The history of standup paddling is often attributed to ocean athletes like Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama. Fair enough. These two revolutionary surfers helped create a booming industry. But the evolution has been on for years in other paddlesports realms. Here’s a look at three athletes who’ve left their mark on the standup game, helping to broaden the appeal of ‘SUP’ without even really trying. – Kurt Mullen
Fletcher Burton grew up surfing and kayaking in Pismo Beach, California. This remote enclave two hours north of Los Angeles is hardly considered a paddling hotbed, but Burton, 31, has developed arguably one of the most dynamic techniques in the fusion of paddling and surfing. And most surfers and kayakers have never heard of him.
When he paddles into a wave he’s seated on a waveski–basically a high-performance, sit-on-top surfboard. After planing on the wave, he pops to his feet using a quick paddle brace–inserting his front foot into a custom strap–to shred the face like a surfer, cutting back, smacking the lip and tucking into the occasional barrel, riding the figurative seam between his two great loves: kayaking and surfing.
“You [always] had to make a decision before you went out: surfboard or kayak,” Burton says. “And I didn’t want to.” The waveski was natural for him. Then he saw Jeff Snyder in a Scott Lindgren whitewater film in the early 1990s. Snyder’s striding inspired Burton to stand on his waveski. Unfortunately, his innovative technique hasn’t crossed over to the competitive realm. International waveski officials have changed the rules so that standing up means an automatic disqualification from the heat. “They thought it was unfair,” says the good-natured Burton. “And I guess I can understand that.”
When asked what he calls his technique, Burton likes to pay homage to Snyder. “I call it stride-surfing,” he says.
Invention often comes from humble beginnings. Whitewater innovator Jeff Snyder created striding–standing in an inflatable kayak–after watching a Mexican woman paddle a dugout canoe standing up. It was 1993 and he was with his older brother, Jim, in Mexico. A camera crew was filming them for an ESPN program when Snyder hurt his back on a 40-foot waterfall on the Agua Azul.
When he returned home, Snyder, 48, added elements from snowboarding to develop the striding technique to absorb the river with his legs instead of his back. He stands with one foot in front of the other about 20 inches apart. AIRE rafts customized a Force XL for him, with cargo loops on each side of the boat. For leverage he presses his shins against the thwarts.
He made his first striding paddle by gluing blades onto a vaulting pole. Later, Jim Snyder built him a 10-foot paddle from wood composite. He has since run waterfalls and Class V rapids throughout the East Coast.
The Accident, Md.-native, isn’t surprised by the SUP movement: “The amount of fun I’ve had in the 15-plus years I’ve been doing it, it’s hard to understand why it took so long to come to this.”
On a lake at the National Mountaineering Center in North Wales in 1977, Nigel Foster watched in disbelief as a friend stood up and paddled a kayak he designed, the Vyneck. Foster had never thought of standing on his boat. But to see his friend slide out of it and stand up, Foster says, “made me think, ‘Okay, it’s my boat. I’ve got to be able to do this.’”
Foster recalls a lot of wet sessions before he figured it out. To pop up, Foster sits on the kayak’s back deck and takes to his feet by sculling the blade back and forth across the water. He then uses the blade of one end of the paddle for propulsion once he’s up.
Foster likes to teach standup to his students because it helps them find the balance points in their boats. And when he’s coming into shore, he can jump off and grab his boat before it crunches sand and rock. “It’s that little touch that gives you extra input on balance,” he says. “[And] it’s exhilarating if you let you’re body be the sail and you can feel the wind pushing you along.”