In Largo, paddleboard fans are a standup crowd

One wants to build up her biceps and triceps.

Another aims to explore the region's mangroves before heading back up North.

There's also a 40-year-old from Santa Barbara, Calif., who yearns for the days of jumping on his surfboard to catch waves.

Every Wednesday, you can find them all at Keegan Clair Park in Indian Rocks Beach. At just about the time the sun is making its final drop from the sky, they gather with their standup paddleboards at the tiny slice of public space on the Intracoastal Waterway.

In January, Steve LeVine, owner of Watersports West of Largo, began offering free paddleboard surfing demonstrations to a few of his customers. But since the weather warmed up in March, he is joined each week by more than a dozen enthusiasts.

"It's great how the group keeps growing,'' said LeVine, 51.

LeVine's name might be familiar to fans of the water: He also held windsurfing clinics for the public at the old Belleair Beach Causeway from 1979 to '89.

Some of the visitors take him up on his offer of trying out his standup paddleboards, which look like thick, wide surfboards.

After they find their balance, the newbies paddle close to the shore.

Others on the water are more experienced, like Gwen Whitsett of Largo. She has added the once-a-week event to her routine and brings her own board to paddle with the group.

"I get out on the water about four days a week,'' Whitsett said. "It's my form of exercise. You really work your arms, and because of balancing, your legs get a workout, too.''

Although the sport dates back to the era of Duke Kahanamoku in early 20th century Hawaii, when it comes to contemporary times, LeVine remembers first seeing standup paddleboarding 20 years ago.

"It started actually with people paddling on their windsurfers in the 1980s at the yacht clubs in the area,'' he said. "They'd take down the sails and turn the windsurfer into a big longboard with a paddle.''

At Keegan Clair Park, LeVine provides a few tips to beginners.

"Actually we first go over the rules of the road," he said. "We tell them to stay out of the channel itself, and instead stay on the close side of the buoy, away from the bigger boats.'' While kneeling on the board, which is typically between 9 and 12 feet long, LeVine advises the rider to identify the balance point.

"Usually it's near a handle on the board,'' he said. "Then it's important to push away from the shore, to get away from too-shallow water, other people and sharp objects on the bottom.''

And when it is time to go from kneeling to standing, the secret is in the paddle.

"It becomes a balance pole, like those used by tightrope walkers,'' LeVine explained.

Bobby Nelson, an accountant who grew up in Santa Barbara, heads to Indian Rocks from his home in Seminole several times a week. He spotted the group a few Wednesdays ago while driving over the bridge.

"I grew up surfing, but I moved here when I got married, and we all know surfing in the Gulf of Mexico is just not happening,'' said Nelson, 40. "But, even though the coast is tough for real surfing, I know I can always come out here and at least find comfort by standing up on a longboard to paddle.''

Does LeVine get concerned with public safety at his demonstrations?

"We have found the biggest problem with water enthusiasts is cut feet," he said. "We encourage people to wear protective booties because we've got a very live sea with very sharp objects.''

If you go

The place to be on Wednesdays

Watersports West of Largo holds standup paddleboard demonstrations at 5 p.m. Wednesdays at Keegan Clair Park, Miami Avenue and Second Street on Indian Rocks Beach. To learn more, visit watersportswest.com or call Steve LeVine at (727) 517-7000.

In Largo, paddleboard fans are a standup crowd 04/17/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 1:48pm]

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