Exploring Italy’s SUP roots, from Venetian canals to the island wilds of Tuscany

In the fading sunlight, the Tuscan fields of wheat turn to a golden blur.

I don’t dare look. My hands are locked to the wheel at 10 and 2. The Nissan speedometer pushes past the 120-km mark, but I’m still losing ground to Roberto Ricci, who’s tearing up the two-lane country road ahead of me on his Triumph full-custom motorcycle. Far ahead, I see him lean deep into a turn just as a tractor lumbers wide, blocking my view. I shoot past the farm machinery, make the hard left and finally catch Ricci behind a slow-moving line of Fiat Puntos. I take a deep breath, only to see his blinker flash, ready for his next move to pass.

Without a clue of where exactly we are and what beach we’re headed to, I can only downshift and follow Ricci’s lead. The Nissan’s red-lining motor drowns the chatter of the four standup boards strapped to the roof. And as I follow him into the fast-closing oncoming traffic, two words I’ve been hearing everywhere over the past few days pop into my head: “full power.”

In Ricci’s animated circle, the motto is the go-to explanation for any kind of passion-fueled flub or impulsive action: “You almost crash and loose-a the boards? Haha, fool power.” This and “non-stop” are the two English phrases that leap from the Italian background chatter at Roberto Ricci Designs. The place is a flurry of everyday activity in double-time. It doesn’t take long to see how people around the wiry, ever-moving Ricci are sucked along behind his non-stop, full-power lead.

For all his unending array of sleek and stylish speed machines, Ricci, 46, is quick to point out his roots in European artisanal craftsmanship. His father Emo was a carpenter in the old tradition, and his worn hand-plane sits proudly on Roberto’s desk at the company’s headquarters in the small Tuscan city of Grosseto. Downstairs, the elder Ricci puts final touches on the custom boards. After catching his original spark for planing speed as a windsurfer, Roberto launched a board line out of his parents’ Grosseto home in the early ’90s. A mishap with the workshop ovens burned his fledgling operation, and the Ricci homestead, to the ground.

“That day was the hardest in my life,” Ricci tells me. “I said, ‘It’s now time to stop the games and go for real.'” He rebuilt and focused his insatiable energy on the business. His composite windsurf boards quickly took off, and the move to standup boards followed. After bringing his first improvised SUP to Italy seven years ago—”I saw Laird on Maui, so I cut off a kayak paddle and extended it with a carbon piece of an RDM windsurf mast. I used that to paddle one of those 10’10”, 23-inch wide Sunset longboards used for instruction and rentals”—Ricci is expanding and refining his standup offerings to answer the growing demand from his global network of distributors.

But to succeed in Europe’s SUP market, Ricci knows he must spread the stoke that drove him to rise from the ashes into the phoenix he has become—a worldwide lifestyle brand unto himself. Ricci, who seems incapable of thinking small, decided to stage an SUP event in Venice, on the world’s most recognizable canals. Only such a driven persona—one with a keen understanding of Italian cultural and bureaucratic subtleties—could pull off a standup paddleboard race through the City of Water’s ancient avenues of transit.

In theory, a standup paddling event in Venice makes perfect sense. The lagoon city’s gondoliers lay a worthy claim to having conceived the sport, though the parallel isn’t direct. On the June evening before the inaugural Nissan-RRD Surfin’ Venice event, I corner a local gondoliero named Giamba to ask about the similarities. Giamba leans in so I will hear him over the rattle of rolling tourist luggage on the stone streets, and tells me his family has been here, “since year 1300” and speaks passionately: “This is my sport—what I do!” Of course, he’s referring to the centuries-old skill of one-sided rowing that evolved in Venice’s narrow canals. The gondolier’s precise oar stroke, which Giamba learned as a child from his father, is a far cry from a simple board and a paddle. Giamba confesses that he has not yet seen a standup paddleboard.

He gets his chance the next morning, when a pan-Euro group of about 80 standup paddlers gathers at the Tronchetto Island docks on the city perimeter. I get the feeling that the Mediterranean SUP scene (pronounced “soup,” mind you) is still in its infancy, and that many of these paddlers are also new to standup boards. The classic giveaways are all there—ignoring T-grips and holding paddles like brooms, offset blades backward, eternally standing in the surf-ready position.

Escorted by two-man “sandalo” gondolas, we begin our parade tour down the Grand Canal, which cuts a Z-shaped path through the center of the city. I instantly realize how right Giamba had been when he told me that the only way to see Venice is from the water. My immediate focus is on the traffic, from the speedboats to the vaporettiwaterbuses crisscrossing the canal. But then the morning sun fills the vertical gauntlet of ornate facades. The mansions of once-prosperous merchant families rise straight from their reflections in the canal, wavering gently with the motion of passing traffic. Each building is covered in intricate design, the stonework telling countless lifetimes of history worth study. But set in motion, ever paddling, the rows of stacked arches on skinny columns blend together. The surreal feeling is compounded with the cast added to this improbable setting: throngs of camera-totting tourists from every corner of the world. It makes me self-conscious: How many random photo albums around the globe will I show up in? Roberto is paddling next to me, beaming, perhaps thinking about another question spawned in the minds of thousands of well-heeled tourists: What are those things they’re paddling?

