What’s Up with the SUPs?

Approximately five years after the SUP paddling renaissance, SUP surfers still not accepted by local traditional surfers.

“Get that damn boat out of the lineup!”

“I can’t stand those sweepers. I hope they stick their brooms between their legs and fly away like the witches they are.”

“They’re a bunch of kooks.”

“I hate those frickin’ things. It’s hard enough catching waves with all the longboarders sitting outside…and now this.”

“They have no business being in the lineup. SUPs should be banned from the surf zone….”

These are just some of the comments I’ve heard traditional surfers direct against Stand Up Paddle (SUP) surfers. The invective, the vitriol, the diabolic hatred is no hyperbole; some regular surfers loathe SUP surfers more than Al Qaeda. In their view, regular surfer’s territory, ever an increasingly more crowded zone, has been terrorized for the last handful of years by the latest fitness craze.

I’ve heard surfers complain about—and sometimes vehemently confront—a new class of surfer: a Type A, wealthy (who can afford a $1,500 board and $350 paddle) establishment jock who wants to cross train in between sessions at the extreme workout gym and grueling triathlon practices by jumping on the latest health bandwagon, SUP surfing.

But plenty of longtime traditional surfers have also made the switch to SUP. And certainly, these two archetypes aren’t the only ones to SUP.

I admit: I’ve had negative—even violent—thoughts towards SUP surfers. Their boards make traditional longboards look like matchsticks. Their paddle propels them with more power than any pair of human arms can muster. When they sit far outside and easily pick off a wave, one that I was perfectly lined up for, waiting patiently for several minutes, only to be denied because the SUP surfer who just paddled into the surf zone, now has the inside position.

When this happens, my first thought is to want to drop in on them and tell them to go surf somewhere else.

I laugh to myself when I see one clumsily fall off their board. I’m regaled, basking in a macabre alter ego when I see a traditional surfer barking and ‘chewing out’ a SUP surfer for dropping in.

Despite these tendencies, I’m trying to change my attitude. Though I’m not a member of Self Realization Fellowship (SRF), I do appreciate its presence in town. Sometimes, I’ll ask myself: What would Yogananda do? He’d probably be delighted to see so many people enjoying the water.

And when examining the SUP conundrum from a Christian perspective, would Jesus equate SUP surfers with the money changers in the temple and chase them out of the lineup, pursuing aquatic justice? Most likely not. “Blessed are the surf peacemakers,” Jesus might say.

Religious dogma aside, are SUP surfers unjustly ridiculed? Or should they be banned from regular surf zones as has been done in some areas of Dana Point and San Onofre? Will Encinitas surf beaches ever be off-limits to SUPs?

Not anytime soon, according to Encinitas Lifeguards Captain, Larry Giles.

“There haven’t been any discussions on regulating areas and usage for SUP boards. The only area we currently designate as an activities zone are two zones for swimming, south of Swami’s and the other at Moonlight Beach. The other areas throughout Encinitas are open-use areas,” says Giles, adding, “You can do whatever you want, as long as it’s not a motorized craft. You can surf, fish, bodyboard, bodysurf, take out a Hobie Cat, kayak, or SUP.”

Are SUPs considered vessels?
Some surfers argue that because SUPs offer a distinct advantage in terms of catching a wave, they technically shouldn’t be allowed in the surf zone because the Coast Guard designates anything assisted by a paddle to be equated with a boat and therefore, traditional surfers have right of way.

But according to Giles, this isn’t so.

“Here’s what the Coast Guard has told us: If you’re taking a SUP outside the surf zone, you need a PFD (personal flotation device). If you’re using the board as a surfing device, though, there’s no regulation from the Coast Guard. But if you’re paddling around on a SUP in a harbor, bay, or offshore outside the surf zone, you need to have a PFD; you don’t need to wear it, you just need to have one on the board.”

