves.
Because paddle surfing requires an especially large -- preferably well-engineered -- board, the sport has even fueled a demand for custom paddle surfboards. Renowned surfboard shaper Ron House estimates that of the nearly 200 boards he will shape this year, about 70 will be stand-up style.
Steve Boehne, owner of Infinity Surf Shop in Dana Point, makes about six stand-up boards a week and is selling them faster than he can carve them. "It's definitely the fastest-growing segment of surfing that there is."
Adds House: "I was thinking that this summer would be the summer that it breaks loose.... And that's happening. I think this is just the beginning."
Through the ages, many cultures have practiced the art of standing and paddling, including Polynesians and Peruvians.
But lacking proper boards and paddles -- and not driven to catch fish from them -- California surfers have mainly stayed on their bellies.
Although no one is certain how the style gained ground in Southern California, the person most likely responsible is Hamilton, the big-wave legend known for popularizing countless innovations, including tow-in surfing and foilboarding.
"As far as I know," says Boehne, "the guy who made it a phenomenon was Laird Hamilton. He has persisted with it and done it so much in so many places and everybody copies him. If you want to know about stand-up surfing, you really should go talk to him."
The appeal of stand-up paddle, or paddle surfing, is twofold.
Experienced surfers find that paddle surfing enables them to get out into the surf faster and farther. They can stay out beyond the normal line of surfers and catch the waves before everyone else. As traditional surfers hop to their feet, the paddle surfers are already there.
With a paddle, "you can go on perhaps eight times more rides and three times as far," says Don Wildman, 73, founder of Bally Total Fitness and an avid paddle surfer.
Once the surfer catches a wave, he or she can use the paddle for balance and to turn. After a while, the paddle becomes a natural extension of the surfer.
Other people are using the boards to cruise coves and lakes, quietly communing with the ocean and what lurks below. From a stand-up position, the surfer can see deeper into the water, where schools of top smelt mingle with sculpin, sand bass and the occasional bat ray. Paddling along reefs and dodging kelp beds, stand-up surfers see leopard sharks and garibaldi make way for seals and sea lions.
"It's like standing on a pier," says Wildman. "You notice your environment more. I go out in the morning when this water is absolutely like glass.... You look across the water, into the mountains and get a Zen feeling."
"It's a soulful experience," agrees Robert Howson, a lifelong surfer and owner of Harbour Surfboards in Seal Beach. "It's also a way for surfers to enjoy the water when there are no waves. Think of it like kayaking," he adds. "The beauty is in all the things you can do with it."
Howson sees paddle surfing as part of a natural evolution for many surfers. "Most stand-up surfers are in their 30s to 50s. It's not an 18-year-old thing," says the 42-year-old Howson. "You go to a longer board because you don't have those ambitions. You love the grace of it all."
The sport is also accessible to all skill levels. "On flat water, on a wide board, someone with minimal athletic ability can paddle themselves around," says surfboard shaper House. "On a real wide board, on real flat water, anyone can do it, virtually."
But physically, paddle surfing isn't exactly a walk on the beach. Staying upright requires constant muscular adjustments, making the endeavor a good, complete workout.
"The paddles have enough area that there's a pretty good amount of resistance," says House, "so you're pulling against something that feels pretty solid and the energy transfers all the way from your arms and shoulders down through your core, your stomach muscles, your lower back muscles, down through your legs and your feet. You're constantly flexing and tensing a lot of muscles in your body."
It's essentially a full isometric routine with no heavy lifting -- and no reps.
Paddle surfing is the essence of a true core workout, says Wildman, a former triathlete who's been doing stand-up for about four years. "This is probably the No. 1 core exercise you can do," he says.
"This has put my body in some of the best condition I've been in a long time," House adds. "But if you really want to know about stand-up surfing, you should talk to Laird Hamilton."
'Just goofing around'
Life, DNA and circumstances have all laid a big smooch on Hamilton. At 42 years old, the big-wave surfing legend famously born in a bathysphere, a deep-sea diving chamber, divides his time between Malibu and Maui. He has a production company, BamMan Films, with fellow surfing legend Dave Kalama and manager-producer Jane Kachmer, plus his own line of beachwear.
He also still has a full head of hair and a Conan-like physique, thanks to a workout routine that includes dragging a railroad tie through the sand until it becomes unbearable.
Hamilton first saw stand-up surfing in Waikiki in the early 1980s when he watched a local surfer take pictures of tourists while paddling about on a board.
It looked natural to Hamilton. "If you think about other cultures that have done it, it makes sense," he says. "The standing position is just part of evolution."
One day about 10 years later in Maui, Hamilton and Kalama starting horsing around with tandem boards and paddles, just to amuse themselves.
"Dave had some outrigger paddles" (used with a seagoing-type of canoe), he recalls, "and we just started standing on the boards and paddling around with these little tiny paddles. There was a little surf," he says, "and we were just goofing around."
The equipment was all wrong, but they liked the paddling. "It was an amazing sensation," Hamilton recalls. "Besides the incredible workout and where it takes you, you're standing very straight, you're gliding in the water, and there's something about that feeling. It's why people love surfing, and you don't even need a wave."