As we pass under the stone grandstands of the famed Rialto Bridge, my fellow “soup”-ers digest the initial awe and move on to pure enjoyment, hooting and hollering as if we’re skateboarding through the Louvre. The tourists wave and hoot back. Everyone’s smiling, caught up in the moment. Everyone, that is, except the gondoliers. They act as if they don’t even notice us. People here talk about their clout and heft. I hear everything from “union” to “syndicate” to “mafia” describing their collective hold on the city’s waterways. It’s slightly uncomfortable to paddle their turf and steal the attention they’re accustomed too—especially while clad in red-striped, Where’s Waldo, faux-gondolier jerseys. But the high-paying passengers in their boats have that look, just sitting there passively, watching others having more fun. I get the sense they’d rather be paddling.

We exit the Grand Canal, pass the buzzing, pigeon-packed Piazza San Marco, and finish at the canal entrance to the Arsenale, which lays claim to being humankind’s first modern, standardized assembly production facility, said to be capable of producing a galley ship a day at the republic’s 16th century peak. Our group isn’t feeling as industrious, as we collapse in the shade after some weary high-fives, photographs and aperitivos. Returning to the water, we cross over to St. George Island for the race. Each paddler is required to use one of the RRD do-it-all, 11-foot boards as a means of leveling the playing field. Waiting at the start, asking what part of Europe everyone’s from, and looking at the common boards, I think what a democratizing sport this is, uniting people from so many different backgrounds—just stand and paddle. I strike up a conversation with Tine Slabe, a tall and fit paddler from nearby Slovenia.

“U.S. beats out Slovenia once, cannot let them beat us again!” Slabe proclaims when I reveal my Yankee roots. The World Cup is in full swing, and days earlier the U.S. had rallied from a 2-0 deficit to send Slovenia packing.

OK, I see how this is going to be. As soon as the competition starts—a straightforward three-lap, 2.5K sprint course—the race-seasoned paddlers break into a lead pack. My own xenophobic kneejerk starts pulling my strokes: Are you going let a Frenchman pass you?! I turn it on, full power, exhausting myself to regain position on the Frenchie and chase down that orange-sunglassed Slovenian. As we round the final turn, I can’t match the strokes Slabe’s generating from his 6-foot-5-inch frame. I cross the finish line, deflated that I can’t catch him or the rest of the lead pack, taking seventh place behind not one, but two guys named Giuseppe.

With racers finishing, collapsing onto their boards, laughing and exchanging clasped hands, congratulations move fluidly from Spanish to French to Italian to English. I take stock of the top three finishers to gauge how far SUP has evolved in Europe: overall winner Neal Gent, a kiteboarding doctor from England’s south coast; Giuseppe Giusti, an Olympic-style sprint canoeist from Italy; and Spaniard Eduardo Diaz, who runs an SUP school in the Canary Islands. “Here, when you say you ‘surf’ you are a surfista,” says Ricci, explaining the eager converts to SUP. “It means you surf, you windsurf, you kite, it’s all these things, taking the best advantage of the conditions right in front of you.”

The post-race celebration surprises me more than the eclectic mix of nationalities and crossovers from other sports. I’ve never seen any endurance event that finishes with white wine for the competitors. But hey, I’m not about to turn down the Soave wine, or the eggplant or mozzarella balls. The pomp and circumstance is only beginning. The TV cameras are there to capture formal speeches and presentations of thanks and support with the city’s vice mayor, the sport and tourism bureau head, and three famed Italian Olympians (one a gymnast and one an Alpine skier). We toast plastic champagne flutes as the African guys selling knockoff Gucci purses on the bridge look on with equal amounts of interest and bewilderment.

When Roberto finds out I have a couple of days left before my flight back to the States, he hands over the keys to his Pathfinder and suggests I visit Giglio, the second-largest island in the Tuscan Archipelago off of Italy’s west coast. Nearby Elba draws the lion’s share of international tourist traffic, leaving Giglio with a slower-paced, predominantly Italian feel. Ricci has a deep connection to the island, where he opened his first windsurfing school in 1982 and also paddled his makeshift SUP for the first time. He calls Giglio the “heart of our land,” referring to the Maremma region which he calls the “the wildest part of Tuscany”—once a malarial swamp bounded by mountains and left historically undeveloped.