Big Brother in the lineup
If you’re a traditional surfer and bummed to learn that SUPs won’t be banned from the popular surf breaks, Giles wants you to consider this:

“Do you really want more government regulation? Do you want the government telling you more of what you can and cannot do in the water? That can open a Pandora’s Box for special interest groups to come in and try to ban something else.

“What’s next?” asks Giles. “A group of swimmers trying to ban the entire area to bodyboarders, surfers and kayakers?”

SUP contributes to the local economy
At the end of the day, Giles believes that if everybody practices good etiquette, all surfers should be equally rewarded the opportunity to recreate in the water. Plus, he says, SUP adds jobs to the local economy, employing shapers, sales people, glassers, and opening shops in otherwise vacant storefronts.

Tom English, owner of Aloha Standup Paddles in Leucadia, is one of those in local employ via SUP. He offers lessons, sales and rentals out of Shatto and Sons T-Shirts, next to Mozy Café on Coast Highway 101.

English was on the longboard club and contest circuit for 25 years. He says he made the switch to SUP because of the new challenge and his aging body. English stands 6’2”, weighs 200 lbs., is almost 50 years old with a pair of knees that haven’t kept their youthful cartilage, so for him, SUP surfing has saved his body and kept him in the water for much longer than he would have if he stuck with traditional surfing.

A convert to SUP at the very beginning of the sport’s renaissance, English says that it was anything but easy at first.

“It was real difficult. The boards were very narrow and very difficult to stand up on for someone my size.”

Is SUPing infinitely easier than traditional surfing?
Now that SUP boards are much easier to navigate and balance on, due to their contemporary wider, lighter, and more buoyant construction, wouldn’t it be logical to conclude that SUP surfing is infinitely easier?

“The word ‘easy’ is a funny word when it comes to SUP. It looks easy but when you first start there’s nothing easy about it. Even the light ones aren’t easy,” says English, who first teaches people how to control the board in the flat Carlsbad lagoon. For his clients who want to go out and catch waves on a SUP, English first makes them take an open-ocean skills assessment test, which requires spinning the board around 360 degrees around a buoy in both directions and also doing a sprint paddle.

“The skills of controlling the board are the most important. I make sure everybody I work with has these skills before they even get in the ocean,” claims English, who also professes to never surf crowded peaks.

The 800 pound gorilla in the water
Most SUP surfers realize that they aren’t welcome in the pack by regular surfers. So why would they want to surf waves in close proximity to disapproving stares, or worse?

“We don’t ever surf in areas where there’s a lineup,” says Ryan Guay, national sales manager at Boardworks, a local board manufacturer that distributes SUP boards all across the country. Guay says that he and his co-workers are well aware of the negative attitude many traditional surfers carry towards SUP surfers.

But Guay thinks the SUP rebirth is just getting under way. “Most of our sales are shipped to people who live way inland and want SUPs for lakes and rivers. That segment of the population is booming,” he says.

And what about accomplished SUP surfers who have been at it for several years now—are they entitled to surf crowded breaks like Swami’s?

“Why would you want to,” asks English. “Mixing SUPs with crowded conditions is a recipe for disaster. I’ll look for the next peak beyond where people are.”

Only a surfer knows the feeling
One of the greatest feelings, any surfer will tell you, is paddling for a wave and popping up to the feet, a technique and step that is eliminated in SUP surfing. “Don’t you miss popping up?” I ask English. “The pop up is probably the most challenging part of surfing and gets harder and harder as someone gets older. A lot of people are coming to me and saying they can’t pop up anymore. They may have arthritis in the hips and knees, which can make it difficult to enjoy the water. The SUP is a vehicle for people to stay in the water and get their water addiction fix. I’ve had people who came to me absolutely depressed; they could no longer turn their necks anymore, paddle prone and pop up…they were devastated mentally.”

English advises SUP surfers to “Get away from main peaks, surf softer and crumbly peaks to yourself, which in [his] opinion, is always more fun to surf than a better yet hectic, crowded peak.”

