The Board Size Conundrum—What about the Big Boys?

Photo: Sebastian Schöeffel / HOCH ZWEI

Photo: Sebastian Schöeffel / HOCH ZWEI

SUP Racing—What about the Big Boys?

Here’s the thing: My butt’s not small. My waistline is modest. Food, beer and me, we’ve never spent much time apart. I generally tip the scales at two bills—a little over (usually) or under (sometimes)—depending on the day (and menu).

So when covering races around the globe, I sometimes, every once in a while, find myself rooting, just a teeny bit, for the Chuck Pattersons, or Rob Rojases or Chase Kosterlitzes and Jamie Mitchells of the world. We relate to things closest to ourselves, whether it’s sports or body type.

Those racers are big boys. I’m a big boy. And it’d be nice to see a big boy (or girl, if it so applies) win an “Elite” race once in a while instead of having to settle for first in the “Unlimited,” class—the equivalent of a top Major League Baseball player being forced to miss the All Star Game cause their shoes are too big, instead hitting for the cycle in the Legends Game.

Aside from distance races, in the last year, do you remember anyone over 200 pounds winning a MAJOR technical race in the “Elite” class? Jamie Mitchell’s effort at the 2013 ISA event in Peru is the last instance that comes to mind, but again, that was the distance race, not the technical surf race barely won by the lighter Casper Steinfath.

So this one’s for the big boys. I’ve read all the chatter online about standardized board size for the “Elite” class. And I can’t help but feel that big boys get left out of the argument.

It comes down to drag: Say we have a standard 12’6”-foot board (or a 13-foot standard, as suggested here). That’s still going to be an advantage to the slight—albeit incredible—paddlers of the world. When a board like that is in the flats, whether it’s an ocean surf race or on a lake, lighter paddlers simply create less drag because the volume is more properly aligned with their weight. Big boys, as I can attest, naturally create more drag because of their, ahem, girth, and are at a disadvantage due to lack of volume in modern SUP racing.

Photo: Ron Johnson,

Photo: Ron Johnson,

Unless we complicate it in the name of big boys everywhere. I’m not one to try and stop the inevitable, or put caps on evolution. The genie is out of the bottle. So why have regulations? To even the playing field, forget length. Let’s try a volume-to-weight ratio.

Look into the future for a second and imagine the sport at an Olympic level. Professional paddlers will weigh in before each race, and the volume of their board must be in alignment with their weight determined in the rulebook by a panel of our sport’s brightest minds.

As an example (obviously not realistic), a 160-pound paddler is allowed up to a 160-liter board, 160-to-170- pounder is allowed 170 liters, 170-180 pounds, a 180 liter board and so on, making the playing field even for all sizes while not hampering the talented craftsman who’re designing incredible boards for the sport’s best athletes. Rec races will keep the board length designation.

But what about the general public wanting to ride what the pros are riding (and manufacturers wanting to put these race boards into production)? That’s what allegedly ruined windsurfing’s economy. The equipment of windsurfing’s elite got too high-end so the regular person couldn’t use it.

Huh? Windsurfing is still fairly popular, especially in Europe. But maybe, just maybe, its growth plateaued because it’s just too much gear and not enough people live around big bodies of water with consistent winds. Or they turned to kiting (MUCH easier and requires less wind). And do we really believe that recreational paddlers are going to want a 24-inch wide board on the lake with their kids—the width that most modern day SUP racers are employing?

I have faith in standup paddling (and the industry’s survival) on it’s own merits—fun, adventure, exploration, fitness, surf, rivers, lakes, coast runs. The sport of SUP doesn’t need to rely solely on racing to be successful, simply because it’s so damn fun and diverse in it’s own right and all you need is a board, a paddle and water. Racing will always be an important way to measure the sport, ourselves and the evolution of equipment. The liter ratio approach would lend more fairness to the sport.

And maybe one of these days we’ll see a big boy atop the podium again at a World Championship-caliber event. Making all of us plus-sized fans feel a little better about ourselves. –Joe Carberry


  • Corran Addison

    Here’s the problem… if you’re racing within your own country, ANY size works… but what if you have to travel to race. MOST airplane cargo holds are now 3.5m (11’5″). This was the primary reason that kayaking changed the boat length minimum length rule from the 40yr old 4m to 3.5m a decade ago. Anything over 3.5m, and its hit and miss if your board makes the flight. You can show up at a race and have no race board. Unless you’re sponsored… in which case the “rich” athletes get to have their boards shipped (any length almost) and the “independents” do not… or they’re racing on inflatable boards. If you want to even the playing field, you make a 11’5″ or 11’6″ “International” race length, and then take it up to something that makes actual sense from there – to about 5m (16’6″) so you can actually have some REAL glide when paddling – even 14′ is pathetically slow (anyone who has ever paddled a sprint kayak or an outrigger will tell you how frustratingly slow a 14′ paddleboard is). Size? Well, there are ways to compensate for a paddlers size within a standard length, but yes, it does make it harder for larger paddlers for sure… but the same goes for any glide sport. It’s the same problem everywhere. Short paddlers also have an advantage when it comes to headwinds… and so on…. that’s life Mick!

