Riding the wave
Since the day pro surfer Laird Hamilton stood on a long board and picked up a paddle, the sport of standup paddleboarding (SUP) has ridden a wave of growth. From 2010 to 2016, SUP participation expanded from about 1 million to 3.2 million, a growth of 220 percent. Though still adding new participants, growth has slowed in the recently. Meanwhile, other paddle sports are following in its wake. Mark Saunders and Mark Bandy, co-owners of the East of Maui Boardshop in Annapolis, Md., have watched changes in paddle sports over the 30 years since the shop opened, particularly in SUP. They are seeing growth in all disciplines of the sport, from race to recreational paddling, yoga, touring, surfing and fitness, according to industry reports.
Brian Meyer of Capital SUP, which rents watersport equipment from locations in Annapolis and Washington, D.C., said that while growth percentages in SUP over the last two years have slowed, people are now trying other paddlecraft, such as outriggers and surf skis. “Participation numbers in local paddle races have increased in those two paddlecraft disciplines at a higher rate then SUP,” he said. The shop’s Capital SUP Race Series welcomes all levels of paddlers in paddleboards, surf skis, outrigger canoes and kayaks for monthly races held October through March. Meyer said the series was created to keep the Maryland and Washington, D.C., paddling communities engaged during fall and winter months with a fun, social and competitive atmosphere of paddle racing.
East of Maui hosts a low-key, all-level social paddle on Tuesdays nights, equipment demos with board manufacturers and in-store events such as repair clinics and other SUP-related activities. In addition, the East of Maui/Eastport Yacht Club Chesapeake Stand Up Challenge had more than 150 racers in 2017. The 2018 race is scheduled for July 14. Both shops strive to get more people on the water. Along with ABC Events and several other organizations, both sponsor the Bay Bridge Paddle on Chesapeake Bay, which had about 350 paddlers in 2017. That race, with a nine-mile crossing, and 5K and 1.5K courses, is also open to SUP, kayaks and other paddlecraft. This year’s event is set for June 2.
Paddle races attract newcomers as well as pros and enthusiasts across the country. More than 500 paddlers turned out in October for the Chattajack 31, a grueling 31-mile race down the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. The Motor City might not be known for paddling sports but perhaps it should be. OABI (Once Around Belle Isle) Detroit, a seven-mile race, draws hundreds of SUPers, kayakers and surf skiers each August. The Tahoe Cup Paddle Racing Series features three races: Donner Lake, the Waterman’s Paddle and the Fall Classic, a 22-mile paddle on Lake Tahoe.
Then there’s the West Marine Carolina Cup, which attracts more than 1,000 amateur and pro racers each April at Wrightsville Beach, N.C. Organized by the Wrightsville Beach Paddle Club and sanctioned by the World Paddle Association, the Carolina Cup incorporates several races of various lengths: a kids’ race, a 3.5-mile recreational race, a 6.5-mile open race, a six-person outrigger flatwater race to the 13.2-mile world SUP race.
In Columbus, Ga., Whitewater Park opens a floodgate of possibilities. The park, built in 2012 in downtown Columbus, is a kayak surf wave that can be adjusted to meet the needs of paddlers, surfers or rafters. The venue recently hosted the World Paddle Association (WPA) Paddle Championships, a stop on the World SUP Tour, as well as the USA Freestyle Kayak National Championship. In August of 2017, more than 1,500 paddlers converged on the Chattahoochee River for the Fourth Grand Columbus Whitewater Paddle.
Merri C. Sherman, executive director of the Columbus, (GA) Sports Council, said they worked with Uptown Columbus, Visit Columbus, Ga., and Whitewater Management to create a great experience. “With the creation of the Whitewater Park, we see limitless possibilities in use of the longest urban whitewater course in the world, along with the flatwater abilities the river possesses,” she said. “We are getting increased exposure in the kayaking and SUP markets. And as the headquarters of Salt Life [a beach gear and apparel store], we have the perfect partners.” The ability to host those activities in an urban setting alleviates much of the logistical needs, Sherman said. “The events, with great partners like WPA, are fairly turnkey with the hosts putting the icing on the cake by creating second experiences while assisting in other aspects of production,” she said. The River Park and Chattahoochee River become “an amphitheater of sorts,” she said, and make a natural viewing area. “Having this along the downtown core makes for a pleasant experience for the attendees and patrons alike.”
Like Columbus, the Annapolis area, where East of Maui and Capital SUP hosts events, is also great for paddle-sports events because of easy access to a variety of waterways. “We have access to protected creeks, rivers and the iconic Chesapeake Bay,” Meyer said. Those waterways offer conditions ranging from very calm to challenging rough water in windy conditions. Saunders and Bandy mentioned several free launch sites to explore, such as Jonas Green Park on the Severn River, Truxtun Park on Spa Creek and Homeport Farm Park on the South River, which at the time of this writing is closed for construction.
Because the East of Maui SUP Challenge is co-hosted by Eastport Yacht Club, the infrastructure of the club has helped that race be an enjoyable and safe experience, Saunders and Bandy said: “They take care of notifying the local Coast Guard and Harbor Master, and provide plenty of safety boats for our event. The organizers of the Bay Bridge Race do the same thing.”Because the Capital SUP Race Series is held on private property, no special permits are needed but the Coast Guard is also made aware of those races, Meyer said.