We’ve seen this problem before 
Giles and English and Guay all equate the SUP/traditional surfer controversy to not only the longboarder/shortboarder rift, but also the battle between skiiers and snowboarders a couple decades ago.

“All the skiers thought snowboarders were kooks back in the day. It’s the same thing,” says English, who adds, “As more and more people witness the sport as it should be done, I think it will gain more respect like what has happened in Hawaii, where it’s regarded as not that big of a deal like it is over here.”

Do prone paddlers wish they could catch everything, too?
I’ll also admit that besides feeling animosity to SUP surfers, I’ve also been jealous. As I struggle to catch a mushy, inconsequential wave, flailing my arms and ultimately whiffing badly on my shortboard, a SUP surfer has effortlessly caught the wave, riding it all the way to shore.

Could it be that some of the hatred directed at them is because we wish we could catch as many waves as a SUP surfer? Sure, there are some SUP surfers out there who are wave hogs. Then again, there are a lot more traditional surfer wave hogs.

Will SUP surfers eventually be widely accepted? Perhaps regular surfers resonate with what author H.G. Wells said: “The path of least resistance is the path of the loser.” Or, perhaps regular surfers will come around, falling in line with philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s theory: “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; second, it is violently opposed; and third, it is accepted as self-evident.”

But maybe it was Rodney King who said it best: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Judd Handler is a surf reporter for Encinitas Patch and runs a surf blog at DivineSurfDesign.com.

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Colas October 17, 2012 at 06:38 AM
Interesting article. I would add 3 comments: [1] Prone paddling is actually faster than using a paddle, which requires quite a lot of technique to do well. To prove it, next time you see a SUPer with a big barge of a board, just ask to try it... without a paddle. You will see that you will prone-paddle by hand faster than using a paddle, and take off from even farther out (as you dont have to manage the row). It is the length and volume that makes big SUP boards take waves sooner, just like traditional longboards. [2] Short SUPs (less than 7') brings back the rush of the Pop Up! Except it is ten times more enjoyable, as you get a better view of what is hapenning and can move your weight around better for a added "slingshot effect" with your body weight. For my 220 lbs, my 6'8" boards paddle very slowly, but "pop" on the wave explosively (more than a prone pop up) when you know yo use the volume for a "cork effect" to take off in one paddle stroke. A feeling a bit like on a mini simmons or wide fishes. [3] SUPing is actually quite hard in some ways (e.g: pushing through whitewater) and easier in others (e.g: better tactical view to understand the spot dynamics) but most prone surfers see it as much easier, which triggers an animal instinct to attack another animal which gets a reward without effort, just as in this experience with dogs http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201111/do-dogs-feel-jealousy-and-envy
Surfing Siren October 17, 2012 at 02:56 PM
hahaha, I like #3 Cola. As long as they don't take my waves, I don't care : ) I tried it in the Oceanside Harbor, it was pretty boring and I didn't like not being actually in the water. I would like to take one out to kelp beds to look around though.
Crissie Trette October 18, 2012 at 01:27 AM
One factor that was not brought up is that SUPs in the line-up can be dangerous.
Colas October 18, 2012 at 08:06 AM
I would add that, just like on the road, dangerous situations arise when you cannot anticipate what the other users are going to do, e.g. car drivers who never ride a bike (or young bikers who did not yet drive a car). The same situation arises with surfers who never tried a SUP or SUPers who do not have a surfing background (same with surf skis, bodyboarders, bodysurfers, kiters, windsurfers, ...) With time, familliarity with the way the other populations behave will bring back (some) safety.
Mum October 19, 2012 at 03:54 PM
Now matter how you spin it; an SUP in the line up operated by an Ocean beginner (now matter how fit and "cross trained")is a recipe for disaster. Everybody should be able to have a good time. But please, let's have some common sense out there.


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