Getting on board with stand-up paddling
Heather Goodrow vividly recalls the first time she witnessed paddleboarding — three years ago, during an ocean race at Salisbury Beach.
In a word, she was “fascinated.”
“What struck me was that many of the racers were in my age group, which made it seem more accessible,” said Goodrow, a 42-year-old West Newbury resident.
“There were also only four women competing. I thought, ‘I can and want to do that!’ I bought my first paddleboard just a few weeks later.”
Once she got comfortable, she was addicted, she said. Soon, her 9-year-old son, Jackson, was paddling too. Stand-up paddleboarding, often called SUP by its participants, is one of the fastest growing sports in the country, according to the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education.
“I often paddle alone, and found it was a way to reset and rebalance myself from the stresses of work, life, etc.,” Goodrow said. “When you’re out on the water, everything seems at peace.”
Stand-up paddleboarding allows practitioners to get out on saltwater or freshwater without needing waves (surfing) or wind (windsurfing or kiteboarding). Participants just need a board, paddle, and a sense of adventure.
“It’s very easy to get involved in [stand-up paddleboarding],” said Johnny O’Hara, a Gloucester resident who is a professional paddleboard racer with and owner of Precision Paddling Boston.
O’Hara recommends finding a local shop or instructor, like Cape Ann SUP in Essex, that offers classes and rentals and has been doing instruction for over five years
A wide variety of board designs allow paddlers to find the correct match for ability level, preferred use (recreational, racing, surfing, and even yoga), and conditions. Recreational boards are wider, more stable, more durable, and less expensive.
Race boards, often made of more exotic materials, such as carbon fiber, are lighter, sleeker, and faster, but cost more. There are shorter surf stand-up paddleboards, and inflatable “boards” with three-piece paddles that collapse into a backpack.
William Lawther has been surfing since he was 15. But stand-up paddleboarding gives him even more time on the water.
“We do get really good surf here in the Northeast, but there are plenty of flat days or just days where the waves are barely rideable,” said the 43-year-old Gloucester resident. “You can surf a 6-inch wave on a [stand-up paddleboard] and still have a blast.”
With a roof rack and straps to secure a board to a vehicle, the intrepid stand-up paddleboarding fan has almost no limitations.
“For flat-water paddling, there are many lakes and harbors in the Greater Boston area that offer more tranquil conditions and shelter from waves, chop, and winds of the ocean,” said O’Hara. “For open-ocean paddlers looking for more of a challenge, they can go anywhere at anytime.”
The sport is also scalable, offering as difficult a workout as you want.
“I refer to [stand-up paddleboarding] as one-stop shopping for the body,” said O’Hara, who grew up rowing dories and seine boats. “It incorporates muscles from toes to earlobes, employing lots of core muscles. I’ve seen amazing physical transformations of bodies, similar to those of CrossFit, using [stand-up paddleboarding] as an exercise tool.”
Starting June 18, O’Hara will teach a six-week course to help stand-up paddlers tackle the rigorous Blackburn Challenge around Cape Ann, scheduled for July 25. (Details can be found on Precision Paddling Boston’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/PrecisionPaddlingBoston).
Though racing is in O’Hara’s blood — he has competed in several international events as a member of Ireland’s national team — the 53-year-old instructor emphasized competition is not necessary to enjoy stand-up paddleboarding.
“First, just completing the Blackburn is a victory,” he said. “Where you place . . . is secondary. This is a physical and personal challenge of paddling 22 miles around [Cape Ann] in waters that vary from river, to ocean, to harbor, in conditions that can include current, wind, waves, chop, boat traffic, sun, and rain.”
Every paddler must be wary on the open ocean. O’Hara said budding stand-up paddleboarders should wear a personal floatation device and board leash. In cooler weather, a wet suit and booties are also recommended.
“Ocean conditions can changed quickly, so you must always check weather reports and self-monitor while on the seas,” he said.
A veteran marathoner and triathlete from Lexington, Marielle Yost, said stand-up paddleboarding is an extension of a life spent on the water.
“I’ve learned from all my races, as a triathlete and runner, that racing and trying new activities are great opportunities for making new friends and exploring new places,” said the 50-year-old Yost, a teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown.
“More importantly, as I see both of my parents now in assisted living, it’s important to live each day to its fullest.”
Best of all, said Goodrow, is that stand-up paddleboarding offers a great outlet regardless of her mood.
“It’s an activity I can do when no one else is around, or be surrounded by dozens of other people who share that same passion with me,” she said. “I love that I can share it with my son, providing us with an opportunity to talk and connect in a unique way. And I love the competitiveness it brings out in me.”
During a recent paddle on Chebacco Lake in Hamilton, her son offered a tip. “My advice is to never give up,” he said. “Don’t quit the first time you fall off. It will probably get easier.”