A long, cold winter brought a late start to the standup paddling season in Wisconsin. With ice on the lakes around Madison clear through the first week of April, warm spring days we've been hoping for took their own sweet time coming around. But the weather seemed to open up with perfect timing to welcome a special guest from the islands of Hawaii. Courtesy of the local shop, Paddleboard Specialists, and Sandwich Island Composites (SIC) pro board rider Jeremy Riggs brought a little Pacific Ocean sunshine to the Dairyland, as well as a few lessons on the finer points of downwind paddling.
Personally, I was incredibly eager to get outside. Having spent the previous three months recovering from a double hip replacement, a procedure called MAKOPlasty, I couldn’t wait to try out my new parts and learn a few tricks in the art of downwind paddling. Lucky for me and 20 or so avid paddlers who came out for the day, the bright sunshine and warm westerly breeze made for perfect conditions.
As most of us were just getting back on our boards for the first time this year, everyone was pretty stoked to get some serious training from a true expert. Patty Meister who came up from Janesville Wisconsin said Riggs’ clinic was like getting a tune-up to improve her game:
“You go have a series of lessons and your game improves dramatically. You remember all the things you had forgotten the year before. It’s the same thing with this,” Meister said. “I don’t paddle often enough so that I have muscle memory, have the technics down or have a comfortable position on the board. A little refresher helps and I can build on that,” she added.
The group gathered at the paddle shop for a 9 a.m. start to a day-long workshop. Riggs began the program with a session of dry-land training as he demonstrated basic techniques on a wooden plank. As a competitive longboarder for many years, Riggs is a master of footwork and body position. He showed us the most efficient way to dance along the centerline to the back of the board, cross-stepping the leading foot behind the other to lift the nose and perform a pivot turn. “You should be able to bring it around 180 degrees with just one sweep of your paddle,” Riggs said.
Let’s just say he made it look easier said than done.
Just a short walk from the shop we put our boards in the water at Cherokee Marsh, a wide channel that leads directly into Madison’s Lake Mendota. With a variety of different SUP rides to choose from, everyone practiced their stroke techniques coached by Riggs. “You want to get the blade completely buried before you start to pull,” he said. “You want the shaft to be vertical, accelerate through the stroke and you want a nice, snappy release at the end.”
As a specialist in downwind paddling, Riggs explained the importance of maintaining a smooth and steady pace. He recommends changing up stroke styles every once in while during a long paddle to utilize different muscle groups and ward off fatigue. But once you get the board moving, Riggs says the key is consistency: “Like when you’re spinning a basketball on your finger it takes some to get it started,” he said. “And when you do it, it just takes a few regular taps to keep it going.”
Moving at speed, Riggs demonstrated the 180-degree pivot turn. With a graceful sweep of the paddle his board spun on a dime. Finding the sweet spot at the back was challenging for those of us used to sticking to the center of the board where it’s more stable. But Riggs advised us to be aggressive in order to master some of the more technical aspects of paddling.
“Don’t be afraid to fall. If you’re falling you’re trying and learning,” Riggs said. “If you’re not willing to push yourself you’re not going to excel. I know that's hard where there’s cold water, but when it warms up push it!”
We ventured out on to Lake Mendota later in the day, and it was certainly warmer as we paddled as a group toward a clear view of the state capital dome in the distance. A steady breeze blew directly in our faces as everyone traded strokes against a heavy chop of waves and the wakes of speedboats all around us. But on the way home, with the wind at our backs, we were able to put into practice much of what we learned throughout the day. It was downwinder time.
“When you get it, you’re catching glides. You’re accelerating,” Riggs said. “You’re going from six to seven miles an hour. It’s like surfing, but you don’t have to paddle back out for another wave. You just wait three or four seconds and here we go again!”
The sensation of speed at the end of the day was a thrill for everyone. Paddling together like a pod of dolphins, we matched the pace of powerboats under a no-wake restriction as we made our way into the channel. On such a beautiful spring day it was an excellent beginning of the season and motivated some, like Katie Nelson of Madison, to include the learned techniques in a race for the first time:
“I learned some techniques today to make me more efficient. My favorite thing I learned was that pivot turn,” she said. “And even if I don’t use it in a race I want to feel so confident on the board that a technique like that feels really easy. And when I do my favorite thing, which is a downwinder, I can feel really confident riding the bumps.” —James Mills