The Complete, Very Short History of Standup Paddling

In This Exclusive Feature We Examine The Muddled Past, Dynamic Present and Bright Future of the World's Newest Watersport

Not so long ago I was talking to a group of neophyte standup paddlers, regaling them with stories of “the early days”, way back at the turn of the century when paddles were made of wood and men of iron. To this group, with their custom models, deck pads, carbon fiber paddles, coiled leashes, hydration packs and GoPro mounts, the described experience of a solo session at Ventura’s California C-Street on a 12-foot Mickey Munoz Surftech UltraGlide with a brand-new aluminum Kialoa paddle seemed positively rustic by comparison.

“God, it must have been incredible,” said one of the newly devoted with a wistful shake of the head. “To have been a standup paddler back in the day.”

The day being described was a particular Wednesday afternoon in December of 2004, a little over nine years ago. An afternoon that, for me, represented not much more than just another surf session in a long, unbroken succession of sessions—albeit on less-refined equipment than I might use at C-Street tomorrow. But for these new paddlers, having just recently dipped their blades for the first time, it was a classic, sepia-toned event to be looked back upon with curiosity, perhaps wonder and, in this case, a touch of longing. To them it was history.

In considering the incredibly short history of standup paddling it’s helpful to address a simple question: when, exactly, does history begin? Mankind has been paddling watercraft while standing for eons (see Ben Marcus’ feature on the following spread for details) and one could point to various examples and claim, “Here! This is where standup paddling history begins.” But I’m not buying that—we’re talking sport here, not anthropology. The history of the Olympic 4x100 freestyle swimming event didn’t begin the first time some clumsy Phoenician fell out of a boat.

Some might point to the day in 2001 when Laird Hamilton ordered his very first SUP blade from Hawaiian paddle-maker Malama Chun. But that was just Laird having fun, goofing around on his tandem boards during the mega wave off-season, the equivalent of a Spanish sailor climbing up and down the rigging in the flagship Santa Maria for a bit of exercise and calling down to Christopher Columbus, “Hey, I think I see land up ahead.” Can mere fun be history? Or must the waypoint on the timeline represent something more deliberate, such as when guys like Bill Hamilton, Gerry Lopez and Ron House shaped their first boards for Laird and actually called them “standups.” Did they know that they weren’t just shaping a surfboard, but shaping history? But then how could they, hardly knowing if those giant boards might not end up as just another toy in Hamilton’s overcrowded garage temple of excess adrenaline and exercise. Those proto-shapers could have had no idea how quickly things would evolve from that point.

Now the evolution of standup paddling is quite a bit easier to define, quantified by innovation, categorized by ‘firsts’: first SUP board, first paddle, first aluminum paddle, first race, first race board, first carbon fiber paddle, first river run, first channel crossing, first downwinder, first lake paddle. Those points on the timeline are easy to assign. But does evolution qualify as history? Especially when it occurs over so short a period of time? I’m of the opinion that history must predate evolution: there must be a starting point from which change does occur, whether gradual or startling. And that’s what I feel is standup paddling’s great appeal. We have so little history, our starting point barely a decade old, that to even pick up your first paddle now is to be there ‘back in the day.’ No ink has dried yet in the gospel of our sport’s history. It’s still being written by me, by you, by everyone who’s jumped on a board, dipped their blade and experienced the thrill of walking on water. We may not be the first to go down in history as having done this. But just like in that particular tale “In The Beginning…” is a great place to start.

While many devotees still argue the "evolution versus creationism" issue, this 1999 Photo of Laird Hamilton and his very first home-made standup paddle answers all the questions: SUP the sport began with this man.


Think You Know The History of Standup Paddling? Think Again.

Winston Churchill was one of those English bastards who said “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Which was clever, but as a writer of history myself, I riff on Churchill a bit when I tell people, “History is written by those crazy enough to attempt the task.”

In 2011 Falcon Guides asked me to write a book about standup paddling. They were more interested in the instructional aspects of SUP but being interested in all aspects of SUP and being cursed with a history dork’s brain, I dove into a chapter on the origins of standup paddling. The essential questions being: Just where did standup paddling come from? Was it the Waikiki beach boys? And how did it evolve?

“History is written by those crazy enough to attempt the task.”

What I first discovered is that humans have been standing up while paddling small watercraft for centuries. This becomes evident when examining both history and myth. For example when the Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter Queen Bithia discovered the infant Moses in a basket hidden in the reeds, she was apparently out cruising the Nile while standing up paddling a small boat, and so had the better perspective from which to spot the baby prophet and future Savior of the Jews.

Felipe Pomar, 1965 World Surfing champion and a proud Peruvian, believes his people were standing up and paddling their bundled reed watercraft—which they called, oddly, “tup”—as far back as 3000 B.C.

Then there’s the Arab/Israeli hasake paddlers of the Mediterranean—circa 800 A.D., the one-legged paddling fishermen of Inle Lake circa 1200 A.D., the Witch of Newbury pissing off English soldiers as she paddled standing across an English river circa 1640, and the French standup podoscaphe paddlers of the late 19th Century. All of these pursuits are the ancestors of modern standup paddling—but how did all that evolve into the modern sport?

