"Austin needs to be on everyone’s vacation list," says Benjamin Williams, co-owner and managing partner of Austin Paddle Sports. "On any given weekend there is some kind of festival happening, whether it's Bat Fest, the Keep Austin Weird Festival, Eeyore’s Birthday, the Bob Marley Festival, or Trailer Food Tuesdays. Franklin’s BBQ has drawn national attention, and Guero’s Taco Bar has been featured in countless movies. Laid back and casual, shorts and flip-flops are welcome just about anywhere you can find a margarita. Don’t forget SXSW or Austin City Limits, and if you are looking for more live music, you are never far from a road show or the next big thing."
Oh yeah, and you can paddle there too. Lady Bird Lake – a dammed section of the Colorado River – runs right through the middle of the city. —Tom Fucigna
SUP mag: Tell us about your background.
Williams: I spent ten years managing specialty retail stores from the Gap to Home Depot. After all that time I had to get out from under the fluorescent lights. While I went back to get my bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas, I took a part-time job with the local boat dock, Rowing Dock. It wasn’t long before I was the manager, and outside in natural light.
SUP mag: When and where did you start standup paddling?
Williams: Lady Bird Lake, in downtown Austin in 2009. Rowing Dock had two NSP boards that no one ever used. I met my future business partner, Andy Lukei, as he was paddling by on an SUP one day. Andy had just started Austin Paddle Sports. I introduced him to the owners of Rowing Dock and the two businesses partnered up to offer SUP rentals. There was initial resistance from the Parks and Rec Department, because Lady Bird Lake is a no-contact lake, which means no swimming. It took a lot of work to persuade them that standup paddling was equivalent to kayaking or canoeing as a boating activity. Once approved, Rowing Dock and Austin Paddle Sports pioneered the rental of standup paddleboards in Austin. THAT— no matter what you hear otherwise— was the beginning of the Austin standup explosion. Andy came to Austin and saw the potential for standup paddling. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the sport would not be where it is in this city if it weren’t for his efforts and vision.
SUP mag: Why did you decide to get into the SUP market?
Williams: Once I realized how cool and different it was, and that SUP was my choice of equipment for hitting the local waterways, I knew it was the cusp of something a lot bigger. I left Rowing Dock to join Andy and Austin Paddle Sports. With standup paddling being so new, there were always new waters to explore, new markets to tap into, and new equipment to check out. There was also a constant stream of customers wanting to check out this sport that they didn’t have back home.
SUP mag: What features of your location make it appealing for standup paddling?
Williams: We base our operations for tours, lessons, group events, parties, and general mayhem from our retail shop in southeast Austin. Our rental dock is smack dab in the middle of downtown, directly under the city skyline, in walking distance from hotels and parks, along the famous Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail. We have partnered up with a local riverboat tour company, and offer standup paddle rentals off of an addition we built to their dock.
Lady Bird Lake is long and narrow, and covers over 400 acres. Thousands of people use the encircling trail every day and if someone is paddling on the water, you can’t miss them. No motorized boats are allowed on the lake, and there's little or no current, making it a great place for beginners to learn and for long, smooth touring. The largest urban bat colony in the world lives in a bridge 100 yards from our dock. It’s impressive – to say the least – to paddle out and have almost a million bats flying overhead and between you and the glowing city skyline. When it comes to inland paddling, that experience is tough to beat.
SUP mag: Do paddlers circumnavigate the lake, or portage to adjoining sections of the Colorado River? Are there any particular public launch spots popular with standup paddlers?
Williams: Circumnavigating LBL is about 11 miles. If you want to go end to end, you “Dam it.” Below Longhorn dam, the paddling is not as good. Above Tom Miller dam, Lake Austin is a 21-mile, winding stretch of the Colorado that is used by the Flatwater Foundation for their annual Dam That Cancer fundraiser. Many people launch from Redbud Island at the western end, away from the city. Another popular put-in is near Austin High, near Barton Springs, and there are several other decent launch points where you can park and walk down to the waterfront. The city is actually adding some steps to a construction project reinforcing the Shoal Creek inlet, which should become a great SUP spot.
SUP mag: What SUP-related activities do your customers like?