Back in Malibu that summer, Hamilton got some aluminum kayak paddles, cut the blades off one end and started using them as paddles.
"We broke them all," he recalls, "and then we went to guys who were making wood outrigger paddles and had them make bigger ones, and we broke all those." Eventually they discovered carbon fiber paddles.
About four years ago, House recalls, Hamilton brought some boards over and asked House to modify them for paddle surfing.
Armed with better boards, "We started riding little waves. And then we started doing coast runs on Maui, then channel crossings," Hamilton says.
Hamilton has since paddle surfed the rapids in the Grand Canyon and the English Channel. He has paddled from Catalina to Dana Point and is preparing for a 500-mile event bicycling and paddle surfing the Hawaiian Islands.
Among his commercial projects, Hamilton is working with House on a 12-foot stand-up board made through Surftech that is expected to be available in surf shops this winter.
Currently the only stand-up boards on the market are relatively simple mass-produced boards and pricey custom jobs. Hamilton believes that his board -- mass-produced but designed with his input -- will popularize paddle surfing and take it to the next level.
"One of my friends says this is going to be the biggest, stupidest sport you've ever seen," he says with a laugh.
"This is going to be monster big."
Back in the ocean
On a recent warm afternoon in Paradise Cove, Hamilton is working his way down the coast, paddling as he goes. He's accompanied by his surfing pals Wildman and NHL All-Star Chris Chelios of the Detroit Red Wings. They drift for a minute beyond the breakers, chewing the fat, occasionally gesturing with their paddles.
When a wave looms, they suddenly start paddling.
Hamilton and pals surf the wave in, then, with a quick dip of their paddles, they are back on shore. Chelios is the first out. "I loved it from the start," he says, dragging his board along the sand.
Hamilton, who now surfs almost exclusively in the stand-up style, believes that he experiences the ocean more fully from a stand-up position.
"I've seen gray whales out here. I can paddle right over to the whales."
He's even had some Jacques Cousteau moments, such as the time three summers ago when he was riding a wave at Point Dume and suddenly found the waves churning with dolphins.
"There were about 40 dolphins on one wave jumping all around me," he recalls. "They were going under my board, jumping up and rolling over and looking at me, like, this close. It was literally raining dolphins."
Despite paddle-surfing's transcendent moments, most surfers are a long way off from even trying it, much less making the switch. "It's another way to enjoy the water," says Howson. "It's not a replacement for surfing."
And most board makers are circumspect about the possible retail impact.
"There was the skateboard boom, the catamaran boom, Hobiecats, then there was windsurfing, then there was snowboarding," says Boehne, who says he's making money on stand-up boards now, but isn't planning to retire on the proceeds. "Things get real big and the market gets filled. And what looks like God's gift right now, in two or three years isn't gonna be a big thing."
Even Sheehan, who was captivated by watching Hamilton do it, isn't convinced. "I tried it," says Sheehan, "but it hasn't bitten me in the leg."
For now though, even traditional surfers can't deny the style's appeal. Some even grouse because paddle surfers catch the waves so fast.
"Some guys say, 'Oh man, that's not fair,' " Hamilton says. "But there's not a right or wrong way to ride a wave. Here's my board. Here's a paddle. Go try it."
To all those riding belly down on a puny board, he says, "Don't bring a BB gun to a gunfight."
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Hop on board
The lowdown on stand-up boards:
Specs: Longer and a little wider than traditional longboards, stand-up surfboards are closest in size to tandem surfboards -- which some paddle surfers are currently using. Tandem boards, however, are engineered to take the weight of two people, so they ride differently.
There are no current standards for stand-up boards, but according to Steve Boehne, owner of Infinity Surf Shop in Dana Point, a typical one is about 12 feet long, about 28 inches wide and about 4 1/2 inches thick.
Materials: Like regular surfboards, most new, custom stand-up boards are shaped from expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam core or polyurethane (PU) foam, then covered with fiberglass and topped with resin.
Until recently, most custom boards were made with PU, but that changed in December when the primary manufacturer of PU blanks, Clark Foam in Laguna Niguel, closed and shapers turned to EPS.
EPS boards tend to be lighter, faster and feel more buoyant than PU boards.
Cost: $500 to $600 for a mass-produced board. Custom boards, which are far more stable, run from $1,300 to $2,000.
Paddles: Available at surf shops and online, stand-up paddles are generally made of carbon fiber and should be about 8 to 10 inches taller than the surfer. They run about $200 to $350.
Tips: The recommended size and shape of the board depends on how it will be used -- whether primarily for paddling around in bays or riding waves. The size of the board will affect its speed and maneuverability.
Some things to keep in mind: The wider the board, the more stable, but the slower to paddle. The longer the board, the more stable, but the slower to turn. An 11-foot board will turn faster than a 12-foot board.
Most important, take a trip to your local surf shop and talk to an expert before plunking down your cash.
-- Janet Cromley