With thousands of miles of coastline and hundreds of rivers, streams and lakes, Florida is a paddlers playground. We've grown accustomed to seeing canoes and kayaks on the state's waterways, but there are more ways to get wet and get fit today than you might have guessed.
Last month's Shark Bite Challenge at Honeymoon Island State Park brought out paddlers of every persuasion.
But whether you hit the water on a paddleboard, surfski, canoe or kayak, the workout is still great for both cardiovascular fitness and core strength.
And there's no better sport for summer fun in the Florida heat. When you're done, just roll over into the water and cool off.
Here's a quick paddle sports guide from the Shark Bite Challenge. Maybe next year you'll be getting a piece of the action.
Nobody knows for sure who got the idea to stand up on a tandem surfboard and get it going with an extra-long outrigger canoe paddle. Some believe standup paddleboards (SUPs for short) trace to the early 1900s and the father of surfing — two-time Olympic gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku.
The sport went mainstream in the early 1990s, thanks to Laird Hamilton, a 6-3, 215-pound Hawaiian waterman probably best known for an American Express commercial that showed him sliding down the face of a 100-foot wave on a "strap-in" surfboard.
In just one decade, SUPs have become the hottest-selling water vehicle in Florida. They outsell traditional longboard surfboards and sea kayaks (at least on this coast), thanks in part to their quick learning curve and ease of transportation.
There are hundreds of SUP manufacturers selling their wares everywhere from surf shops to big-box discount stores. But remember — you get what you pay for. Count on paying around $1,500 for a quality board. Not ready for that kind of investment? Rental opportunities are plentiful.
Once a training platform and rescue tool for open-water lifeguards, pro paddleboards have been adopted by fitness enthusiasts as a way to cross-train. They are generally categorized by length: 12 feet or "stock"; 14 feet; and unlimited.
Most local paddlers opt for 14-foot boards because they are easier to transport. But the unlimited boards (usually 17 to 20 feet in length) are the real speed demons, best suited for open-water crossings such as the Molokai race.
The name is a bit of a misnomer. These high-tech water vehicles are best suited for open ocean swells, not breaking waves. They look a little like sit-on-top kayaks, in that they have a seat well and foot wells, with pedals that operate a rudder for steering.
Surfskis are long (19 to 21 feet), narrow (17 to 19 inches wide) and light (25 to 40 pounds), which means they move fast — very fast. A good paddler can reach 10 knots, which is considered quick even in a sailboat.
Though many paddlers get into the sport for good cardiovascular exercise on the water, more and more are moving on to competitions. There are more than a dozen surfski/sea kayak races in Florida. Most races are 8 to 10 miles, but there are a few longer ones, such as the world's most famous surfski race, Hawaii's Molokai Channel race, a grueling 32-mile paddle across some pretty rough seas.
Fast, so-called unlimited skis tend to be flatter and longer than "spec" skis, and are the choice of most racers. A used ski costs $1,000 or more. New skis can cost more than $3,000, with Kevlar and carbon-fiber crafts going even higher. First-time paddlers will find surfskis a little unstable. Don't be surprised if you tip several times.
The sport of outrigger canoeing can be traced to the South Pacific, where islanders used long, wooden canoes as their primary mode of transportation. The crafts were capable of navigating vast tracts of open ocean because of a simple device known as an "ama," or outrigger, which kept the boat from tipping over.
Whereas traditional outrigger canoes were made of wood and used for everything from commerce to war, the modern version is made of fiberglass and used only for sport. The typical outrigger canoe is 45 feet long, weighs 400 pounds and carries six paddlers.
Though the big outriggers are great for team sport, the small "OC1s" are the hottest seller in competitive paddling. The smaller, single-person version of the traditional Polynesian watercraft is user-friendly. Measuring about 20 feet long and weighing just 20 pounds, these carbon-fiber craft are light enough for one person to put on top of an SUV.