Pure Stroke: Making History

The e-mail was from Ben Marcus, the longtime surf journalist and author, currently working on a book about standup paddling. And characteristic of Mr. Marcus, who, if given a choice between archival sleuthing and a good story goes sepia tone every time, he was digging most enthusiastically into what he termed “the history of standup.” In Ben’s case this meant having unearthed accounts of 2000-year-old Peruvian fishermen paddling to shore standing up on their bundled reed caballitos, a faded daguerreotype of some 19th century Frenchman punting upright on the Seine and, most significantly in Ben’s opinion, an early 20th century film clip featuring the great Duke Kahanamoku at Waikiki riding an Australian surfski standing up with a double-bladed paddle in hand.

All very interesting, I wrote in response, but if we’re going that far why not the stork-like dugout polers on Africa’s river Niger or the early French voyageurs standup paddling their narrow pirogues through the primordial Louisiana swamps? How about the trireme, that ancient Greek warship whose classic ‘ramming speed’ was achieved by banks of paddlers plying their oars from a standing position? If you want to examine the history of standup paddling, I asserted, you need to establish the epoch based on the date when somebody first began standup paddling for its own sake.

Here we were moving into my own particular area of expertise. I began surfing in Hawaii back in 1967, and clearly remember watching legendary Waikiki beach boy Bobby Ah Choy paddling out at Canoes while standing up on a big tandem board, using an aluminum canoe paddle. This upright position facilitated Ah Choy shooting photos of his surf lesson clients with a little Kodak Instamatic—it also helped keep his cigarette dry.

Since that time, having spent most of my life in the water and all of my career covering water sports in the media, I’ve paddled on everything from surfboards to paddleboards to sea kayaks and outriggers—even bundled reed Polynesian poras. I’ve paddled sea kayaks and outriggers all over the world, from California to New England, from Sumatra to West Africa, from Central America to the Caroline Islands. I’ve paddled canoes with fisherman in Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia and Tortola, British Virgin Islands. I’ve ridden kayaks in standing waves under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Lunch Counter on Idaho’s Snake River, and paddled from Catalina Island to Manhattan Beach and the entire length of Big Sur. I’ve surfed paddleboards, kayaks and outriggers everywhere from Canoes at Waikiki to N’Gor Village, Senegal. Together with Dave Parmenter, Yvon Chouinard and Fred Hemmings, I reached the final of a canoe surfing event in 8- to 10-foot Makaha.

I’ve studied ancient Hawaiian water sport: been through the stacks at the Bishop Museum, own first editions of Ellis’ voyages through the Sandwich Islands, published in 1831, along with two volumes of Captain Cook’s Voyage Through the Pacific, the 1811 edition, and have read numerous other volumes chronicling the Polynesian pastimes of paddling and surfing And throughout all this time, all this intimate involvement with paddle sport, I’ve never once come across evidence—physical or anecdotal—of anybody from any era or culture standup paddling recreationally, for its own sake, with equipment specifically designed for that purpose.

Until now. So to speak. Because it’s only been nine years since Laird shot the Malibu Pier with that American flag affixed to his specially built standup paddle. Less than a decade, during which Ron House shaped that first standup board, freeing us from tandems; Todd Bradley, Dave Parmenter and Brian Keaulana designed those first channel crossers and high-performance ‘short’ boards; Archie Kalepa crashed the Molokai race; the Battle of the Paddle tripled its entrants; standup paddlers stroked everywhere from Lake Tahoe to Lake Superior to Lake Worth, Florida; and Maverick’s pioneer Jeff Clark caught his first forty-footer from the upright position; standup paddlers circumnavigated Manhattan and traversed the Hawaiian Islands. Some have even paddled the Grand Canyon. And after only a few short years since the very first image of a standup paddler appeared in print, I’m writing this column for a standup paddling magazine—need I say more? All of this happening within the past decade. But has it been long enough to be considered history? Can you call it history when the sport’s progression—the sport of standup paddling, not simply the act of standup paddling—hasn’t paused for even a moment in the past nine years?

No, I told Ben, who was looking to chronicle the definitive timeline, there is no history of standup paddling. Not yet.

Because we’re all still busy making it, one stroke at a time.

Sam George

This originally ran in our Spring 2011 issue.

For more from the mag, click here.