The first time I saw a standup paddler was on 9/11. Or, I should say, it was a year and a few days after 9/11. I was working at a surf magazine in the fall of 2002 when Herbie Fletcher burst through the door with fresh footage he’d shot at Surfrider Beach, in Malibu. There, on the tape, was Laird Hamilton being Laird Hamilton, lording over the very ocean itself atop a too-large surfboard, a paddle of some kind (an oar? we weren’t sure what to call it) in his hands, an American flag attached to the paddle. The footage had been shot a few days earlier, on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, and I had no idea what I was watching, even as I was watching it.
Fast forward to a half-year later, in 2003, and I found myself in then-quaint Bocas Del Toro, Panama, on a press-junket surf trip. That trip was an object lesson in what it feels like to be a surfer without waves trapped aboard a too-small ship, which is to say that it was, like most “exploratory” surfing boat trips I’ve been on: miserable. We motored that vessel from the Panama Canal to plenty of places where waves weren’t breaking before we docked the thing, upgraded to an aircraft, and flew to the Atlantic side of Panama, and the tiny island of Bocas. There, we discovered not only the luxury of individual hotel rooms, but a few waves that we could ride. But we remained more or less skunked, which is how it happened that on one particularly flat day, I found myself quite literally sitting on the dock of the bay, feet in the water, doing not much at all until I saw, from afar, Guy Pere, the North Shore lifeguard and consummate Hawaiian waterman (in a time before everyone who put any type of board in the water self-identified as a “waterman”), commandeering a dugout canoe and its attached, weighty, aged paddle. I watched in awed silence as Pere somehow managed to balance the ancient vessel while standing, and then, with an extreme grace that I still wonder at, took his watery afternoon exercise in a tranquil bay, one easy stroke of the paddle at a time. It was unlike anything I’d seen before or have seen since. At the time, I was so spellbound that I snapped a photograph that is still tacked to my office wall all these years later.
Fast forward again, but now a dozen years, to the present day and 2014. Maybe it’s the small Southern California beach town in which I live, but everywhere I go, all day, everyday, I see standup boards, and standup paddlers. In the water and on the freeway. In shops and in my neighbor’s yard. My balance-challenged, ocean-averse, and work-obsessed brother? He gets in an early morning paddle with the other minivan-driving dads from his son’s Little League team. My friend’s wife—her six- and ten-year-old kids in tow? She pays way too much money in rental fees to standup paddle in a circular pattern on the local lagoon (no risk of sharks, she says). The guys at the gym I go to on wave-less days? They wear tee shirts emblazoned, with faux-machismo, Man Vs. The Ocean-type slogans that announce to anyone in sight that they standup paddle and they want everyone to know it.
Like most dyed-in-the-wool surfers I know, I’ve standup paddled a few times, but I don’t standup paddle as a general rule. Unlike most dyed-in-the-wool surfers, this isn’t some principled stand borne of anger or spite. I enjoy standup paddling, and I have plenty of surfing friends who have made the switch full-time. But I’m a surfer and so I find a way to surf most days. But even if I don’t resent standup paddlers, I’ve watched the whole sport’s extraordinary boom carefully, with equal parts intellectual curiosity and skin in the game.
And recently I’ve wondered if we’ve seen standup paddling’s zenith and are about to witness its coming nadir. I wonder, that is, if standup paddling’s incredibly rapid ascendance from oddity to ubiquitous fodder for celebrity photos in People magazine means that the whole sport is about to go bust just as quickly as it went boom.
Put your pitchforks down. This isn’t a surfer’s bloodlust at play. It’s a curiosity driven purely by numbers. Today, there are roughly three million surfers in the U.S. and over 1.5 million standup paddlers, according to the Outdoor Foundation. Those numbers are telling primarily for the time span in which they were achieved. The historical distinction between the two sports is dramatic, after all. Surfing is a sport that has existed in the collective, mainstream, U.S. consciousness, for well over one hundred years, if we frame the numbers conservatively. The sport came to mainland U.S. soil over a century ago, when, in 1907, George Freeth taught Jack London, then writing for Ladies Home Companion , how to ride a wave in Hawaii. That same year, Freeth came to Southern California and put on a surfing exhibition. From there, surfing took off with all the accelerative force of a glacier, remaining a distinct and oddball subculture manned by a small but eager collective. Small but eager, that is, until the early 1960s, when the film Gidget was released, and, in the words of The Beach Boys (who, like everybody else at the time, cashed in on surfing’s newfound hipness), everybody went surfing.
Standup paddling, by comparison, is about as mature as your average ten-year-old grom, given those same parameters of mainstream U.S. consciousness. We all know that the sport has roots, however apocryphal, that run much deeper than its current incarnation. But any modern telling of the standup paddle boom will start on the day that Laird rode those waves at Malibu in 2002. From there, the sport grew in fits and starts—driven by small pockets of forward-minded surfers in Southern California and Hawaii—until about 2005, when it began its as-yet unfettered explosion across the United States, in areas both surf-infused and not. What’s remarkable here is that, only ten years removed from its genesis story, standup paddling has attracted nearly half the devoted base that it took the sport of surfing more than a century to grow. That base, it should be noted, is far more diverse than surfing’s in nearly every way, including by geography, by gender and by experience.
