This Version of SUP Takes Paddleboarding to the Extreme

Stand up paddleboarding on whitewater rapids is exhilarating and addictive

Riverside Outfitters

Your instructor is using a stick to draw a diagram in the dirt. It looks like a pyramid of V’s and is far more complicated than x marks the spot. Earlier, you learned that the life jacket you’re wearing is actually a P.S.D.—personal safety device—because in all actuality, it won’t save your life.

Yes it will help you stay afloat, but by no means does it guarantee life. That’s why it’s critical that you drill the diagram being drawn in the dirt into your head, which was fitted for a helmet at the same time you put on that P.S.D. Even if you have stand up paddleboarding (SUP) experience, you’re about to get wet and you’re about to go to war. Welcome to battle boarding.

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Battle boarding is the term preferred by instructor Ben Moore, but the sport is also known as whitewater SUP, and with eleven years of paddleboard instruction behind him, Moore runs the whitewater paddleboarding program at Richmond’s Riverside Outfitters. When asked why he hesitates to call it SUP, Moore explains that when it comes to paddleboarding in whitewater, the objective is not always to be on two feet.

The James River, where Moore leads guided trips through Class I–IV rapids, is not the place for people who are too proud to drop to their knees. In fact, according to Moore, one of the five pillars of whitewater paddleboarding is “crumple, don’t topple.” That is, when you approach a rapid that appears particularly ominous, your best and safest course of action is to gradually get low on your board.

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Honestly, Moore has a hard time remembering all four of the remaining pillars of whitewater paddleboarding at once, but it’s clear that if anyone is qualified to teach battle boarding, it’s him. It seems like he can read a rapid from 100 yards away, and in a river where water level changes on an hourly basis, that’s a valuable skill.

Unlike paddleboarding on still or slowly moving water, battle boarding requires foresight and the ability to anticipate and plot a series of next steps. Moore compares rapids to moguls. Even before you reach the first one, you need to be planning for the next.

The upside down V in his dirt diagram represents the flow of the water where it meets a rock. The idea is to always be on the lookout for the next V and the corresponding eddy—a pocket of calmer water which occurs where a rock or fallen log blocks the swift current and where paddlers can seek refuge.

Joseph Chavez

As Moore describes the physics at play in whitewater, you definitely feel like you’re in a science, not a SUP, class. Again, standing up is not always advisable. In fact, within five minutes of getting on the river, Moore is instructing you to practice falling off your board.

At first, it sounds as absurd as a sky dive instructor telling you to try jumping with a faulty parachute. But because for most battle boarders it’s a matter of when, not if, it’s important to know how to fall and subsequently, get back on the board. As with SUP surfing, the best paddleboards for battle boarding are shorter in length. Moore also points out that the fins have been removed and because encounters with rocks are inevitable, it’s best to have a durable board that can take a beating—or two.

While it sounds dangerous, and undoubtedly, it is, battle boarding can be surprisingly addictive. Although it’s a risk, the next rapid is magnetic. Even when you fall, you find yourself eagerly awaiting the next set of whitewater where hopefully, redemption can be found. With the current as your companion, you can cover miles of ground that would be exhausting on most open water.

That’s not to say that whitewater paddleboarding isn’t exhausting, because after all, it’s a battle—in every sense of the word. From the physical strength and speed required to maneuver a river’s answer to moguls, to the cerebral strength that is needed for mapping out your next move.

Of course, you don’t know this yet, because at the moment, you’re bone dry and for the last three minutes, you’ve been asked to look at dirt—wondering what the heck it has to do with whitewater. 

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