Annapolis, Maryland, founded in 1649, home to the U.S. Naval Academy and known as America’s Sailing Capital, has a strong maritime history and a tradition of nautical innovation. Perhaps that was why Ben Butterwei caught the standup paddling bug before he even knew what exactly it was. —Tom Fucigna
SUP mag: How did you first get into standup paddling?
Butterwei: I was at the beach in Ocean City, Maryland in 2007 and I saw a guy paddle by, out past the waves. I spent the next three days on the internet trying to find out what it was he was doing. This was before the sport blew up out east and was still relatively unknown in our area, so finding anything about it was a challenge. I tried searching “surfing with a paddle,” “surfing and rowing,” etc., until I finally found a site that had some info on the sport and pictures of Laird [Hamilton] paddling. I bought a basic all-around board and was instantly addicted.
After a few months of paddling, I met Neil MaCindoe, a local outrigger paddler who had also gotten into SUP. Neil saw me driving with a board on top of my car, and he literally followed me home, right up my driveway. I was about to pull out my paddle and hit him with it when he raised his hands and said, "I'm not stalking you. I just want to talk SUP." The sport was so new in Annapolis that he was happy to finally see somebody else with a board. We still laugh about that. Neil introduced me to racing. After my first race I knew I wanted to help grow the sport in our area, and particularly the race scene.
SUP mag: When and why did you decide to get into the SUP market?
Butterwei: Nobody was really promoting races or putting on events in our area, except the Kent Island Outrigger Club, which would give us a division at their races. A few local kayak and snowboard shops kept a board or two in stock, but that was it. So, a group of us decided to make the leap and start a company in hopes of promoting and growing the sport in our area. We had our first race the year we started the company and 24 paddlers showed up. The year after that it doubled, and it has continued to do so every year since. This past year we had just under 100 racers.
SUP mag: What features of your location make it appealing for standup paddling?
Butterwei: Annapolis is one of the best cities on the east coast and has a lot of history. You can paddle by the United States Naval Academy, on the Chesapeake Bay by the Bay Bridge, or on rivers with beautiful scenery and lots of wildlife. We are also only two hours from the beach in Ocean City, and three hours from Deep Creek Lake in the mountains, which are all great places to paddle. Not many places offer such variety.
SUP mag: What SUP-related activities do your customers like?
Butterwei: Race-training paddles and social fun paddles are very popular. It's always fun to get out and enjoy the water with other paddlers who have the same passion for the sport. SUP Yoga and Fitness classes are popping up everywhere.
SUP fishing is also starting to take off, especially in spring and late fall when the rockfish (striped bass) are running. The biggest fish on record caught on a SUP board in Maryland is a 38″ rockfish, big enough to drag the board and paddler for a nice ride. You can get in shallow spots on a standup board and you do not scare the fish away like a boat engine would.
SUP mag: What brands of boards and paddles do you carry?
Butterwei: We have boards by Yolo, Infinity, Riviera and Invert, and paddles from KeNalu, Hippo Stick, Yolo, Riviera and Quick Blade. They're all great companies with amazing products. We can cover people looking for anything from beginner entry-level boards all the way up to custom, made-in-the-USA high-end race boards.
SUP mag: What size, or types, of boards have been popular?
Butterwei: All-around boards in the 10′-12′ range have been the most popular, but we are really starting to see a spike in race board sales. As the sport continues to grow I think more and more race boards will be sold. Especially in mostly flat water locations like ours, race boards allow paddlers to put in more miles and explore more water faster.
SUP mag: What about accessories?
Butterwei: Thule's SUP Taxi racks have been very popular. They make loading fast and easy, and they lock so they provide security if you decide to stop off for some food or a beer after a paddle. Belt PFD’s (mandatory in Annapolis) have also become the popular option.
SUP mag: Do you organize any events?
Butterwei: We will host our Fifth Annual Race on June 8th. I believe it has become the biggest race in Maryland. We have a really good core group of paddlers who love to race, and we travel well as a group. We usually have big numbers at the Carolina Cup, and races in Washington DC, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, and of course our favorite Maryland races, including those organized by OC SUP & Fitness, and the Kent Island Outrigger Club.
SUP mag: Where do you think the SUP market is headed?
Butterwei: The sport is still growing and I think it will continue to do so, especially in areas like ours where the ocean is not directly in our back yard. I think it will level off at some point, but at the moment it's still booming! I just hope the sense of community never changes, Right now it's all about community and having fun, and even the pros are approachable. The best paddlers in the world like Danny Ching, Dave Boehne, and Slater Trout are all super cool and more than happy to talk to you. You just don’t get that in other sports and I hope that doesn’t change in SUP as it grows.