Such an explosion leads to a host of questions—Who are these people? What’s driving that growth? What are the ramifications, positive and negative, of such a rapid ascendance? And, perhaps most importantly, can that growth be sustained, or is standup paddling bound to go the way of so many sports and trends before it, sports that peaked quickly before petering out?
But one thing that’s not in question is that the boom is definitely happening. Evidence is abundant, both in your neighborhood and in your media—from Time to The New York Times.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2013 participation survey, standup paddling had a higher number of new participants in the preceding year than all the other sports that the association tracks.
Perhaps more significantly, more than half of the standup paddlers surveyed said they had tried the sport for the first time that same year.
That growth jibes with data collected by Barrett Tester, founder and director of The Battle of The Paddle, the sport’s largest race, which takes place every year in South Orange County, California. At the inaugural race in 2008, according to Tester, there were 275 open-division competitors. If he was shocked to have that many standup paddlers at his inaugural race (and he was), he was less shocked, only five years later, in 2013, when that number had grown by 1,000 to more than 1,300.
To talk about the growth of a sport—any sport—is really to talk about the growth of an industry. And it’s such explosive indicators of growth like the numbers above that have start-up standup paddling businesses flooding tradeshow floors, looking hungrily upon this growing demographic.
But for those who got in on SUP's ground floor—the industry's authentic core—rampant growth isn’t unanimously viewed as a positive. What’s cause for celebration among some is cause for concern among others. Those who are trying to plot the sport’s growth shrewdly, so as to maintain its longevity, recognize that an explosive new crop of participants also means that the sport’s rapid growth hinges on a base that may well be infatuated, but may well not be here tomorrow.
Perhaps this less-bullish group remembers windsurfing.
A few decades ago, windsurfing was the de rigueur among the watery set, a way to get out on any body of water—salt or not, wave-breaking or flat—in any conditions. Today, windsurfing is an afterthought, a cautionary tale. In numerous studies, windsurfing is often cited as the benchmark in judging how precipitously fleeting participation in an outdoor sport can be.
One might attribute the decline in windsurfing to an uptick in kiteboarding, equipment advancing beyond the constituency, or lack of population near consistent winds, all might be fair. But it doesn’t negate the point. Fads and trends, it seems, are simply fads and trends, no matter how one might explain them away. If windsurfing gave way to kiteboarding, then how might one explain rollerblading’s rapid growth to a mid-‘90s peak of tens of millions, only to fall off to the fringe culture that inline skating is today?
So what’s to prevent standup paddling from arriving at a similar fate?
First, a reality check: To think that standup paddling can continue its current growth, or anything remotely akin to its current growth, is an exercise in naivety. There will be a day of reckoning, of that there can be no question. But that doesn’t mean that it’s all doom and gloom, that standup paddling will follow the fate of other sports that burned fast and bright before burning out. There’s no reason to think that standup paddling is in danger of being relegated to the domain of a select few random holdovers stroking their ways up and down the beach.
This is because the same thing that fueled the sport’s growth will sustain it. Standup paddling’s allure has long been its uniqueness, and this has held true for every person who has witnessed the sport from afar, whether in the pages of a glossy celebrity tabloid, or watching it performed masterfully and in person while sitting on the dock of the bay on some remote Central American atoll.
To non-surfers, the sport’s low barriers to entry make it the fastest way for a person to become a surfer. To surfers, it’s one more way to get in the ocean, an invigorating way of re-embodying a familiar environment. It offers new ways of riding a wave, certainly, but also a new experience of being on the water. Rather than sitting chest-deep in a choppy sea, staring at the back of one’s fellow surfer, the sport offers new sightlines.
Those are obvious explanations, but then there’s the broader question of identity. Ask anybody anywhere what constitutes a surfer, and you’ll get a set of answers that may range from the cliché to the unflinchingly accurate, but those answers will exist within a very small span on a given spectrum. People know what surfers are.
Ask anybody what constitutes a standup paddler, on the other hand, and you’ll be met with too many different answers to fit into even a semblance of a definition. This is to say that the sport hasn’t formed its own identity yet. Standup paddling is something that one does, as opposed to being something by which one is defined.
This is because the sport is so tremendously diverse. If standup paddling does have an identity, it’s an identity rooted in diversity, and this may well be what defines it and gives it longevity.
If surfing took a century to reach its current growth and popularity, perhaps that’s because surfers have, since the sport’s inception, prided themselves on their exclusivity.
Standup paddlers, on the other hand are just about anyone: professional surfers and soccer moms, men, women, river-runners, old people, landlubbers and ocean-goers.
This diversity might come at the cost of a cohesive cultural identity, but, again, it also might be the thing that allows standup paddling to survive long into the next century. A standup paddler isn’t any one thing, any one person. It’s a multitude of things and a multitude of people.
Where the sport goes from here is anybody’s guess, and plenty of people are making those guesses with checkbooks in hand—participants and investors both. One thing that’s certain is that standup is here to stay—its days as a strange offshoot of surf culture are long since passed. What the sport is, what it means to be a standup paddler, that remains to be defined, and it will be, over the decades to come.