Full of equal parts intimidation and excitement, I head to Laguna Beach to meet up with four strangers for my SUP Boot Camp indoctrination.
It’s just shy of 0800 as I pull up to Stand Up Paddle Co., and spot the ubiquitous Werner Paddles Dodge Sprinter van. Moments later an extremely fit and cheerful Nikki Gregg emerges and greets me with a smile brighter than her fluorescent pink SUP sweatshirt—helping instantly curb the intimidation factor. The other women fill in and share their own experiences with SUP or lack thereof. Before we know it, we are zipping into our wetsuits, matched up with a proper paddle, and assigned boards to carry down 50 steps to a windswept, menacing ocean ahead.
The women immediately begin voicing their concerns about the waves, especially since two of them have only been paddling on flatwater. I have only one day in the ocean myself, on a windy, choppy day at San Onofre and I begin replaying the blooper reel in my head.
Gregg, 36, goes over safety instructions, but no one volunteers to paddle out first, past the waves to calmer waters. She shows us how to stay on our knees through the surf zone until we try to stand up.
“She makes it look so easy,” a fellow boot camper says on the beach as we watch Gregg glide through the surf.
“She’ll probably stand up,” says fellow Werner Paddles rep and pro SUP paddler Dan Gavere, standing with us on the beach. As if on cue, Gregg pops up to her feet and continues to charge through the waves.
“I’m not doing that,” another attendee notes with wide eyes.
Gregg rejoins us on the beach a few moments later, as if she’s merely gone to retrieve the morning paper.
“Who’s going first?” she asks.
Somehow, I find that two-minute window of courage you discover inside yourself once in a while when faced with something scary.
“I’ll go!” I say, but as soon as the words escape from my lips, my spine tingles with an uneasy fear.
“The key to paddling out is timing,” Gregg advises. “(Dan and I) will tell you when to go.”
The hardest part is simply getting in the water and tackling the fear. Terror strikes me as each approaching wave appears ready to crush me. However, after the first few, I’m reminded just how invincible an SUP seems through small waves, like a tank driver plowing through everything in its path.
I make it to the calmer waters and, still jittery, look back at the unique Laguna Beach seascape for a serene second.
Standing in the open ocean is mind over matter. You get over the fear of falling in and just allow it to happen—and yes, this happens time after time from wobbly legs riddled with nerves and adrenaline.
But as Gregg says, “If you’re not getting wet, you’re not trying.”
With the group reunited on the outside, Gregg gives us each constructive feedback. (I somehow keep holding the paddle backward.) The next lesson is brace strokes and how to safely drop to your knees if you lose balance—perhaps one of the more valuable beginner takeaways of the clinic.
After this on-water assessment, we paddle in and finish class on land. Always stressing proper technique, Gregg demonstrates the stages of paddling. She meticulously breaks down each stage as well as each of our own individual strokes, reinforcing the proper movement of our hips and shoulders to correctly engage our cores.
“What’s your best advice for beginners?” I ask.
“To hire a reputable SUP coach or instructor to get you going,” answers the reputable SUP instructor, but then she goes a little deeper. “Having to deprogram your brain from bad habits and re-learn proper technique takes longer and is more frustrating than learning the right way the first time. Also, invest in the highest quality paddle you can afford and make sure it’s the right length and blade shape and size. The paddle is your connection to the water and really affects your performance as well as the integrity of your shoulder joint.”
When I get back into the water, I feel like lightning compared to the first time. However, delusions of elite race wins shatter as Gregg effortlessly glides past me. Her finesse and ease of movement through the water is mind-boggling. I proceed with rote practice to use my hips like I did on land, and begin to feel more power in my stroke as I engage my core.
“You don’t perfect this in a day,” Gregg reminds.
After Gregg displays some yoga poses on her board with flawless grace, it’s hard not to idolize this seeming guru-goddess of SUP. Then when I see SUP/Yoga instructor Julie Roach and film producer Tracee Stanley perfect the poses on their boards, I become conscious of my remedial rank. I attempt some poses myself on the prototype of Gregg’s NRG women’s fitness and recreational race board that’s due out from Starboard this summer. In my mind’s eye, my plank is perfect. No need for a reality check. Gregg’s design is sturdy under my feet and I feel confident to push beyond my comfort zone.
Good thing too, as the greatest challenge of the day presents itself with Gregg’s announcement of our turning lesson. (At this point, I’m happy to just paddle in a straight line.) I try the 360-degree turn and cross-bow strokes. I’m excited to learn some new turns—starting the day, my turns were extremely long and wide. Gregg easily demonstrates walking around on the board, and we daintily attempt the pivot turn somehow avoiding falling in the drink.
Then the final exam: an obstacle course around the buoys. The necessity of turns, especially in a race is now evident, though I can’t quite see myself jockeying turns in a race quite yet. Still, we all manage to “graduate” from pure beginner-dom with flying colors and a pure sense of accomplishment.
After enjoying four hours of shared physical challenge, nobody wants the day to end. Inspired by the cathartic and therapeutic experience, with Gregg’s wisdom and agility in mind, I cannot wait to get back in the water. Maybe I’ll even try a race. — Allison Sucamele
— CLICK HERE to find out more information on Gregg’s SUP Fitness Boot Camps