Three Fundamental Standup Paddle Skills

Photo: Aaron Schmidt
Photo: Aaron Schmidt

Three Fundamental Standup Paddle Skills

Standing Up

One of the beautiful things about standup paddling is that anyone can do it. And often, the hardest experience for new paddlers is simply standing up. Thankfully, it’s easy if you remember these two hints: First, make sure you’re on a stable SUP, at least 30 inches wide and 10 feet long for your first try. Second, just have fun. That’s what this sport is about. Here’s a couple more important pointers.
Keep it calm. Find a section of flat water protected from wind or chop. Or go out in the morning before the afternoon winds come up. Walk the board into knee-deep water, which will prevent the fin from hitting the bottom.
Climb on the horse. Get on the board, knees on the deckpad, paddle resting across the front of the board, perpendicular to your chest. Make sure you’re in the middle of the board, with your mid-section over the handle. Get your hands evenly spaced under your shoulders on the paddle as it rests on your board. Feel the board for a second. Take a couple of deep breaths. You’re on the water.
Get on up. Slowly put one foot on the board, then the other, keeping your knees bent in an athletic position with one foot on either side of the hand-hold. Your dogs should be shoulder-width apart. Breathe and relax. You’re up.
Get moving. As your standup board planes it becomes more stable. If you’re feeling wobbly, take a couple of strokes while on your knees to get some momentum and help the board plane. Then try standing. Or, as soon as you stand, get a few strokes in to get going and stabilize your ride. Again, if you feel wobbly, the best brace is the forward stroke (p. 54). Your knees are your shock absorbers so stay athletic and loose. Try a few flatwater paddling sessions before moving to water with current or exposure to wind or waves. Most importantly, just have fun. You’re life has just been changed. Go get it.

The Stroke

The paddle stroke is an art form that you’ll work on for as long as you paddle. But for now, let’s not overthink it. The most important thing to remember is to be comfortable. Don’t overdo it. If you feel pain or off-balance, slow down. A great way to practice your stroke if you can’t get to the water is to use a pool or a friend’s hot tub. Stand next to the edge, feet shoulder-width apart and practice these tips.
Stance: Staying loose is really important. From your shoulders down, your whole body has got to be like a big spring: feet parallel, knees bent. Your legs are your shock absorbers, reacting to current and bump in the water. Be comfortable and remember to have fun.
Reach: Place the blade next to your board about four feet in front of your toes with your lower arm extended, using your top hand as a guide. Reach only as far as is comfortable during your stroke. Be sure and keep the elbow of your top arm close to your head to avoid shoulder stress.
Catch: After reaching as far as possible, place the blade smoothly (think no splash) next to your board.
Power: The power phase of your stroke starts where you plant your paddle. Pull smoothly through the water, bending at the waist with the stroke ending at your feet, and no farther. If you pull past your feet it’s wasted energy that will actually slow the board down.
The perfect stroke is 90 percent body and 10 percent arms. Your reach and power come from twisting your body at the hips, torso and shoulders, using your core to drive your stroke through the water. With your blade placed, uncoil your body using the big muscles of the core and again, bending at the waist. You’re pulling yourself through the water and the blade stays stationary. Keep the blade as close to the board as possible. And try to look where you’re going, not down at your feet.
Recovery: Once the blade gets to your feet, start your recovery. Try feathering the blade or dropping the shoulder of your top arm, twisting the power face away from the rail. That smoothes out the release and helps the paddle move aerodynamically back to the catch. Remember to extend your reach. There is no rush. You’re not racing so take your time and dial in your stroke. And we probably don’t need to remind you: have fun.

The Tail Pivot

Turning your board is key whether you’re in the ocean, river or lake. The pivot turn is the fastest way to change directions. Most of us have an open expanse of water near our homes where we can practice. And if you ever want to try a race, the pivot turn is fundamental when rounding buoys.
Watch your speed and position on the board. Standup boards are always more stable when they’re moving so it’s easier to work on your pivot after a couple of strokes. As soon as you step back to the tail, the board will slow to a near-stop. Once you step to the tail, you’ll be in a solid surfing stance. Get lower to the board, bending your knees so you have a lower center of gravity, which helps with balance.
Mind the tail. The back foot plays a huge part in how fast you can spin your board around. Relate it to a seesaw: it’s a balancing act. The farther your back foot is in relation to the tail, the easier you can sink the tail and spin the board; the downside is you lose stability and could end up in the water. If you can get low to the board, have your chest over the center of the board and your knees pointing toward the board’s center, you’ll have the best chance of staying dry.
Don’t forget the paddle. It’ll stop you from falling if you can react fast enough, and it can determine how fast you can turn the board. By simply doing your regular stroke, the board should pivot on its tail. You can also try turning the blade out and pulling it away from the board—often referred to as a sweep stroke. You should be able to completely turn the board with two or three (at the most) strokes.
Relax. Be relaxed while you’re working on a pivot turn. Remember to bend your knees. This is important with any aspect of paddling. Bending your knees helps to absorb any bump or chop and helps you maintain balance. You can also practice pivoting on your tail when going around a buoy. Concentrating on turning around a stationary object will take your mind off of worrying about balance. Relax and have fun.

These skills originally ran in our 2014 Beginner’s Guide.

For more SUP skills, click here.