Greg Whittaker, owner of Mountain to Sound Outfitters and Alki Kayak Tours on Puget Sound in Washington State says their goal is simple: create more paddlers. “By making it easy to get on the water and supplying the best gear for our waters, we are helping people discover standup paddling and kayaking in Puget Sound.” —Tom Fucigna
SUP mag: What’s your background?
Whittaker: As a Northwest kid I spent the summers paddling kayaks, water skiing and skurfing on the lakes, and crabbing and fishing on the salt water. Winters were up in the Cascades, skiing and snowboarding some of the best lines in the US.
In 1997 I began guiding sea kayak tours in the San Juan Islands, which focused on the wildlife, but included lots of kayak surfing in standing waves created by the currents. After a brief stint in the environmental consulting world, I saw the opportunity to bring expedition-level sea kayak touring to the Seattle Market, and opened Alki Kayak Tours in 2005. The name is based on our location at Alki Beach, on Puget Sound, just west of downtown Seattle. The success of the on-water location led us to open Mountain to Sound Outfitters in 2005, which focuses on paddlesports in the summer, and snow sports in the winter.
SUP mag: When did you first get into SUP?
Whittaker: In September 2009 I attended the local Round the Rock race around Mercer Island and jumped into the short race on a standup paddleboard, placing third in my class using the skills I had gained over the years paddling, and using the wind to my advantage to pass many experienced paddlers.
SUP mag: Why did you decide to get into the SUP market?
Whittaker: It was a natural [transition] for us since we have the best saltwater beach scene in Seattle. We’re putting people on the water, on beach cruisers, or inline skates all day. I took the WPA instruction course, then we bought boards for our retail store and began our SUP program at Alki Kayak Tours in 2010.
SUP mag: What features of Seattle make it appealing for standup paddling?
Whittaker: We are 1.5 miles from downtown Seattle as the crow flies, and the King County Water Taxi drops off at our dock. The views of the city are amazing, and our spot is a perfect launch spot for a destination tour to Alki Beach, a favorite beach in Seattle. Padding to Alki Beach and back is a great three- to five-mile tour, depending on how far offshore you go.
SUP mag: What SUP-related activities do your customers like?
Whittaker: Our customers have responded well to Ladies Night every Monday, where our skilled women instructors introduce and clinic women only in a non-testosterone fueled environment, and our “Tuesday Night SUP’r” events from April through October.
We started “Tuesday Night SUP’r” with complimentary paddleboarding just to turn people on to the sport. Up to 80 people would show up and we hustled our dozen boards along and gave everyone 10 minutes to take a spin then get back in line. We started charging $10 our second year and now we have reasonable numbers of people showing up.
Tuesday nights include a 1.5-mile race series, which we run for over 20 weeks, with the best northwest paddlers attending weekly. It’s a really dynamic race to a channel marker and back, with currents, wind, and swell that experienced paddlers can use to their advantage.
We joined BIC in their One Design SUP race development program this year using BIC 12’6″ Wings, which struck me as a great way to create paddlers who are into decent hull designs, and it fosters friendly competition. A lot of people are interested in getting into the race scene, but it is cost prohibitive until you have tried it. By getting everyone on the same board, it gets new racers involved and hopefully creates more skilled paddlers.
SUP mag: What brands do you carry and what size or types of boards have been popular?
Whittaker: We have Boardworks, Pau Hana, Riviera, Tahoe, Starboard, Hovie, OHANA, and Doyle boards, and paddles by Werner and Sawyer. The basic 10’6” to 11’6” all-arounders have been good for our entry level people who are just getting into the sport.
We are a try-before-you-buy store. We really try to get people out on the boards before they purchase so they can get what they are looking for and gain some experience. Our most popular boards have been the fitness/tour/race selection. We are generally not surfing here in our inland sea, so we go for the glide. 12’ to 14’ tour boards like the Tahoe Zephyr, OHANA 14’, Boardworks Raven, and Pau Hana Crossfit are where most of our customers end up.
SUP mag: Have any accessories or particular products been trending?
Whittaker: SUP clothing that can handle cold water immersion without overheating you while you’re not immersed. Quiksilver paddle jackets and the Level Six Neo Hoody are good here. We also sell a bunch of paddle pants, as we paddle year round and the water is always cold.
SUP mag: Have you organized any events?
Whittaker: We’re the founders and organizers of the Northwest Paddling Festival, at Lake Sammamish State Park in Issaquah, Washington. This past year included “First Time SUPin’,” where first-timers could try our dry land simulator to get a feel of the sport, and then join our instructors for an introductory on-water experience. There was a great turnout by industry and enthusiasts this year with over 1000 people register ing to demo and try out gear. We incorporate two and six mile races into the day-long event.
SUP mag: Have you seen many people fishing from SUPs?
Whittaker: We have a salmon run right off our on-water location, and we will be focusing on catching salmon this year off of SUP. We are working with the Northwest Kayak Anglers to put together a Pink Salmon Tournament August 17th in our waterway, so any human powered watercraft may fish it. I expect to see a few SUPs involved this year.
SUP mag: Where do you think the SUP market is headed?
Whittaker: I see growth in the NW for sure. We have an amazing amount of water here, from coastal to inland saltwater, as well as lakes and rivers. We are here to introduce people to paddling in cold water environments safely so, as we continue to turn people onto it, they are gonna drag more people into the sport.