Jackson Don’t Surf!

The WSJ on “the fitness rage of the summer:”

In lakes, rivers and bays where the surf is never up, Americans in skyrocketing numbers are standing on boards and paddling, a balancing act that strengthens the muscles of the legs, buttocks, back, shoulders and arms.

“Stand-up paddle surfing is a valuable new form of cross-training, in part because it’s so low impact,” says Cindi Bannink, a triathlon coach in Madison, Wis.

For an industry long dependent on California and Hawaii, the trend is rapidly forging new sales territories. “Suddenly, our fastest-growing markets are places like Chicago, Boise and Austin, Texas,” says Ty Zulim, sales manager for Surftech International, a surf-board maker and distributor based in Santa Cruz, Calif.

For years I dithered over buying a canoe or kayak until finally, this past May, I pulled the trigger on something else entirely: a Versa Board.

The manufacturer, LiquidLogic, advertises the Versa Board as a hybrid kayak/paddle board, though it might be more accurate to describe it as a stand-up kayak. It’s hollow and made of polyethylene, just like a sit-on-top kayak, with more of a prow and keel than a surfboard. It also has a retractable skeg to help you maintain a straighter course and avoid fishtailing. But it’s also much flatter than most SOTs with barely any gunwales.

Regardless, the end result is stand-up paddle surfing — and I love both the Versa and the sport.

My indecision over whether to buy a canoe or kayak hinged on several factors. I wanted a vessel light enough to port without the help of another adult but also large enough to accommodate my two peeps, each of whom weighs about 50 lbs. I also wanted something that would be equally at home in the salt marshes and creeks near my house and off the beach in Long Island Sound. I’ve done canoeing and kayaking, often in salt marshes, and enjoy them equally. Canoes can accommodate people and gear, but are notoriously susceptible to waves and difficult to re-enter (or even launch) in swell. They’re also awkward to move about on land alone. Kayaks are a better option for my conditions, but are limited in the number of riders who can hop aboard. My best choice for a kayak was to buy a two-person SOT and then try and squeeze my extra son onboard. But I hesitated, unsatisfied.

Then, back in the spring, I was at the beach when a young couple appeared, walked down to the water, launched a pair of paddle boards, and proceeded to serenely paddle across the cove. The third option struck me.

SUP is a phenomenal workout for arms and shoulders but especially the core. As the trainer above notes, it’s very low impact — you’re so distracted by the scenery and getting to where you’re going that you don’t realize until the next morning how sore your muscles are. It’s easy on the back too, unlike kayaking. Whereas in a kayak all power comes from arms, shoulders, and back, on a paddle board the torque of the stroke is diffused throughout the body, easing the strain. And, again, it’s the best core workout I’ve ever experienced. I’ve always had a weak middle without any definition to my abdominals. That’s changing.

Paddle boarding can be tricky. Offshore, you need a good pair of sea legs, and I’ve had several rough moments when the chop has swamped my Versa. The toughest is when the swell hits on the beam, as is often the case when I’m paralleling the beach — and this in the relative calm of the Sound. The Versa is perfect for my needs, but if you intend to spend most of your time on open water and you’re not packing 50 lbs. of chicken nuggets and chocolate milk fore and aft, you may want to buy a more traditional board. It’s instructive that the photo accompanying the Journal story shows Laird Hamilton and his daughter paddling on a river, not offshore. Ditto for Gerry Lopez in this New York Times article.

Paddle boarding is receiving crazy amounts of media attention these days. It deserves it. If you’re on the outside looking in, go get yourself a board and paddle. The water’s great.

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