“If you come down to the river, bet you gonna find some people who live.” 1
In its natural state, Bayou St. John flowed from the surrounding swamps to Lake Pontchartrain, and there was a portage between the bayou and the Mississippi River. Those features contributed to selecting the site where the city of New Orleans was founded by French traders in 1718. Today, Bayou St. John is a placid stretch of water rimmed by low earthen levees that form a scenic strip of city park space, and a standup paddling spot favored by Jeff Lakey, owner of NOLA Paddleboards. —Tom Fucigna
SUP mag: How did you first get into standup paddling?
Lakey: I was born in Metairie, Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans. Growing up, our yearly family vacation was always to Destin, Florida. Those beach trips were all I thought about throughout the entire year, and that was a pretty solid indicator of the lifestyle I needed.
After graduating from the University of New Orleans in the fall of 2005 (Katrina semester), I moved out to San Diego, California, and became a beach lifeguard. That’s where I was first introduced to standup paddling. A few fellow State Park lifeguards were spending their breaks standing on the rescue boards and propelling themselves into waves using a single-bladed paddle. I just had to give it a go, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
SUP mag: What brought you back to New Orleans?
Lakey: After three years in California, I moved back to the Gulf Coast for a year-round EMT Beach Safety position on Okaloosa Island, Florida. I did plenty of paddling and paddle-surfing on the far warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but I felt a strong desire to return to New Orleans and bring standup with me. So, in 2011, I made the move and opened NOLA Paddleboards.
SUP mag: Why did you decide to get into the SUP market?
Lakey: I was always a small business-minded person, patiently, yet anxiously, waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. The idea of opening this company in my hometown pretty much hit me in the face. Living back in New Orleans with a standup paddle company has been a dream come true.
SUP mag: What local features are attractive for standup?
Lakey: New Orleans has an abundance of waterways great for paddleboarding. The city has been primarily known for its music, food, festivals and culture in general. It’s great to see that standup paddling and other recreational opportunities are now sought by visitors.
SUP mag: What services do you offer?
Lakey: The majority of what we do is teach people how to paddle properly and safely. We also offer rentals, paddleboard-yoga, tours, and a Paddleboard Retreat, which is a vacation rental in Destin equipped with two paddleboards.
SUP mag: Do you have any favorite paddling locations?
Lakey: We mainly take customers out on Bayou St. John and Lake Pontchartrain. Both are awesome paddle spots that are extremely accessible for locals and visitors alike.
Bayou St. John runs right through the city. It’s always calm no matter the wind conditions, which makes it a very reliable choice. Our launch location is at the same streetcar stop used for exploring City Park and the New Orleans Museum of Art. Visitors that streetcar down to paddle with us can easily make a day trip of checking out these hotspots, along with some of the tasty restaurants in the area.
Lake Pontchartrain is a great place to paddle as well. There is a large harbor on the south shore that we stay in when it’s rough, but most days, especially in the summer, light south winds polish the surface making it excellent for paddling. We like to go out on Wednesdays, which is the local sailing community night. We have a good relationship with the sailors and it’s great to see so much activity on the lake at once.
SUP mag: What brands of gear do you sell?
Lakey: We exclusively sell SUP gear at our storefront. We carry boards by Riviera, Surftech, Naish, YOLO, and Red Paddle Co., plus Werner paddles, GoPro cameras, Yakima racks and Rainbow Sandals. Our logo shirts are getting more popular since people seem happy to support a local, rec-oriented business.
I am going to be moving my store to a waterfront location on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, in a building next to the historic New Canal Lighthouse that was recently rebuilt by The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, after it was destroyed in Katrina. The Blue Crab is a new restaurant next to the lighthouse. This area is on the rebound and I hope to work together with the Foundation soon to do a paddle tour stopping at the lighthouse.
Even after the move, I will still take people out on Bayou St. John, since it is such a great, calm place to paddle, and the historical value is unmatched in the New Orleans area.
SUP mag: Do you sponsor any events?
Lakey: We enjoy bringing together the paddleboard community through our group, The NOLA Paddleboard Club. In the summer, we meet every Wednesday evening for a sunset paddle on Lake Pontchartrain. In winter, we do monthly paddles exploring different waterways all around southern Louisiana. There are many choices for day paddle trips from the New Orleans area. We have taken fishing trips to the marshes of Shell Beach, and have gone to Elmer’s island and paddle-surfed Louisiana’s coast. I think my favorite paddle trip is the Atchafalaya Basin near Lafayette. This is one of the most gorgeous swamps on the planet and the people that call it home are some of the friendliest you will ever meet.
1If you don’t know what that’s from, you’ve got to look it up yourself.