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, SurfPixs.com
Photo: Ron Johnson, SurfPixs.com

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