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Postcard-perfect paddleboarding comes only in her dreams

CLEARWATER — Standing on a big board, I glide across the water like a hand over silk, heading toward the sunset.

I paddle peacefully with my trusty puppy pal Riley sitting in front of my feet.

Exercising without noticing, I don't even have to pose my sculpted arms so they will look skinny in this picturesque mental image.

At least, that's how I envisioned stand-up paddle boarding. That's what you see in all the photos showcasing beautiful Florida. And that's what I dreamt of when I bought an online deal to learn the water sport that supposedly anyone can master.

But no. There was sweat. There was splashing. There were literal cold feet.

Somehow, paddle boarding just didn't measure up.

We should have known. My colleague Shelley Rossetter and I attempted several times to redeem our Groupon — $40 for a stand-up paddle boarding lesson for two at Clearwater Community Sailing Center — but the stars worked against us every time.

It's too windy to go today, the instructors kept telling us.

Once, it hardly seemed so. Another day really was windy, so we settled in for an early happy hour at Shepherd's, a weather-resistant alternative.

When we finally caught a good day in January, the weather turned right before we started. Clouds crowded out the sunny day, the air chilled and breezes moved through.

This served as our downfall.

After our 10-minute dry-land introduction, our instructor, Erin, had us venture out onto the water.

Wearing bulky life preservers, Shelley and I stood ankle-deep in the intercoastal and wondered how to get on the giant surfboards in front of us.

At Erin's encouragement, we clambered on — Shelley swiftly hopping on, and me awkwardly lumbering on from my knees to a standing position.

All you really have to do, Erin told us, was stand in the middle of the board and paddle. Really. It's that simple.

And it was, even though I think we were doing it wrong, or at least not completely correctly.

For some reason, my board hardly budged an inch when I drove my paddle through the water. I could only turn in one direction — the opposite one from where I wanted to go. My barely-there biceps felt insulted.

A few times, the wind pushed me faster. I panicked, convinced my journey would end when I ran aground a few hundred miles down shore.

We rocked on our feet trying to keep our balance, jerking our bodies back when they swayed too far to one side.

Shelley stayed in the safe zone, puttering back and forth between two docks. Sometimes she hit one, which provided a nice opportunity to push off into the other direction.

She says the hour flew by, if only because she was trying so hard not to tumble into the water.

We are not exactly athletically inept, but we typically stand in the back of classes at the fitness center and make faces at each other.

Erin told us we slowly improved over the hour, our paddling technique taking on more of the proper straight-armed approach. We weren't the worst she's taught, though a man also taking the class far outshone us with his seemingly natural paddling ability and cool, warm-looking black wetsuit.

Defeated, I retreated to the office and called Tampa paddle boarder Nick Bjork to ask him what we did wrong.

"The biggest mistake," he said, "is not being on the right size board and in the right conditions to learn."

Bjork, 31, owns Solstice Sports in South Tampa and competes in paddle board races. He checks the weather report for minimal wind conditions to decide where in the bay area to teach paddle boarding lessons.

"If you don't get comfortable with your balance, it's really hard to learn everything else," he said.

Plus, he added, you can wear little shoes to keep your toes warm.

Then he painted an enticing, postcard-perfect picture of paddle boarding with manatees and dolphins.

"You'll be able to get it conquered," Bjork said reassuringly.

Shelley seems surprisingly open to the idea of trying again, even though she told me her favorite part was when paddle boarding got canceled.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

Postcard-perfect paddleboarding comes only in her dreams 02/04/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 4, 2012 3:31am]
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