Stand-up paddling — or SUP for short — is taking the water world by storm. It's a tremendous full-body workout, it's versatile, and it simply bleeds adventure, since paddlers can take their boards almost anywhere they find water: to ponds, lakes, rivers, and even the open ocean.
“First off, anybody can do it,” said Andrew Kellar, a SUP enthusiast from Stratham, N.H.
“In flat-water environments, no matter who you are, what size you are, what sex you are, what age you are, you can get out there and do it, and within 15 minutes start to feel the flow, just moving through the water.”
Add a little healthy competition among your closest paddling buddies, and you have got a race series.
On Saturday, the Atlantic Paddle Battle Series resumes at Salisbury Beach, near the SurfSide5 Bar & Grill. Expect a crowd, since the number of races, and participants, has erupted over the past 4 years.
“Two years ago, there were absolutely zero races in Massachusetts,” said 26-year-old Danielle Schmidt of Truro, who won the Paddle Battle women's elite class last year. “Now there's one almost every weekend.”
Entering its second year, the Atlantic Paddle Battle Series reflects the growth of the sport. Much like windsurfing in the 1980s and mountain biking in the 1990s, stand-up paddling has captured the imagination of outdoor enthusiasts, and races are more like festivals.
“You could compare it to the biking or running communities. They do events and fund-raisers together,” said Kellar. “This is a newer sport, so there's a lot of excitement about it. Even though we're in our 30s and 40s and 50s and older, there's a sort of giddiness surrounding going to these events. And no matter how good you are or where you place in an event, everyone has fun.
“Then afterwards, everyone hangs out together on the beach,” said the 36-year-old father of three. “Our kids come with us, our kids paddle, my wife paddles, and that seems to be the norm. For us, up here [in New Hampshire], and in Massachusetts and out on the Cape, there seems to be a very similar feeling amongst other people paddling.”
The more experienced paddlers like Kellar, who finished second in the Paddle Battle series last year, can enter the elite category, racing longer courses on stock 12-foot-6 boards.
But anyone, including absolute beginners or racing neophytes, can participate in the open recreational class (there are also under-17 classes for young paddlers) using any board they choose.
On the local level, the Atlantic Paddle Battle Series “has taken the vibe of what they're doing on a national level,” said Kellar, referring to the Battle of the Paddle in Dana Point, Calif., which is considered to be the Super Bowl of SUP events.
“They've got money to win, prizes for [open-category] people who are doing it just for the fun of it. They try to make a day of it.”
The Paddle Battle events are spectator-friendly as well. Each race starts with the participants sprinting to the water. They then have to negotiate the on-shore waves to get out into open water, where the real work begins.
Elite racers must do three laps around a two-mile course, requiring intense effort normally seen only at the Head of the Charles (open-class racers do two laps). Then, racers must surf back to shore and sprint to the finish line.
“We do about 10-minute miles. We're pretty much in a full sprint, nonstop, for the entire race,” said Kellar. “You don't stop paddling, or you lose your spot.”
Competitors say they believe stand-up paddle races attract a variety of people because the sport is at the crossroads of many different disciplines. Many racers have a surfing or windsurfing background, while others are experienced paddlers. Kellar admits that stand-up paddling is his preferred mode of keeping fit for his true passion: surfing.
Conversely, John O'Hara, a 49-year-old painting contractor from Gloucester, grew up paddling.
“This is obviously a hot trend,” said O'Hara. “I'm sure it will peak, and level off, like everything else. But for now, it's the hip thing to do.”
O'Hara, an admitted “fitness freak,” graduated from rowing lobster-boat dinghies to Grand Bank dories and seine boats. He picked up surfing when he moved to California, but found New England waters too cold when he returned to Gloucester. Instead, he was introduced to stand-up paddling by the owner of Surfari Stand Up Paddle & Surf Shop in Manchester-by-the-Sea.
“Stand-up paddling is one-stop shopping” for the fitness buff, said O'Hara. “Everything is engaged, from your toes to your earlobes. Anyone who tries it the first time, the next day they comment on how their toes are sore from stabilizing. While your lower body is stabilizing, your upper body is doing the pulling. And you're rotating, so you're working both sides.
However, despite the obvious fitness benefits, O'Hara said competition adds another element that a simple paddle with friends cannot match.
“For me, it's about challenging myself,” said O'Hara, who won the Paddle Battle series last year. “It's challenging my age. It's not really challenging another person. In a race, sure, you've got other opponents, but you're really just challenging your own physical fitness, your stamina, your strength. And hopefully you pull off a win.
“But at the end of the race, it's amazing,” he said. "When I was young and competitive, which was more than 20 years ago, you'd lose a race and you'd be bummed out, and it would stick with you.
“With this, the race is over, and within minutes, you forget who won the race. There's such a great camaraderie. It's a very small community now, and it's a very tight community, and everyone is very supportive of each other.”