… And how the mere act of standup paddling defines it
By Sam George
While style in surfing is important, standup paddling doesn't just require style—it is style. Whether you're paddling in an ocean, lagoon, bay, harbor, lake, river, reservoir or a backyard swimming pool, standup paddling is the purest essence of water sport style. And it's all right there in the name: stand up.
Unlike virtually all other water sports, standup padding didn't evolve. There's no traceable lineage with which to assess its development, no evocative petroglyphs or early missionary accounts, no finely etched illustrations or sepia-toned photographs. Through artifacts like these we can appreciate how most other paddling-based sports—board surfing being the most culturally pervasive—progressed on a quantifiable historical timeline. Standup paddling, however, didn't evolve in this manner—it arrived fully formed. Like Prometheus wresting fire from the gods, our proto-paddlers raised the first 80-cm paddle shaft as a flaming brand of possibility: No longer did man have to lie down on the water. They could stand, upright, steady, head held high with eyes focused not furtively downcast but proudly out toward a limitless horizon. And with none of mankind's historical postures of subjugation, laying flat on one's belly, down on one's knees, or, even more pathetically, sitting on one's ass.
That standup pioneers like Laird Hamilton did so with such statuesque aplomb was the greatest gift. Can you imagine if standup had been invented by a less Promethean figure? We might all be twirling our paddles right now (and if you ever see somebody actually twirling theirs, please confiscate it immediately). But with all due respect to Waikiki's beach boys—most specifically the Ah Choy brothers, who would occasionally paddle out standing up to shoot photos of their tourist clients, the upright posture being a means rather than an end—it was Laird's Grecian kouros interpretation that in one simple, inspired stroke established standup paddling as the most stylish paddlesport ever. Meaning one in which style is so essential to the act itself.
Consider the role style plays in the others. Kayaking, rowing, canoeing, outrigger paddling, surfskiing, paddleboarding—none of these sports require style of any sort. Efficient exertion, yes. Flawless technique, certainly. In freestyle whitewater kayaking's case, even extravagant showmanship. But no style. Rowing and outrigger canoe paddling demand absolute uniformity of effort: no style points here. Paddleboard racing, despite its heroic "man against the sea" quality, requires only the ability to continue a specific cadence while essentially prostrating yourself on your belly or crawling on your knees. And sea kayaking? Seriously, can you think of any stylish endeavor that involves sitting on your butt while wearing a rubber skirt?
This is not to say that these other paddlesports aren't exciting, rewarding, emotionally and physically satisfying experiences. And I'm sure each has its own arcane standards of expertise. A sea kayaker might exhibit what to others of her kind is a very stylish stern-rudder stroke; a whitewater paddler might take what is considered by fellow river cognoscenti to be a very stylish line through a particular rapid. But these elements of style are obscure, requiring detailed explanation to the non-initiated. Pure style, like pure art, requires no caption. It quite literally stands on its own. Watch even the most proficient whitewater kayaker frantically churning his way through a Class V rapid like a gosling caught in a mill race and ask yourself what Michelangelo would have made of the image. As opposed to the upright contrapposto stance of his timeless masterpiece that, should you put a Quickblade paddle in David's flawless marble hands, perfectly personifies standup style.
No, when it comes to water sports, standing is style. And by simply standing, head up, eyes front, the blade wielded from one's own two feet, paddlers everywhere—from Hawaii to Lake Havasu, Tahiti to Tahoe—are graced with the opportunity to assume the heroic pose best described by literary lion Jack London, who, in 1907's A Royal Sport wrote: "Where but the moment before was only the wide desolation and invincible roar, is now a man, erect, full-statured, not struggling frantically in that wild movement, not buried and crushed and buffeted by those mighty monsters, but standing above them all, calm and superb, poised on the giddy summit, his feet buried in the churning foam, the salt smoke rising to his knees, and all the rest of him in the free air and flashing sunlight, and he is flying through the air, flying forward, flying fast as the surge on which he stands. He is a Mercury—a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea."
Editor-at-Large Sam George doesn't practice good style.
He is style.