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What's SUP? Perhaps the Hottest Vacation Activity on Water


Is stand-up paddle boarding, also known by the surfer-dude friendly acronym SUP (as in “wassup”), the fastest growing watersport in the world? Search engines lists everything from kite surfing to dragon boat racing as having that distinction. But proponents of this relatively new pastime—based on the ancient Polynesian boating method hoe he’e nalu, which involves a sailor standing on a flat board, using a long wooden paddle to propel himself through the water—say that the activity has exploded in popularity in the last five years…and is the perfect sport to try on your next vacation.

“Based on my 25 years experience manufacturing products, I’ve never seen growth like this,” says Jeff Archer, co-founder of YOLO, a producer of paddle boards. “Our numbers have doubled annually for the last three years, which is challenging to keep up with.” According to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association paddle boards accounted for $14.5 million in sales, and nearly 10% of the surf market in 2010 (the most recent year studied).

So what’s the lure? The sightseeing possibilities inherent in the sport are foremost. “You just get the greatest views,” enthuses Frank Carpenter, co-CEO of Kona Boys, a watersports center on the Big Island of Hawaii. “Unlike in a kayak, you can see all the way to the horizon because you’re high above the water. And you’re standing up, which means that, if you’re in a place that has clear waters, like we do, you can see straight down to everything swimming beneath you, and the coral reefs. Its magical.”

For vacationers, eager to try something new, but with limited time, ease of mastery is another selling point. “If you can stand up, you can paddle. It’s that simple,” says Andre Niemeyer, President of, a social media society devoted to the sport. Carpenter concurs. “My partner’s five-year-old got up the first time he tried. Now we can’t get him off his board,” he laughs.

Easy to learn, however, doesn’t translate into sweat-free “Every part of the body is involved with paddleboarding, especially the core. It’s challenging,” says Carpenter. Neimayer concurs. “I had never worked so many muscles at one time until I tried paddle boarding, and I’ve done a lot of things--karate, basketball, surfing. It even feels like I’m giving my eyebrows a workout! But no complaints; you’re gliding on water, kind of Jesus-like.”

To make sure one is not straining muscles unnecessarily, most fans recommend an introductory lesson for beginners, which can range in cost from $40 to $75 for an hour-and-a-half group class. Areas with still water—sheltered coves, lakes, slow-moving rivers—are considered the best spots for learning the sport. “Any bump or wind increases the difficulty exponentially,” explains Neimayer. Rentals of the boards themselves will be additional, again varying by area and amount of time, but averaging $25 an hour. 

For those who get serious about the sport, purchasing equipment can cost anywhere from $600 to $2000.

Avid travelers are advised to buy inflatable boards and folding paddles to avoid airplane fees for oversized luggage. These are now being manufactured by all the major companies, and usually come with their own handy backpack for ease of transport.

And many are traveling to do this sport. “It’s quickly become a travel destination sport, to places that are beautiful to paddle where you can get into clear water and see the marine life. Its huge in Hawaii where it started but also on the Panhandle of Florida, the Caribbean for sure, the Keys, and many lake and river destinations.” says Archer. “It opened up the world for me,” says Niemayer, who also surfs. “Before the world had just a few coastlines with the right conditions for surfing. But I can paddleboard anywhere.”

Getting into the scene, quickly, is also a lot easier with paddle boarding than with surfing. “You have a lot of localism amongst surfers,” says Niemayer. “Let’s face it: there are a limited number of good breaks. Many surfers want to protect their breaks, they don’t want outsiders catching the good waves, they don’t want to make room for visitors. It’s the opposite with the stand up paddleboard community. There’s water everywhere, so there’s no limited supply and that makes the sport shockingly inclusive. People are so welcoming.”

And one doesn’t have to just stand up and slowly paddle. In the last several years, aficionados have started fishing and even doing yoga on top of these boards. Formal races—sprints, long-distance, and ones that require steering around obstacles—will be offered around the globe in 2012 for serious practitioners.

But simply paddling may be the best way to enjoy this unique pastime. “I think the thing that hooked me on the sport was how it made me live in the now,” says Archer. “It was like being a 14-year-old kid, riding around on my bicycle. You’re not going anywhere, just enjoying the experience. Being on the board, having to balance yourself, seeing the beautiful sights, it really keeps you in the present. It’s a refreshing, cleansing experience.”