Not many people had heard of stand-up paddleboarding until 10 years ago, when surfing star Laird Hamilton started catching gigantic waves standing on an oversized surfboard that he propelled with a long outrigger kayak paddle. But SUP, as it's known, didn't become today's hottest aquatic sport until average folk like Jeff Golden and Tracy Hartman started doing it out of the surf zone.
Golden, a San Juan Capistrano home builder, was overweight, hobbled by knee and shoulder injuries, suffering from insomnia and dragging himself to the health club to swim a couple of times a week. Six years ago, he tried SUP. Today, at 54, he's back to his high school weight, is injury-free, sleeps like a baby and is routinely stopped by people who ask how he got his flat stomach — all, he says, because he paddles 30 to 60 minutes in Capistrano Bay almost every day before work.
"Rain or shine, winter or summer, I'm out there," he says. "It's exhilarating being outdoors — it's not a workout."
Hartman, a Laguna Hills housewife, was looking for more physical activity beyond her "miserable" circuit-training classes but feared that stand-up paddleboarding would be too difficult. That changed five minutes into her first lesson two years ago. Today, the 47-year-old owns two paddleboards and paddles at least once a week.
"It's a two-for-one for busy women," she says. "We get to talk and get exercise at the same time. It must be working. Last week, while at Whole Foods, I got carded."
Driven by the fun workout, low learning curve and boards that have better flotation than in the past, SUP has risen from invisible to red-hot. According to the Outdoor Industry Assn., 1.24 million people SUPed last year, up 18% from 2010. Sales of SUPs, which are denser, heavier and more bouyant than surfboards, doubled to 150,000 last year, from 75,000 in 2010, according to Reid Inouye, publisher of Stand-Up Paddle magazine.
Retailers have happily adjusted. Paddle Power, a venerable Newport Beach kayak seller, now "predominantly sells SUPs," says manager Jim Smiley. Cristina Kochevar, water sports category manager for West Marine, the country's biggest water sport retailer with 308 stores, would not release sales figures but said, "SUP is going gangbusters — the biggest growth initiative in our company."
Beginner boards range from $700 to $1,200. Rentals, typically around $20 an hour, are also jumping; "We began renting SUPs two years ago, and now they're 40% of our business," says Mike Ong, owner of Irvine-based Southwind Kayak.
SUP's sudden popularity is no surprise, according to Dick DeBoer, founder and board member of the World Stand-up Paddlboard Assn. "It takes no great skills, it's doable on the coast or inland in rivers and lakes," he says.
There's a bonus too, DeBoer says: "Looking down on the water, you can see fish!"
Helping drive SUP's visibility is a growing race scene, including the epic Battle of the Paddle on Sept. 24-25 in Dana Point. This weekend is the biggest SUP race of the year: The Molokai-2-Oahu Paddleboard World Championship: 32 miles of open ocean with 10- to 15-foot swells.
Athletes are following. Redondo Beach's Danny Ching, a longtime local outrigger champion, added stand-up in 2009. He won the 10-mile SUP race at the 2011 Battle of the Paddle and is regarded by many as the world's best. (There is no official SUP championship yet.)
The sport of SUP was birthed by Hamilton a decade ago but was conceived in the 1960s by Waikiki surfing instructors, who tried paddling standing up to take photos of their surfing school clients. And it has spawned an impressive variety of specializations and purpose-built boards — for paddle surfing, racing and recreation. A recent addition is a real stretch: SUP yoga.
Sarah Tiefenthaler, 30, runs Marina del Rey-based Yogaqua, one of 82 companies in the U.S. (up from two a year ago) offering yoga classes on stand-up paddleboards. Her students do staples like downward dog, warrior one and triangle pose with a tad more precision and balance, she says.
"If your weight isn't distributed perfectly from front to back, you'll go in the water," Tiefenthaler says, claiming that only happens to about 2 out of 10 people in the summer and none in the winter, when she leaves out the shakier one-legged positions, like the tree pose.