But alas, Ricci is a busy man and cannot accompany. He loads me up in Grosseto with some of RRD’s new 12-foot Cruiser touring boards, and if I can just follow him on his street-tracker-style motorcycle to the town of Castiglione della Pescaia, he will introduce me to a couple of paddlers who will show me the island. I make the white-knuckle driving moves, and we arrive unscathed at a hidden beach and a snack shack called Surf Relax. After some cold cans of Birra Moretti, Roberto connects me with Marco Bosi, a surf shop manager who splits his time between the Tuscan coast and Maui, and Matteo Neri, a 27-year-old graphic designer/photographer based in Grosseto.

The next day we’re on a ferry, motoring past the posh mansions dotting the sides of the island-like peninsula of Monte Argentario, where we’d spent the morning paddling before rushing to the ferry terminal. The ship turns west into the Tyrrhenian Sea and the rugged coastline of Giglio resolves into view: steep granite into evergreen hillsides of pine, juniper, olive trees and terraced vineyards, capped with a medieval castle. I know we’re on a different kind of island when we pull into the port and I can still see through the harbor water to the speckled seabed.

We meet Ettore at the docks. Our local contact, Ettore is not your typical shopkeep/fisherman. Ettore is what the guys on Jersey Shore are shooting for with their daily Gym-Tanning-Laundry routine. He has a panther tattooed on his perfectly bronzed arm and smells great. I’m still salty and burnt from my paddle up the yacht-packed coast of Argentario. There’s blood caked on my shin for some reason and olive tapenade remnants in my crustache. I get that self-conscious feeling again as the pale, unkempt American.

We quickly load the boards onto Ettore’s center-console offshore motorboat. There is a lot of fast-talking, near-shouting deliberation and then everyone heads back to the dock. Matteo explains: “We will go take another aperitivo now.” We head to the bar, just four dudes cruising the port town for some aperitivos and drinks before we paddle around this sparsely populated island. I’m taking everything in stride, until I see the round of drinks—four pinkish Aperol and white wine spritzers—a definite first.

I find out that wine is indeed a big deal on Giglio that night at dinner. We sit at a dockside restaurant eating the freshest seafood I’ve ever tasted. So fresh it’s not just the ahi we’re eating raw with a little olive oil, but odd centipede-like crustaceans and even shrimp—vein, brain and all. The waiter proudly brings a bottle of the island’s famed Ansonica white wine, and as the token guest I’m given first taste of the dry and sweet delicacy. As not to offend, I quickly nod approval and the glasses are filled. But after a sniff and taste from Matteo and Ettore, I’m instantly scolded as they practically spit out their first sips: “Come on, man! You know you can send it back. Can you not taste the cork?”

At least I have a better handle when it comes to the next day’s paddling. Post-cappuccino, we buzz out on Ettore’s boat to the south end of the island. The sea starts to feel alive around us as Ettore trolls a fishing line amid legions of tiny jumping silver avannotti. Birds circling high on the orange rock walls that stack straight out of the water give the place a Jurassic feel.

We mount the boards and paddle down the coast to explore sea caves and rocky inlets while Ettore hangs back to fish. After a short while, the guys turn and start paddling for the boat. They’re clearly not in for the epic paddling adventure I had hoped for. After regrouping, we return to the harbor and I start pushing for some significant paddling. Marco and Matteo are deflated to find Ettore’s boat broken down (and with it, plans to explore the neighboring marine sanctuary Giannutri Island), but they aren’t at all interested in the opportunity to bag a 14-mile circumnavigation. So I compromise, suggesting we take the car to the remote, far side of the island, paddle back and shuttle the vehicle later. This plan would cut well into aperitivo time, possibly into gelato time. But I eventually convince them to drive over and at least check it out. The winding road leads us to a dramatic rock outcropping, where we unload the boards, and paddle about a mile to the pinnacle rock with the jagged outline of Montecristo Island barely visible on the hazy western horizon. We relax for a while on the rocky beach, until Matteo and Marco are ready to head back to the car.

I tell them to go back without me. I’ll paddle around and meet them back at the port before our last ferry leaves.

And when I set off to cut across the bay and around the island, a feeling of self-reliance and exploratory curiosity re-energizes me. Doubts and possibilities flood in together as I wonder what lies around each bend and the slowly unfolding vantage of the next challenge: A huge bay? More side-winds? A bikini-clad beach enclave? Will I make it back in time? Did I bring enough water? I should have eaten a second croissant. What if this paddle breaks? But I just keep plugging. Testing my strength, stroke by stroke. Mixing cadence, stance, hand position, focusing on tiny things to mix up the present, the jellyfish below, the call of the gulls, the view of a castle, my breath, that terribly awesome Rick James song stuck in my head. Cruising.

I also look back to my odd parting of ways and ending up solo, and rest assured that there comes a time where you can’t keep giving in and making compromises, can’t keep doing things other people’s way. You need to cut loose; understand when you have to just get out and go. A point where you set off alone, and paddle your own direction.

Full power ahead.