  • robert

    I am 5’2 and i would like to play on NBA… Maybe they should lower the basket height so I can play professionally…
    come on!!! if you have 220 pounds, go for something else… the same reason I don’t play basketball…

  • btpaumalu

    We should limit boards to 6′ and 12″ wide. They would fit airplanes and it would give dwarfs their own sport.

  • jill

    “Clydesdale” is the perfect category for bigger boys (and girls-“Athena”) in racing mountain bikes. Sounds like SUP needs to adopt the same type of category.

  • Marcos

    In my oppinion the succes of the lightest guys is not only about the drag, but also about the VO2max. In that kind of long duration exercises its the most important aspect to measure the performance, and it is measured by ml/kg/min, so when the weight increases, the O2 that you dispose is lesser. By this reason you wont se a 100kg guy winning a running marathon.
    So i think that even if you could choose a longer board, you still would have a big handicap

  • Chris Thomas

    Not a good comparison. Pro basketball is a big money business. SUP racing is by and large a recreational sport and for that reason their should be ways people of all sizes can compete and if they have the talent, strength, and endurance have a reasonable chance to win or at least place well.

  • Chris Thomas

    So with that there should be class divisions to allow all sizes of people to compete.

  • Mitchell P.

    My guess is that if volume-to-weight was adopted instead of board lengths, smaller paddlers would still win all the races… but on hyper-narrow, low volume 17′ boards rather than 12’6.

  • Francis J.

    What about Volume-to-weight AND board lengths?

  • Tim Leary

    How about like horse racing where the lighter riders get lead weights added to their saddle bags – An ingot of lead lashed to the deck should even things out? xscuse me – I’ve been drinking – trying to keep my weight up!

  • Daniel

    It’s simple, power to weight ratio. Look at kayaking or canoe paddling, racers aren’t limited to the volume of their boat, they can choose to race a bigger or smaller volume boat if they like, whichever one works for them. It doesn’t look to me like weight matters so much, because look at who are winning the races, yes light; but they are also young and have an athletic background. Like Conner Baxter & Kai Lenny, started when they were very young, and honestly regardless of their weight I still think they would be where they are at.

  • Felipe

    In my humble opinion this is not UFC my friend… it is a paddling sport. If we taking this ahead we would have to change all the history of paddling racing sports (Canoe, kayak, rowing)

  • Brad

    think iI have been paddling for over a year now and I have a 12′ all around board so that I can paddle flat water or hit the small waves in my area. I would like to get a race board to compete in a few races, the problem is should I get a 12’6 or a 14′ board to be competitive. Regardless of my size (200+) or age, my goal is to be on a board that is fast for me. I have competed at many sports and size does have an advantage depending on the sport. In this sport if it wants to be considered an Olympic event some day, it needs to create some sort of an fair and even playing field that can attract all sizes and ages. It would seem to me that there should be three distances, a sprint which would be a straight shot for the fastest paddler around. A mid-distance that would incorporate multiple turns requiring additional skills and a distance race that would be considered a marathon for paddlers. Each distance would probable develop different size boards and shapes to be competitive. It would probably develop different size paddlers like you see in track meets where sprinters are usually more developed than a distance runners. Different body types for different events but in the end the best or fastest athlete for that event. Equipment should adjust to the racer regardless of length or volume. If I feel more stable on a 14′ x 28″ board then I just need to work out more to compete with a paddler on a smaller or possible, longer board. For recreational races there should be categories for age groups and even a category for big boys and girls because it makes it fun for a larger audience. Categories for all around or race style boards should be included in this mix too, again the idea is to make it more fun for multiple groups of people who can only afford one style of board. This is a great sport that myself and many of my buddies have gone too and it continues to attract more people from many backgrounds. Who cares how big you are or the size of your board, anyone who has competed in sports know only that you want to be the fastest or the best in that sport. Let the designers use their talents and knowledge to create boards for different people, it would appear if that was the approach they would sell even more boards and the sport would continue to grow and possibly attract the Olympic committee to considered SUP as a new event. Regardless, I really enjoy the sport for its simplicity and great workout, in fact I is time to go and get wet right now…Big Boy

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