The History of Stand Up Paddle Boarding or Paddle Surfing

by WalkOnWater

Stand up paddle boarding has really gained popularity over the last decade, but it's been around for some time. Here's a look at the history of SUP and where it came from.

If you're at all familiar with water sports or find yourself at the beach a great deal, you've probably seen people hitting the water on a board equipped with a paddle to move. This sport goes by many names, including paddle boarding, stand up paddle boarding, paddle surfing, SUP or just sweeping. The original Hawaiian name -- Ku Hoe He'e Nalu -- can be translated to mean "to stand, to paddle, to surf, a wave." It's a relatively new sport but it has quickly caught on with water sports enthusiasts around the world. So, where did the sport actually get started? Here's a look.

Image credit: Franci Esteban

The Beginning of SUP

The sport definitely has roots in Polynesian traditions. SUP actually began in Hawaii -- where else? -- sometime in the early 1950's when the area saw a huge influx of American tourists eager to learn surfing, then a new sport. Many began hiring local beach boys of Waikiki to instruct them and, of course, take pictures. Because the cameras of the time were bulky and far from waterproof, some now unknown beach boy eventually got the idea to hit the water on a long board with an outrigger paddle to capture action shots of the surfers. This method made it much easier to get those shots without dropping an expensive camera into the water.

Slow Progression Through the 60's and 70's

Eventually, waterproof cameras went on the market and longboards got much smaller and the practice then known as beachboy surfing was still used to take up-close action shots of surfers on the beach. It took some time before people really caught on to the fact that this type of surfing could actually be really enjoyable. One famous beach boy of the time was John Zabatocky, who originally used his board and paddle to take pictures but eventually switched to paddle boarding as his chosen form of surfing. As one of the original pioneers of the sport, Zabatocky is still an active participant in stand up paddle boarding.

The SUP Popularity Explosion in the 2000's

For a couple of decades, paddle boarding remained a relatively unknown sport practiced mostly in Hawaii. In 2000, though, a long summer with relatively flat waves drew a number of serious water sports celebrities like Bruce De Soto, Brian Keaulana, Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton to using their tandem boards and a paddle to get a workout.

When they discovered how fun the sport really is, they began introducing SUP to a much wider audience. Brian Keaulana showed off stand up paddle boarding at the surf event Buffalo's Big Board Classic in Makaha and it wasn't long before people around the world were clamoring to learn more.

Laird Hamilton and Stand Up Paddle Boarding

Today, Laird Hamilton is probably the most well-known SUP celebrity. He got his start surfing in his teen's. While he was good enough to compete professionally in surfing, he wasn't interested in this aspect of the sport and saw it more as an art form. He is credited with pioneering the practice of tow-in surfing in the early 90's and continued to learn and master new water sports through the 90's, including kitesurfing, windsurfing and waterskiing. Eventually, he became a strong proponent of SUP. Despite many surfing purists who criticize him for this, he feels it a return the the original method of surfing practiced by Hawaiians for generations. He also teamed up with Bob Pearson to create a line of stand up paddle boards.

Laird Hamilton on Stand Up Paddle Board
Laird Hamilton on Stand Up Paddle Board

SUP Competitions and Events

Although stand up paddle boarding has only gained popularity in the last decade, there are now dozens of huge SUP competitions around the world. Stand up paddle racing, for example, has only been around for about 6 years but there are now hundreds of races worldwide. A good place to stay up-to-date on the latest competitions is Sup Surf Mag, which covers local, national and global events in the community. Here's a look at two popular SUP competitions and events you can watch in the years to come:

  • Standup World Tour - This surfing event started in 2010 with 5 stops around the world: Brazil, France, Tahiti and 2 stops in Hawaii. This competition is still growing and it'll take awhile before more people can compete, as it does carry with it some travel expenses.
  • All Stand-Up Paddle Surf Fest - This two-day family-friendly festival will enter its fourth year and offers a number of races, surfing events and games to participate in, as well as music. It's open to the public, donates money to charity and has categories for people over 60.

Getting Started

Do you want to give paddle boarding a try? The sport is easy to learn for people of all ages and requires only a piece pieces of gear. You'll need a paddle board, a paddle, comfortable clothing and a personal floatation device (PFD). You can also choose to get some accessories to make your experience more enjoyable, although it's not necessary. Walk on Water carries a selection of inflatable stand up paddle boards, paddles and accessories like paddle covers. You can start learning with a group of friends, by yourself on calm waters or in a group setting. Many paddle boarding classes are offered in major cities, especially throughout Florida and California. You can also try connecting with local SUP communities and organizations in your area.

SUP Paddles
Updated: 09/16/2012, WalkOnWater
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