Getting On Board

They all did double takes — the dog walkers and yacht people, the kayakers and pedestrians, the straw-hatted septuagenarian rowing a dinghy to his sloop. On a fine October Sunday morning in Sausalito, passersby gawked at a peculiar flotilla moored just off the beach at Sea Trek, the venerable kayak outfitter that has recently expanded its repertoire.

In a voice at once calming and commanding, yoga instructor Abria Joseph told his students, “High plank through low plank … exhale, breathe … now downward-facing dog.” There’s nothing out of the ordinary about yoga in Marin, of course. Distinguishing this class was the fact that it took place on the water. Joseph has students move through their asanas on stand-up paddle (or SUP) boards, the popularity of which is on the rise not just in this county but around the world.

“For the first five minutes, you’re kind of figuring out where you are on the board, navigating the space,” says Sienna Harris at the end of her floating yoga class, offered by a Bay Area–based outfit called OnBoardSUP. “And then it’s just … magical. It was crazy.”

On-the-water yoga is but one manifestation of the SUP craze, now five-or-so years old and showing no signs of abating. “The sport has grown incredibly,” says Brian Hughes, a rep for Tahoe SUP. “The number of people doing it seems to almost double every year.”

That tracks with estimates made by David Meyler, a Tiburon native who two years ago founded Boga Stand Up Paddle Boards and is now selling them in Europe, South America and the American heartland. “We definitely caught a wave,” says Meyler (who did not, we think, intend the pun). “This is the fastest-growing aquatic sport on the planet. Demand is greater than supply and seems to double about every six months.”

Some prefer the serenity of flat water; others, the lure of the open ocean. And some of those seafaring SUPers can be seen paddling into waves. Meyler explains that flat-water boards tend to have displacement hulls, with a prow similar to a canoe or kayak. Seafaring SUP boards — especially those used for surfing — feature wider, flatter planing hulls, like those of a surfboard.

Even if you’re not quite up to paddling into a wave, there’s plenty to see out there. “When you’re kayaking, you can’t really see what’s under you,” says Hughes. Standing gives paddlers a superior vantage point from which to view reefs, rays, rocks and fish. “It’s an entirely new vista, a new adventure.”

How was SUPing born? “It’s been going on forever,” says Meyler, noting that Duke Kahanamoku was doing it in Hawaii in the middle of the last century. A decade or so ago, a group of Hawaiian surfers — Laird Hamilton among them — embraced the sport anew as a way to train when the surf was small. It wasn’t long before they were then entering outrigger races, competing in their own separate SUP division.

More and more SUPers of all levels are entering such races, such as the Battle of the Bay, held off McNears Beach last October by Sausalito’s Bluerush Boardsports and sponsored by Boga Boards. For those who prefer a bit of wave action, Live Water Surf Shop in Stinson Beach has sponsored the Shore to Shore Paddle Race for the past four summers to benefit the town’s Junior Lifeguard Program. In its first year, the race drew 26 paddlers. This year’s event, on June 18, will easily exceed 100. Says Live Water Surf Shop’s co-owner Brenna Gubbins: “Everyone has a blast; there are lots of prizes, and there’s a great barbecue afterward.”

Sea Trek, looking out on spectacularly picturesque Richardson Bay, caters to the flat-water crowd, whose converts include kayaker Bob Licht. (Licht is the guy, as it happens, who founded Sea Trek three decades ago.) “There’s just something about it,” he says. “I’ve been paddling SUPs more than I’ve been kayaking recently, because it’s so much simpler. Kayaking has a much more serious tradition. You’ve got your life jacket on, and your spray skirt. You have to be trained in self-rescue.” It’s also a different workout. “Balancing on a board, you’re constantly making all these micro-adjustments — it’s an amazing workout for your core,” Licht says. “Kayaking is also a great workout, but I think you feel it faster on a paddleboard.”

