Surf or SUP? Why Choose?

I'm paddling, and I'm alone. It's a raw, gray day blowing a cold North East wind, and it's March, and the water is 42 degrees, so I don't really expect anybody else. I almost didn't come out myself- it was so warm in our apartment. But the winds had blown on shore all yesterday and the surf report showed some swell, so I thought I might be able to grab some waves down the street. We rarely get waves down the street, which is great for paddling but bad for surfing. When we do get waves they're small and choppy with a short period, but they're surfable, especially on a standup paddleboard. I'm thinking about how the paddleboard turns even small, junky waves into good time fun, and then I think about how more than one person, upon learning I paddle surf, says, "You know, surfers don't like you standup guys in the lineup." I look around. What lineup? It's just me and the seagulls. Of course, that's not always the case, and any animosity that exists does so largely out of misunderstandings. 

In fact, misunderstandings surround standup paddleboarding. First is how to spell it. Turns out there's no accepted way, which is fine, but it leaves me feeling a little uneasy every time I write it (I like rules :) ). I opt for just two words: "standup paddleboarding", as opposed to "stand up paddle boarding", "stand-up paddleboarding", "standup paddle boarding", or any other variation that seems equally reasonable. Second, is that paddleboards (on which paddlers lie prone or kneel and paddle with their hands) existed for a long time before standup paddleboards, so while it's tempting to just talk about "paddleboards" (after all, they're boards that we're paddling), this could get confused with the original use of the term. Third, is that acronym. Yup. That one. SUP. It stands for stand up paddling or stand up paddleboarding. It's pronounced like "cup" but with an "s", and much like power tools, when used incorrectly can really botch things up.  SUP isn't an established acronym like SCUBA or LASER (did you know this was an acronym? I had forgotten), so it inevitably gets mispronounced (like "soup") or has people saying rather zaney things like "Do you SUP?" or, worse (I'm looking at you Dad :) ) when someone sees you with a board, they say "What'SUP" (heavy, Californian-surfer accent on the "SUP") and then giggle madly. 

Of course, these are mostly funny misunderstandings, and whatever you want to call it is fine. Paddling is paddling, and, you know, a rose by any other name and all that. Bigger misconceptions arise when you start talking about paddleboarding's place in the waves. People often come into our shop, and conversations typically go something like this:

"Oh cool, a surf shop! But are there any waves near here?" 

"Actually, we're a standup paddleboard and kayak shop."

"Oh, so you don't surf?" 

"Well, we do, but-"

"So these are surfboards?"

"No, these are paddleboards- we paddle surf." 

Look of skepticism or confusion, then:

"Oh. So what's a paddleboard?"

"It's kind of like an oversized surfboard that you stand on and paddle." 


The confusion is completely understandable, and I actually look forward to these conversations because it gives us a chance to expose the customer to a sport they aren't already aware of. Once we convince them that you can legitimately surf on them (showing videos of pro paddle surfers helps), they generally are excited and say "I want to try that!".  

Other times, and this is a bit more of a bummer, we get the "you know surfers hate you" thing. It's not typically said with animosity, but more of an informational tone, like, "You know it's good to drink water throughout the day, right?" I typically respond by saying that that's mostly a lot of hype, and out here on the East Coast we don't really experience the same tensions that might exist in Hawaii or California, but truthfully, while I've never encountered any problems on the water, there probably are some surfers who don't like paddle surfers sharing waves with them. It's not something I fully understand, nor is it something on which I feel qualified to have too strong of an opinion. I've only prone surfed a handful of times (I try to avoid saying things like "regular surfing" because that automatically makes paddle surfing "irregular surfing"). I found my way into paddle surfing through kayak surfing (that's a thing too), so I've always had the benefit of a paddle in my hand. However, I do have a few thoughts, so I'll share them here, and they can be taken for what they're worth.

First, I understand some of the concerns that surfers might have. Beginning paddle surfers are typically on very large boards with large fins. These are harder to control on a wave and hurt more when you get hit by them (Newton's Second Law). Safety in the water is important, so there is a need for caution when you are first learning to paddle surf. However, the solution is easy. Paddling helps you move around, and with the paddle and larger board, it is easy to catch less desirable waves away from a crowded lineup. Any beginning surfer, but especially perhaps a paddle surfer, should do their best to avoid crowded lineups until they can control their board. It should be recognized, however, that really good paddle surfers are generally on boards that are as short or shorter than many longboards, and if handled with appropriate skill, pose no more threat than any other competent surfer. 

Another argument that is often lodged is that paddle surfers have too much of an advantage because of the paddle, so they end up stealing all of the waves. During times when I feel less cooperative, I'm inclined to say if having a paddle makes catching waves easier, well, then, grab a paddle. But, of course, people should surf how they want to surf, and if you prefer no paddle, then no paddle it is. The solution is that paddle surfers should recognize that they have a bit of an advantage and should make sure they're not taking all of the waves, just like the biggest kid at the party shouldn't take all of the cake just because they can. Sharing is caring :). It seems like, at least at the humble local breaks where I try to improve my surfing, people are just so stoked for there to be waves at all that every wave is a party wave. 

All of this is based on my limited experience, and while it seems like everyone on the water has been friendly whether they're lying down or standing up, there's no way for me to know whether they're cursing me on the inside. I don't suspect that's the case, but you never know. Most of the time, I prefer to cruise down the beach a bit and find a section of the wave that is less crowded, even if I sacrifice wave size or quality a little. I suspect that it's my need to avoid conflict that drives this, but I'd also rather just hangout on the waves by myself or with the couple people I came with. I don't mean to be anti-social, I just find it a little more relaxing that way. 

Back to my lonely paddle. I'm paddling off Dane Street Beach, which is popular in the summer for beachgoers (and in the winter for dog lovers), but you would never seek this place out to surf, because the waves don't really break until they get right at the shoreline, and it's rocky, and the waves always small. However, a really long, flat sandbar makes the waves start getting steeper really far out from shore. They just roll along that way, letting you just cruise in a really fun, longboardy kind of way. I had decided to paddle a displacement board in case there were no waves, so I could go for a long hard paddle. And when I first got there, there were no waves. No worries; I cruised around, searched for seals (didn't find any), tried to build up a sweat, and filmed some seagulls (found a lot of them.) After paddling around for awhile, I turned to go paddle back in. By that point, the tide had gone out enough that the meager swell could start feeling the sand bar as it passed over. Waves started forming, and I started catching rides in. It was close to shore, and a hill rising above the beach blocked the wind, which had turned offshore by this point. The water turned glassy and milky gray, and the wave energy rolled along, bigger swells catching up to smaller ones like a cartoon cat chasing a mouse under a rug. I caught wave after wave, riding into the beach, then stepping back onto the tail to swing the nose around, paddling back out, and immediately catching another one. They weren't big. Like really not big. But there was no one else around. I was alone, but not lonely, riding waves and paddling, and doing exactly what standup paddling allowed me to do. 


Aaron Mearns