Best Local SUP Instructors: Steve Gates

Photo: Jock Bradley

Photo: Jock Bradley

Best Local SUP Instructors: Steve Gates

When Steve Gates moved from Alyeska, Alaska, to Hood River, Ore., in 1987 to open windsurfing school and retail shop, Big Winds, standup paddleboarding was as foreign as a windless day in the Gorge. How things have changed.

Adding SUP classes to his mix in 2007, the sport now comprises 25 percent of his overall school, rental and retail business, chipping away at kiting and windsurfing. While a lot of this has to do with the sport’s growth and store’s location on the Columbia River, it also owes itself to his pedigree and approach to standup.

Gates, 64, with grown daughters Erin, 33, and Jodie, 29, grew up surfing in Southern California. He has also windsurfed for more than 30 years and is an accomplished kite boarder. It was almost inevitable, then, for him to embrace SUP.

“Most of the early SUP manufacturers were already into windsurfing, so it was pretty natural to get into,” he says.

He credits a lot of his love for the sport to lessons. “I learned the proper technique,” he says, “which opened my eyes. It’s the best thing anyone can do in terms of fitness and pays incredible benefits for all the other sports that I do. Plus, it’s super fun in its own right.”

Most people, he says, think they don’t need a lesson; that you can just hop on and paddle off into the sunset. Sure, it’s possible, but learning to paddle properly opens up a whole new world, Gates says. “It’s not like kayaking, kiting or windsurfing,” he says. “You can paddle poorly and still have a great time. But lessons are super valuable. Everyone who’s taken one from us has said it’s been life-changing. It’s the difference between sliding around on skis and carving down a mountain.”

No one knows this better than his Big Winds Junior SUP team, which now has 30 kids, and his higher-caliber Junior Elite Team (JET), which last year won the top three spots in the Battle of the Paddle’s 18-and-under division, with the girls taking spots two through five. ‘They’re way into it,” he says. “It’s really rewarding to watch them progress and compete.”

Of course, they’re just following the ringleader. At the same event, Gates won his division in BOP’s course race and took second in the distance category. He’s also turning heads locally, winning his age group in the eight-mile Oregon Open Ocean Classic (in a fast enough time to take third overall), and also in Seattle’s 13-mile Round the Rock race.

As for his lesson regime, he’s developed his own unique, proprietary SUP training program, and keeps it affordable at just $40 for an hour-and-a-half, including board rental. “We’ve committed a lot of resources to it,” he says. “There are some unique things to learn at the Gorge, like upwind and crosswind techniques, but it all comes into play for overall paddling.” Last year he also began offering downwind tours with shuttles, as well as lessons on how to downwind safely.

All this is paying off in spades for his standup program, which sees just as many women as it does men (17 of the 30 people in his junior program are girls). Last year, more than 150 people took SUP lessons from Big Winds’ eight instructors, up three times from the year before. Of his staff of 50, almost all paddle, he says, whether they’re windsurfers or kiters. “It’s the common denominator between everyone,” he says. “Whether someone’s a windsurfer or kiter first, it’s a great crossover activity.” –Eugene Buchanan

Other options

Windance Boardshop, 1-800-574-4020
Hood River WaterPlay, 541-386-WIND
Gorge Performance, 503-246-6646


This article originally ran in our 2014 Beginner’s Guide as “Local Knowledge.”

Click here for more from this series.

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