Williams: Most customers love a simple paddle around the lake. There’s no real current, so lying down and sun tanning is pretty popular. There are a few groups doing yoga out there, and the occasional paddler training for a race. The City is strict on water activities, so there aren’t too many races to take part in. Core fitness groups are growing, enjoying the unexpected twists and splashes from planks, push-ups, and burpees on a standup board.
Wake-surfing is huge around here. Wakes are the only waves to catch for hundreds of miles, so the only surfing around here is behind a boat. I’ve seen an SUP out there surfing wakes once or twice, and I’m betting it gets more popular. The Halloween Paddle in Austin is pretty cool too.
SUP mag: What brands of gear do you carry?
Williams: Boards by Riviera Paddlesurf, Tahoe SUP, Surftech, Boga, YOLO, SUPLove, SUPCO and Boardworks, plus Quikblade paddles. We also have the new Nocqua glow lights.
SUP mag: What do your customers think of the Nocqua light system?
Williams: So far, we have only done tours with the lights, and drawn some good response. It’s not something you would just strap on your board and go paddling. In rivers and lakes, of which many are a mud-silt bottom, you need a shallow area for clarity. The glow as seen from a distance is impressive, but the right circumstances are important to make paddling that glow an amazing experience. We stick to a shallow area near our rental dock. The bats are a nice distraction as well, and draw a crowd that oohs and ahhs at the glowing paddlers. Everyone loves a spotlight!
SUP mag: What sizes, or types, of boards have been popular?
Williams: Touring boards are picking up steam big time. The highland lakes around here are very long and narrow, with flat water. Touring boards allow paddlers to cover the most water. 12’6" and up is the way to go. Beginners often opt for shorter planing shapes, because they're easier to carry and store. The occasional surfer will also drop in and snag a shorter board. I am also seeing a lot more interest in the inflatables market. They are great because they are easy to store, and performance isn’t a huge requirement on the calm, flat water around here.
SUP mag: Do you organize any events?
Williams: We host one of the longest-running races in Texas, the three-mile COLDorado Classic, which is held in early spring to kick off the paddling season. 2014 will be year four. It's chilly and fun, and we've had a great crowd every year, with paddlers from all over the state. In true Texas Style, winners earn a six-pack of beer and everyone digs in at the fajita brunch.
SUP mag: Have you seen many people fishing from SUPs?
Williams: Fishing is a popular getaway. Largemouth bass, catfish, carp and perch are all common in most Central Texas Waterways. I’ve also run into some whitewater paddlers. There isn’t a whole lot of whitewater, but where there are rapids, you’ll find people looking for new ways to conquer them.
SUP mag: Where do you think the SUP market is headed?
Williams: I definitely think that it's a race to the price floor. Once that begins to happen, and kids can afford their own board, who knows what they will do with them? I don’t think there will ever be an “extreme SUP” competition, but the tricks are bound to develop. Just like bikes, surf and skateboards, we’re still just in the beginning. In Texas, where there aren’t any waves, it will take a creative paddler to come up with stunts on the flat water.
SUP mag: Do you have any standout standup paddling customers or locals?
Williams: Linda McCoy Schriever— I don’t know where to begin with her. She is the epitome of an ambassador for the sport, and does it because she loves it. Linda's involved with the City, helping to represent the paddling community, setting up lake cleanups, and hosting the best meet-up group in Central Texas. She uses SUP in the cleanups to attract people who want to paddle to help keep area waterways clean. Amazing lady! Austin Paddle Sports supports her in many ways by donating equipment and helping with logistics, but Linda is the driving force.
SUP mag: What else would you like our readers to know about your shop or location?
Williams: Austin Paddle Sports grew out of the mind of Andy Lukei. He and I have partnered to make it the only all-encompassing standup paddle destination in Central Texas. Rentals, sales, lessons, tours, corporate events, races, and philanthropy – we do it all. Standup paddling is new and different, and here to stay. Encouraging the athletes, recreational paddlers, and first timers to all get outside on the water is changing the vision of an athletic lifestyle in the Austin community. The relationship with water that can only be attained by riding or standing on it has moved inland, and we want to share it.