The vast majority of SUPers to whom Sea Trek rents aren’t converted kayakers. “They’re new people,” says Licht, who stocked eight stand-up boards two years ago and now has 40-plus. “We’re getting an entirely new demographic.” Many of them are women, drawn to this sport because it is neither time- nor logistics-intensive. To get on the water for a SUP, Licht says, “You pick up your board, go down to the water’s edge, get on and go.” What if you’re brand-new? “We can get people up to speed in 10 to 15 minutes,” says Licht.

Leigh Claxton is the founder of OnBoardSUP, which certifies instructors for her increasingly popular floating yoga classes. She is also, as far as she knows, the James Naismith (inventor of basketball) of SUP yoga. She first practiced a few poses on one of her son’s boards in early 2009 and was intrigued. A physical therapist, she was rehabbing a head-injury patient and saw the benefits of him being able to “feel” his balance versus being weightless in the pool. Afterward, Claxton began working with private clients doing yoga on boards. “I put a few pictures on the web and got some response. Mostly, people thought I was crazy.”

While her classes get great word-of-mouth exposure, Claxton has also welcomed locals who’ve simply seen the classes while walking past or looking out the windows of their homes and became intrigued. Says Claxton: “You’d be surprised how many people live here but have never been on the water.”

Stand-up paddling is an unthreatening way for the water-uninitiated to get their toes wet. Claxton uses custom-made “Boga Yoga” boards — specially designed by Meyler — that are both lighter and more stable than typical stand-up boards, which are quite stable to begin with. “You pretty much have to work to flip ’em,” she says. “Part of my desire with the program is to educate people about water, to learn and see and what’s around them.” While Claxton was prepared to mothball the classes over the winter, demand was such that she kept them going. “They kept filling up, so we kept teaching them,” she says. “It was pretty special, because it seemed like we had different bird migrations, different birdsong, every week. A lot of people came just for that.” The number-one comment she gets from first-timers? “I had no idea it was going to be so much fun.”

For local SUPers intent on paddling into waves, it’s tough to beat the Patch at Bolinas. Instead of walking left toward the jetty when you get to the beach, you take a right toward the Patch, which breaks over Duxbury Reef, yielding long, slow rollers. On small-wave days, SUPers are often the only people there catching waves — which does not necessarily endear them to traditional, prone surfers, some of whom resent how easy it is for SUPers to paddle into waves that roll right under their shorter boards. “It’s a total advantage,” complains one Bolinas local, a wiry 20-something who asked that his name not be used. “And it doesn’t even surf the wave that well.”

Still, there’s very little friction at the Patch, which has a reputation as offering a mellow, learner’s wave. SUPers “get away with it out here,” says the local. “But if you’re in SoCal, in a crowded spot like Rincon or something, people will boo you off the waves.” Having made his point, he then made an admission: “I wouldn’t mind trying it myself,” he says. “I wanna take one in the lagoon and see some stingrays.”

Getting Equipped

When it comes to choosing a paddleboard, beside the fact that it needs to fit into or on top of your car, features such as size, weight and type come into play. Stephen Pugh, owner of Bluerush Boardsports in Sausalito, breaks down the differences between the various boards. -Mimi Towle

1 Touring Board (12’–14’; $1,000–$2,500) — While these boards are similar in shape to a race board, they are designed to be more stable and thus wider with more volume. They are used primarily for longer distance cruising without the need to be nimble around a race course like a race board. Many offer the ability to carry gear.

2 Race Board (12.6’–20’; $1,200–$3,000) — Most race board shapes are distinguished by a sharper displacement bow making it easier and faster to cut through the water. The longer water lines and narrower shape can make these boards more challenging for beginners. However, as with most stand-up paddleboarding experiences, the learning curve is relatively short, and most serious enthusiasts ultimately get the competitive itch and invest in a race board.

3 Paddlesurf All Around Board (9’–12’; $850–$1,900)  — These boards are traditionally shaped much like a longboard surfboard and designed for use in waves as well as casual flat water paddling. They are usually the most stable for beginners and often used for on-the-water yoga and other fitness workouts.  

* Paddles ($100–$400) — The less expensive paddles are made with aluminum, while those made from fiberglass and carbon fiber are lighter and more expensive. There are also adjustable paddles popular with families.