What's the Deal With Stand Up Paddling? An Expert Explains

Part 1: How an obscure sport from Hawaii went worldwide

You’ve probably read about it, heard about it or even seen it with your own two eyes, and wondered: What’s this stand up paddling thing all about?

You can't avoid it: you walk into your local outdoor outfitter and the first thing you see is a shiny new display of paddleboards; you head to your favorite spot on the water and people are gliding across the surface on what look to be giant surfboards.

Stand up paddling—or SUP for short—may seem to be everywhere these days, but the sport barely existed a few years ago. It only first appeared on the Outdoor Industry Association’s annual survey of outdoor activities in 2011, drawing about a million participants at the time. That number now stands at over 1.5 million, according to the most recent report—an increase of 47 percent in only two years.

How did this sport, which combines elements of surfing and traditional paddle sports like kayaking, go from a small niche activity in Hawaii to a worldwide phenomenon in only a few years?

We reached out to the president of the Stand Up Paddling Industry Association, Andre Niemeyer, to find out. An early adopter of stand up paddling, Niemeyer founded the website SUP Connect, now one of the world’s largest online communities dedicated to stand up paddling.

It seems like stand up paddling appeared overnight. Where exactly did it come from?
Stand up paddling has been around for a long time, but the modern form of the sport as we know it came from Hawaii, in particular the islands Oahu and Maui. The island of Maui had [surfing legends] Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama. The two were buddies, and they innovated a lot of variations of water sports. They innovated tow-in surfing, for example, and made a big wave in Maui called ‘Jaws’ famous. They adopted stand up paddling in the late ‘90s, around 1996 and 1997, and they were really getting into it and developing the sport.Laird Hamilton stand up paddling. Credit: Flickr/jai mansson

Out on Oahu was the surfer Brian Keaulana. His family is deeply involved with ocean festivals and competitions where they held stand up paddling events. These three figures helped catapult stand up paddling to a larger part of the Hawaiian population, and as a result, people coming to Hawaii from the mainland were becoming more exposed.

How did it make that jump to the mainland and beyond?
Rick Thomas was the first of two or three ambassadors to bring it to the mainland United States—more precisely to San Diego, California. It was a very grassroots movement. He started introducing SUP on a one-to-one basis to his friends in San Diego. One of those people was myself in the winter of 2005 to 2006.

In the summer of 2006, Laird Hamilton came to Malibu where he and his family live half the year, and he was photographed catching a wave on a stand up paddleboard. At that point not a lot of people had seen it, so it was a major event in the history of stand up paddling.

A third ambassador, in Santa Cruz, was a guy named Bob Pearson, a friend with Rick Thomas. He was introducing people to stand up paddling there in Santa Cruz. These three ambassadors are the reason why SUP entered the mainstream and the rest of the world.

One interesting event that ties back to its spread beyond the coast: Rick Thomas and Bob Pearson worked together with a man named Ernie Brassard to put together the first flatwater stand up paddling event in Lake Tahoe called Tahoe Nalu. It was the first event that made it clear stand up paddling had an appeal beyond those initial places on the coast. This was in 2007.

Brassard continues to hold the event every year, and this year the event set an all time record with 490 registrants.

So it sounds like SUP really came into the mainstream through surfing. Has it had any crossover success with traditional paddle sports like kayaking?
The very initial thread of the modern movement is how I just described it; but the first response of other water sports was one of rejection. A lot of different circles looked at stand up paddling as a fad. It wasn’t true to existing sports, people said, and it was something some people looked down upon in the surf community and certain segments of the whitewater kayaking community.

But since then, a lot of different athletes adopted it as a cross-training tool and it spread across to other sports. There are a lot of people from the outrigger canoe community—incredible outrigger canoe paddlers like Danny Ching—adopting it and becoming some of the fastest paddlers in the world.

There are people from whitewater kayaking background, people from a fitness background who brought yoga to it, and then SUP yoga started being accepted as a result.

It wasn’t an attractive thing in the beginning. It turned around especially because of the celebrity factor—a lot of celebrities in Hawaii and California were doing it. Eventually Kim Kardashian got featured on cover of People magazine on a stand up paddleboard.

To put its growth in perspective, surfing has been around for 60 years, and it has a participation level [in the United States] of about 3 million people. In only six or seven years, stand up paddling now has over a million people doing it, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

Click here for part-two of this interview: Why stand up paddling is a complete workout and what makes it so accessible.

Photo of Laird Hamilton via Flickr/jai MANSSON


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