Some point to Hawaii, calling standup paddling “beach boy surfing.” Yet the fabled Waikiki beach boy culture didn’t develop until the first decade of the 20th century. And it would seem unlikely, if not impossible, that Hawaiian surfers were standing up while paddling their narrow, zero-buoyancy olo and alaia boards in the preceding decades. Among the many published accounts of 19th century European contact with he’ nalu, or wave sliding, none exist which describe the daring, dusky kanakas paddling while standing. The famous American writer Samuel Clemens, writing under the pen name Mark Twain, traveled to both the Sandwich Islands and Venice, Italy in 1865. In his 1872 travel memoir “Roughing It” Clemens vividly described surfing in the Pacific and the gondoliers of the Adriatic, but found no link between the two—which suggests no one was standup paddling in Hawaii during that time.

Croatia, 1938, we're not sure what his guy was doing, standup paddling in what appears to be a quarry. We do know the town-folk were fascinated.

There exists a Thomas Edison “actuality” movie called Surfboard Riders, Waikiki, circa 1906, in which surfers are shown riding alaias, prone paipos and even outrigger canoes, but there is no sign of standup paddling. Author Jack London didn’t mention it in his seminal surf story “A Royal Sport” published in 1907 and surfing innovator Tom Blake, who landed in Waikiki in 1926 and became the sport’s first student of surfboard design and history, doesn’t speak of standup paddling in any of his writings.

It would seem unlikely, if not impossible, that Hawaiian surfers were standing up while paddling their narrow, zero-buoyancy olo and alai a boards.

Beginning with that classic 1906 Edison film, the archive collection at Honolulu’s venerable Bishop Museum has hours and hours of film footage and myriad photographs shot at Waikiki by tourists and cinematographers all the way through the 1920s and ’30s. Again, lots of surfing and paddling and outrigger canoes—but no sign of anyone standing up on a surfboard while using a paddle to propel themselves.

And then a clue. In the history section of Jack McCoy’s 2004 surf film Blue Horizon there is a vintage, black and white clip of Duke Kahanamoku, doing something that looks a lot like standup paddling. Hawaii’s great Olympic champion and “father of modern surfing” is shown standing up on what at first glance looks a giant surfboard and paddling into waves with a two-bladed kayak paddle.

I arranged to show the clip to a number of surf culture experts, including California film historian Scott Starr, Australian journalist Nick Carroll, Australian surf historian Geoff Cater and Bishop Museum archivist DeSoto Brown. All of them agreed that the clip depicts Duke standing up and paddling an Australian surf ski, which was a gift to Duke from a traveling surf lifesaving team sometime near 1939.

So, Blame Australia? Controversial stuff, which could get a historian spitted and boiled in the Hawaiian Islands. But if standup paddling came to Hawaii by way of an Australian surf ski with a two-sided paddle, how to link those 1939 images in front of Diamond Head to the SUP sensation that is sweeping the nation, 70 years later?

Ancient Peruvian bundled reed "TUPS" were used primarily for fishing, not recreation, but the ride in still must've been fun.

I unearthed a photo of a dapper gentleman who appeared to be standup paddling across a Croatian reservoir circa 1938—one can only imagine what on earth he was up to. From 1939 to the late 1950s the trail goes cold. A gentleman named John Zapotocky, who could be seen surfing Waikiki with a paddle in the early ’60s, claimed he was inspired by Duke Kahanamoku around 1955. Pipeline Master Gerry Lopez, who grew up on the beach at Waikiki, claims “J-Zap” and Pops AhChoy were pretty much the only guys standup paddling in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Pops AhChoy was the patriarch of a family of beach boys and allegedly began standing up and paddling—albeit with a rubber raft paddle—because of a knee problem. His boys, LeRoy and Bobby, later took to the practice to better direct and photograph his malahini surf lesson clients … and to keep their cigarettes dry.

During that single session paddling while standing became standup paddling.

But historical footnotes and sideshows aside, when talking about the end of SUP pre-history and the birth of the sport’s Modern Era, all roads lead to the Sylvain Cazenave’s 1996 photo of Maui’s Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama mucking about at Mudflats standing on tandem boards propelled with canoe paddles. A bit more mucking around—paddling with his daughter on board and blowing downwind while standing—led Laird to order the very first standup specific paddle in 2001. By September 12, 2002, Laird’s vision was fully formed as he overwhelmed a six-foot south swell at Malibu wielding a paddle topped with an American flag. Few observers had even a clue what Laird was doing that day. But today, 11 years later, it becomes clear: Laird was inventing a brand new sport. During that single session paddling while standing became standup paddling. Everything that has happened in what is now known as SUP has happened since that day.

“With surfing, sailboarding, bodyboarding, kiteboarding I’ve seen a lot of board sport revolutions ebb and flow,” says venerable Santa Cruz surfer/shaper and Surftech founder Randy French. “But I’ve never seen a board sport explode as fast as SUP.” That statement alone says volumes about standup paddling’s history: so much of it is brand new. But there are also ancient echoes of a very traditional form of aquatic locomotion, and it’s cool that SUP magazine is dedicating these pages to chipping that history into stone. Because as crazy as historians are—and I include myself in their ranks—we know that we aren’t just writing for today, but are writing for eternity.

This feature originally ran in our 2014 Gear Guide magazine
Digital Feature Designed by Annie Maize, Will Taylor, Shari Coble

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