Now that the dangers of the sun are well documented and laying out is passé (or at least should be—I still see lots of women baking every time I hit the beach or pool), I’ve been forced to find new ways to entertain myself on our annual trips to the coast. Yes, I’m one of those girls who spent her teenage years sprawled out for hours under the sun, slicked up with baby oil and iodine, with the tell-tale freckles and sunspots to show for it. But there’s only so much huddling under an umbrella with a book I can tolerate, and while I do run and walk on the beach, I’d love to add something new to the mix.
So when I got the chance to try Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) on a lake near my home in Nashville, Tenn., I jumped at it. I’d heard about SUP for six or seven years—way before it became “the thing” among celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Mathew McConaughey and Kim Kardashian. My brother, a 50-something like me, had discovered the sport while traveling in Hawaii. He’d been impressed with the short learning curve and low-impact total-body benefits, some of the reasons why it’s been named one of the best sports for Baby Boomers, and thought I would be too. Until a couple of years ago, the only places you could find SUP boards for rent were in Hawaii, California and certain other coastal hot spots, places not in my typical travel circles. But the trend has really hit its stride, with boards for rent in most beach towns and even inland lake areas.
With a late-summer trip to the Florida Panhandle on the books—and knowing that I can now easily score a board at the outfitter near our condo–I thought I’d see whazzup with SUP (sorry, couldn’t resist). I found former pro surfer and SUP evangelist Tim Inskeep, a certified SUP instructor who ran surf schools in Hawaii before relocating to Nashville, via the website, SUPGuides.com. His digs are a bit minimalist (his “office” is a van that houses several boards for teaching—he doesn’t rent boards for independent use), but he certainly knows his stuff.
SUP—particularly on flat water, like that of Old Hickory Lake just northeast of Nashville, where I met Tim just after an early evening thunderstorm in early June—is relatively simple: You stand on a SUP board and use an angled paddle to propel yourself through the water. SUP boards are like surfboards, but typically thicker for better flotation and stability. While boards vary in length and width, Tim tells me, it’s better for beginners to choose longer, wider boards until they’re comfortable with the basics of balancing, turning and stopping.
That sounded good to me. I haven’t had the best luck with watercraft, I have to say—I took some fairly unsuccessful runs at windsurfing and whitewater kayaking in my 30s. I’ve never been good at reading currents or negotiating the wind (although I’ve never really stuck with any sport that required these skills for more than a few attempts). But SUP at its most basic level doesn’t require anything like that.
I didn’t know that, though, until I actually got away from the boat ramp where we mounted our boards, and got to my feet. At first, I was afraid of falling in, not sure how stable the board would be. In retrospect, that seems so silly—with temperatures in the low 90s, an unintended dip in the lake wouldn’t be the worst thing. Maybe it was less the prospect of getting wet, and more the fear of embarrassing myself, or being awkward with the paddle, or simply sucking at SUP all around that explained my shakiness as I hoisted one leg over the board and positioned myself on my knees just behind the center point of the board, marked by an inset handhold for easy carrying. It was a good sign that the board stayed fairly level in the water—it barely tipped with most of my weight on one side.
Tim had me paddle a bit before standing up, both to get used to being on the board and to get away from any bass fishermen jonesing to use the boat ramp. He went over the basic grip—if you’re paddling on the right, the left hand is on the handle at the top of the shaft, and the right hand is about shoulder-distance down the shaft (reverse hand positions when padding on the left). The elbow (bent angle) of the paddle should point away from you. I practiced a basic turn by planting the paddle in the water on the side to which I wanted to go. After only a few minutes, I felt comfortable enough to try standing up. Per Tim’s instruction, I lay the paddle crossways on the board in front of me and put both hands over it for stability as I got to my feet. The board barely registered my movement (a good thing), and I started to paddle the only way I knew how, thrusting the paddle blade-first out in front of me and scooping down deep, as if I was burrowing a hole in soft sand.
Wrong. “That’s how most people want to paddle,” Tim says, “but those long, deep strokes waste energy.” Instead, he had me lean forward slightly at the waist, reach out until both arms were completely straight, and stab the water with the blade just below the surface, pulling back to my ankle, and out. These shorter strokes seemed to glide me forward with less effort, and I felt more surefooted and controlled with the paddle in front of me at all times. Tim had to remind me several times during our hour-and-a-half on the lake not to reach the blade out with my lower hand, like I would when paddling a canoe, a typical rookie mistake.
He also cued me to look at the horizon—not at my feet—to keep me from pitching forward as I paddled. That became easier the longer we paddled and I started to enjoy the unique perspective SUP provides. Compared with sit-on-top kayaks I’d piloted in the past, my upright position on the board allowed me to see more—to penetrate further into the vegetation on the small island we skirted, where egrets and herons nestled Where’s-Waldo style. I felt more powerful, less vulnerable, while straying into a regatta of Sunfish sailboats commandeered by kids and teens at a summer camp run by the marina. Standing up made us more visible to the sailors and to the few bass fishermen on the lake that day, including the old-timer we saw pull in a 3-plus-pound largemouth.
Back on solid ground after a wet dismount on the boat ramp, I was surprised to find that the muscles in my legs were firing as well as my core. I had expected to feel some tension in my torso from twisting and pulling (since the mantra of SUP is “paddle with your core, not your arms”). But the effect on my legs was almost as powerful. Despite feeling so sturdy on the board, my leg muscles were constantly working to keep me that way, subtle, consistent contractions that, over time, could be really beneficial to the lower body (indeed, Tim says his 40-something wife attributes her trim and tone backside to SUP). I can see why some health clubs with access to water in places like Austin, Texas and the Twin Cities in Minnesota are offering fitness classes using SUP.
SUP may have been a workout for my muscles, but it was somehow more satisfying than a typical session at the gym or run on the trails. I left the lake feeling some of the same calmness and serenity of a good yoga session, mixed with the renewal and energy of an afternoon spent in my backyard hammock amid the light, sound and sensations of the outdoors.
Will I seek out SUP on my summer vacation? You bet—but I’ll stick to the flat bay waters and forgo the surf (surfing takes a bit more instruction, practice and technique). Beats laying out any day.
Click the links below and learn more about what gear you’ll need and some important tips for paddleboarding beginners.