The Capital SUP Scene
Surfing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Washington, D.C. Yet our nation’s capital boasts arguably the best standup paddleboarding—including flatwater touring, whitewater and, yes, surf—of any metropolitan area in the country. The Potomac River serves up world-class whitewater and a pair of phenomenal standing waves, and that’s before it takes you gently past the Lincoln Memorial, Kennedy Center and less-hallowed landmarks like the Watergate Hotel. The river flows into the Chesapeake Bay, the world’s largest estuary with more than 12,000 miles of shoreline. And when Big Blue calls, the Maryland/Delaware beaches are three hours away.
The Potomac River
Ten miles upstream of the White House, the Potomac thunders over Great Falls and enters Mather Gorge, where a myriad of rapids and standing waves run below sheer cliffs. Water levels can vary dramatically throughout the year with spring flood levels pushing an Amazon-like 200,000 cubic feet per second, while summer flows drop to a user-friendly 1,000 cfs. Put in at Old Angler’s Inn and paddle a quarter-mile up to the Chutes where you can find small playwaves and lively currents. A popular SUP roundtrip from Old Angler’s Inn starts with a mile-long paddle up the historic C&O Canal that parallels the Potomac. Carry your board a few feet to the river and put in below Great Falls to paddle downriver through the gorge. You’ll encounter Class II-III whitewater and the Rocky Island wave—one of the premier SUP river waves anywhere. The eddy’s easy to catch and the river is deep, so no worries about rocks.
Take out at Old Angler’s Inn, or continue downstream all the way to the city. The entire trip is along forested shoreline with abundant wildlife, with few hints that you are just outside our nation’s capital. Make sure to walk around the Little Falls Dam-, but you can run the Class III-IV rapid of the same name if you’re up for it. Three miles of flatwater will bring you downtown, where you can step out at the Lincoln Memorial. Should you wish to keep paddling, it’s only another 150 miles or so before the Potomac turns into the Chesapeake Bay.
Annapolis and the Chesapeake Bay
Annapolis, Maryland, calls itself America’s Sailing Capital, but these days there are nearly as many SUPs as sailboats plying this historic port city. That’s especially true on Tuesday nights in summer, when East of Maui Board Shop provides free introductory lessons followed by a Naish SUP Summer Race Series. The gun goes off at 6:45 sharp, and if you don’t want to race just enjoy the paddle. There’s plenty more of the Chesapeake to explore beyond Annapolis, too. Head to the Eastern Shore for beautiful saltwater marshes and cypress swamps. Of note is the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Md. For more endurance adventure pack the waterproof bags and follow the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake Trail, the nation’s only all-water historic trail. Or launch at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and paddle an inner-city industrial landscape.
Maryland and Delaware Beaches
Surf spots abound on the Maryland and Delaware beaches about three hours east of D.C. Standup boards are ideal for the moderate surf that prevails most of the year, while occasional storm swell will soothe your adrenaline jones. Cape Henlopen State Park at the mouth of the Delaware Bay has east-facing beaches and a point that gets a nice wrap-around swell during strong nor’easters. Indian River Inlet and Ocean City’s 36th Street are reliable surf spots in Maryland’s favorite party town. SUPs are still new to these breaks, so tread lightly and surf with style. Assateague Island boasts less-crowded sand-bar breaks and beachside camping on a protected nature preserve.
Flip-flops and board shorts are just fine for the outdoor bar at Old Angler’s Inn, but if you go inside the historic restaurant, pack your shoes and wallet. Washington Harbour in Georgetown has waterside eateries that bustle on summer nights. The vibe is more lobbyists-night-out than après-paddle, but the river view can’t be beat. Farther downstream on the Virginia side of the river, Old Town Alexandria has too many bars and restaurants to name. In Annapolis, East of Maui offers board rentals, demos and lessons (eastofmauiboardshop.com). After the Tuesday night race, stop by the Boatyard Bar and Grill to trade stories. Celebrate a successful surf mission to Ocean City at The Party Block on 17th Street, boasting a full range of down-the-shore shenanigans, from bike week bikini contests to special guest appearances by DJ Pauly D from the cast of Jersey Shore. Body shots extra.
— Skip Brown
This piece originally ran in the Summer issue ofSUPmagazine.