You’ve probably seen them on your local waterway: people standing on surfboards, propelling themselves forward with a tall paddle, like a 21st century Venetian gondolier. A relatively new sport, stand up paddleboards (or SUPs) have grown rapidly in popularity, why is that?

SUP racing

Informal SUP races like this one, run by Eastport Yacht Club in Annapolis, appeal to a wide variety of ages, abilities, and paddling styles.

There are three great reasons why this odd-looking sport has taken off along coasts around the world, and they all revolve around easy access to the water. Stand up boards are lighter to transport than a kayak, less complicated to operate than an outboard, and far easier to rig than a small sailboat or windsurfer. As one of my sailing friends says about his own paddleboard: “four seconds to rig!”

In keeping with that easy access theme, you only need a few basic skills to stand up and paddle. So whether you just want to get out for a quick relaxing spin around the harbor or you’re itching to prove to all those other paddlers that you’re faster, here are some tips to get you started.

SUP sizes and styles

Even at the raceboard end of the spectrum, SUPs come in many different shapes and sizes.

Try before you buy

Board designs are evolving faster than you can say “SUP.” Shapes vary from classic surfboard to the more “boatlike” raceboards that actually have a “bow” and a “hull.” If you plan to paddle for leisure, a flatter board will be more stable. For racing, a narrower, lower volume board will be faster and more challenging. Either way, weight is important: lighter boards will be faster and easier to carry, but also more expensive.

Adjust your paddle

The recommended paddle length is 10 inches longer than your height. The exact length that feels right to you will evolve with paddling style, fitness, and board type, so it’s important to buy an adjustable paddle. Some paddles have a clamp that can be set at any length; others have pins for prescribed lengths, which will make sharing a paddle easier.

Calm day for SUP

A calm autumn day is perfect for learning to paddleboard.

Learn in very light wind

Most paddleboards have one small skeg, and even at 5ft 2ins my body creates a lot of windage. Since the board will be thrown off course by even a small puff, it is easier and more fun to paddle in little or no wind. (This is one reason the sport has taken off as a windsurfing supplement; it replaces downtime with a waterborne activity.)

Paddle it forward

When you reach into the water with the paddle, the tip of the blade should point forward. Although it might look weird at first, that gives you the most powerful stroke. Note: many hand grips are slightly asymmetric, so if the grip feels “wrong” try rotating it 180 degrees.

Find the “sweet spot”

Paddleboards are very sensitive to weight placement, both fore and aft and side to side. Start off with your feet about shoulder width apart, centered around the carrying handle. From there you can play around with small adjustments to find the best speed and stability.

SUP racing

Mike Higgins shows off his race-winning form: bent knees and straight arms.

Bent knees, straight arms

Balancing on the board will be much easier if you keep your weight low and forward, which means bending your knees. Both arms should be straight when your paddle grabs the water, which will remind you to engage your core and use the power of your entire body. Keep your arms straight as you move the paddle past your feet, and then bend your elbows to rotate the blade parallel to the surface of the water as you bring it forward again.

stand up paddleboard changing hands

As you recover your paddle for the next stroke, rotate the blade parallel to the surface to reduce its windage.

Switch hands

Because you’re paddling to one side of the board, you will have to switch sides every 6-8 strokes (unless you want to paddle in a circle). As you bring the paddle forward after a stroke, lift it over the centreline of the board and let go with your top hand. Grab the shaft just below your bottom hand, place your new top hand back on the hand grip, and reach forward on the opposite side of the board for your next stroke.

stand up paddleboard changing hands

Changing sides with the paddle becomes automatic after a few sessions.

Turn on a penny

When you are ready to turn around, reach behind you with your paddle and pull it forward. The bow of the board will spin toward the paddle. If you want to turn more quickly, step the foot nearest the paddle back toward the skeg to pop the bow out of the water.

Stand up paddleboard turning

Step back on the paddleboard to increase the speed of your turn.

Dress for success

Stand up boards may not be considered “boats” in your area, but wearing a buoyancy aid is always a good idea, especially if (like me) you paddle solo. Also, wearing something bright-colored will help other boats see you.

Leash it

Even in light wind, if you get separated from your board you may not be able to swim as fast as it will be blown away from you. Paddle leashes are available for SUPs, or you can make one: tie a line to a piece of velcro/webbing that will be your ankle strap, and fasten the other end to the stern of the board. My leash has a piece of shockcord woven into the core of the line, to take up most of the slack.

Stand up paddleboard homemade paddleleash

A homemade paddleleash attaches to the stern of my paddleboard. I also added a kayak-style handle for easy rolling on a beach cart.

Whether you crave more relaxing, mind-easing time on the water, or the heart-thumping challenge of competition, paddleboarding is a great addition to every boating lifestyle. It is probably the easiest way to enjoy the water, which is why you see so many out enjoying your local harbor, lake, or river. And best of all, it allows us all to channel our inner Gondolier.

Thanks to WhiteCap Video and Mike Higgins for the photos.

Written by: Carol Cronin
Carol Cronin has published several novels about the Olympics, sailing, hurricanes, time travel, and old schooners. She spends as much time on the water as possible, in a variety of boats, though most have sails.