If you’ve spent any time near water in the past year or so, odds are good that you’ve seen people who were stand-up paddleboarding. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, imagine if kayaking and surfing had a baby. That’s stand-up paddleboarding.
For the past few months, every time I saw someone who was paddling along on one of those gigantic surfboards, I couldn’t help but stare wistfully at them as they glided past. It looked so peaceful and enjoyable, all the benefits of hanging out in the water without actually having to be in the water. (Non-pool water and I have had a tumultuous relationship, and it’s only been in the past few years that I can walk out into chest-deep water without flinching every time something brushes against my leg.)
So when a Groupon popped up for a class for two in September, I snatched it up. An opportunity had presented itself, and I was not about to let it slip away! Of course I’m a bit of a procrastinator, and I only got around to making the appointment last week, and only then because the threat of cold temperatures (aka sub-60 degrees, brrr!) loomed.
On Saturday morning, Brian and I drove out to Phillippe Park in Safety Harbor, which is yet another one of the stupidly gorgeous parks tucked away in Pinellas County. The park is on the west coast of the part of the bay known as Old Tampa Bay. When I spoke to Kim, who was our instructor, over the phone, she said this would be a good spot for us as beginners, as normally it was smooth as glass.
Operative word: normally. On this particular day, a persistent little wind was blowing from the southeast, a fact I had noted with mild despair while trying to take my bike for a 10-mile ride earlier in the day. The wind had kicked up some nice little waves on the water. If I had just been going for a swim, it would have been no big deal, but I was trying to learn a new sport that required. Even the tiniest wave could be treacherous (if not to my personal safety, then to my dignity at the very least).
Kim greeted us with some waivers, then laid out the situation for us. The winds were gusting at about 14 mph out of the southeast. “I normally don’t go out when it’s over 12 mph,” she said. I must have blanched visibly because she quickly said that if we didn’t want to go, she’d reschedule with us for another day. But then she went on to say that the main difference would be that, instead of a peaceful, relaxing experience, it would be more like an adventure. This was the right way to frame it, because while I’m not so keen on courting water-related disaster, I am all about embarking on adventures, and so we decided to go ahead with the lesson.
Another couple joined us a few minutes later, and Kim explained the gear to us – the long paddles and the proper way to hold them, the best place to stand on the board. She showed us how to get into position, by kneeling on either side of the center of the board, then standing up, one leg at a time, while looking at the horizon. And then she showed us three different paddle strokes – one for quick turns, one for slow turns and one to move straight ahead.
She warned us that, at first, our legs would get tired and sore, because our bodies were not used to standing on water and they would subconsciously freak out a bit. I didn’t understand just how accurate this was until I stood up and began paddling. The waves and the current rocked my board slightly back and forth and sent water sloshing over my feet. My lower body was in a constant state of flux trying to stay upright, kind of like trying to stand on a BOSU ball. I was pretty sure I was going to bite it at some point during the lesson.
Meanwhile, Brian was just cruising along, his paddle smoothly dipping in and out of the water, looking like he’d been paddleboarding his entire life. I tried not to take his apparent ease on the water as a personal affront, and focused on my dual tasks at hand: keeping my board from drifting into a little cove of mangroves and hence requiring a rescue, and staying out of the water, which I could see was filled with big silvery fish (among other things, I was certain).
It took a few minutes, but I finally got myself pointed in the right direction. A minute later, I was actually making progress toward the markers that indicated the beginning of the boating channel. It was at that moment that I noticed my feet had cramped up, no doubt from the aforementioned sensory experience of feeling as though I was standing on water, so I tried to figure out a way to flex my feet and toes without pitching myself headfirst into the bay.
We returned to shore for some more instruction from Kim, who explained that paddling was not something we could just muscle our way through. Instead, to paddle properly, the majority of the work would be done with our core. She also pointed out that I was holding my paddle backwards when trying to do quick reverse turns. Oops!
When we pushed back out, I focused on keeping proper form while paddling, and sure enough, within a few minutes, I could feel my obliques pushing and pulling. I was very grateful at that moment for all of the side planks and crunches and ball twists I’d done over the past several months.
I muddled around with my paddle for a few more minutes until finally, I actually felt like I had gotten the hang of things. My legs were finally acclimated to the slight rocking of the board, I was pretty sure I knew how to deal with the paddle, I was standing upright and I was moving in the general direction I wanted. Brian gave me a “woo hoo!” and said I looked like a natural. I got all excited and turned to wave my paddle at him.
And then I fell.
Fortunately, I have cat-like reflexes (okay, the reflexes of a cat on animal tranquilizers, but still! Cat-like!) and I dropped to the board on my hands and knees without landing butt first on a sting ray. I brought myself back to a standing position, embarrassed but also amused at my clumsiness (a normal emotional experience for me), and once I had regained my balance, I resumed paddling, a bit more cautiously this time.
Soon afterward, our 90-minute lesson was up. I was having so much fun that I didn’t want to return to shore. Stephanie, who was one-half of the other couple, said she’d seen people doing yoga on paddleboards by Fort De Soto. Kim said she knew a personal trainer who taught Pilates on paddleboards. I just wanted to hang out on the water, maybe have a picnic, read a book, take a nap while perched on a board. These all seemed like fine ideas. Sadly, as a decent paddleboard costs well over a thousand dollars, they’ll have to remain ideas for now.
I do recommend that anyone who is interested in stand-up paddleboarding take a lesson. Kim was great, giving us each the personal attention we needed to make sure we were doing it right. If I had just rented a paddleboard and taken it out one day, I probably would have flailed about uselessly and fallen overboard several times and in general looked like a total doofus. All of that is so undignified, and so easily avoided by taking a simple lesson, don’t you think?
Stand-up paddleboarding can be done by people of all fitness levels – all that matters is that you can get up to a standing position from your hands and knees. It’s a good way to get a serious full-body workout without feeling like you are getting a serious full-body workout, which is all most people really want, right? I recommend anyone give it a shot if they are intrigued. After all, there’s a reason why it has become so popular, and that’s because it’s fun!
Thanks to Kim from Tampa Bay SUP Stand-Up Paddleboarding for being a great instructor. If you are in the Tampa Bay area, I recommend giving Kim a call and arranging a lesson or a rental through her.