PINE ISLAND — Stand-up paddleboarding, "the No. 1-growing water sport in America," has arrived in Hernando County.
Delea Bowers of Brooksville, who offered the assertion, brought the endeavor, Nature Coast SUP, to the Hernando coast over the summer, launching instruction and equipment rentals at Alfred A. McKethan Park.
Stand-up paddleboarding, born in Hawaii in the 1960s, involves a surf board look-alike plus a kayak's hybrid paddle. The rider stands on the board.
"Is it harder than it looks?" asked Cari Schulman, a University of Tampa student from New York.
On Pine Island's shore, the 21-year-old sought the opinion of her friend, Elyse Fulton, as Fulton disembarked from her first voyage and waded to the beach.
"It's a little hard (on the arms), but it's so much fun that you don't notice it," the 23-year-old Fulton said beaming.
Fulton then explained the definite need for upper-arm strength as she paddled against a 12-mph wind on the return side of a small circuit on the island's protected north edge.
Bowers answered Schulman's query with a head shake: No, it's no more difficult than it looks.
Bowers had told the young women that she wouldn't give them a full lesson on their paddleboarding debut.
"At 14 mph (wind rate), I'm not allowed to let you go out. At 12 mph, I give you a choice. But not for a first lesson. It's a safety factor," she said, noting the middling whitecaps on the inland gulf.
With the women driving up from Tampa, however, Bowers wanted them at least to savor a taste of the sport.
First into the water, Fulton strapped on a loose ankle tie to the board and noted a life vest also attached, as required by law. At Bowers' direction, Fulton placed the paddle horizontally across the board, just forward from the board's midpoint. She knelt behind and knuckled the paddle, scooted her body around to face the board's prow, then hoisted herself upright, using the paddle for balance, like an acrobat.
Standing, Fulton pronounced: "Cool!"
The spoon-shaped paddle scoops the length of the board, Bowers directed. Fulton dipped two scoops.
"It's fun," she whooped back to Schulman on shore.
"Stand up straight," Bowers told Fulton.
On her inaugural foray, Schulman dropped to one knee when the board heeled slightly.
"I was a little nervous," she admitted.
"It's all about having a good time," Bowers said.
It wouldn't have been such fun on open water in a stiff breeze. Bowers mentioned a macho guy who insisted on going out in a questionable wind; she watched him paddle for 15 minutes without making much headway.
"Not fun," she said.
Bowers, 55, who learned the sport in Clearwater, has operated a mobile stand-up paddleboarding concession on Crystal River for a year and a half. She prefers reservations for instruction. She offers eight boards for rent — walk-ups welcome.
Bowers and her friend, Tammy Chapman of Brooksville, who rode the light chop as guard for the novice women, tested six or seven models of paddleboards before settling on the Liquid Shedder brand, a soft-sided, two-fin board with a non-slip surface, made from recycled materials. Her 11-foot models will carry up to 240 pounds; the 12-footers, 280 pounds.
Boards sell from $450 to $5,000, Bowers said.
"Oh, wow, was I low," responded Fulton, who had guessed them at "a couple hundred dollars."
Bowers showed the women a photo album of her students, ranging in age from 7 to 77. The eldest was a woman.
"Women do better than men," Bowers said. "They have better balance. They get right up."
Men seem to start out shaky, but by the time they return from an outing, "they've got it. They're smiling," she said.
"It's a great core workout," the instructor added.
And to emphasize the fun aspect, she said, "It's like walking on water."
Bowers has a contract with the Hernando County Parks and Recreation Department to operate at the park.
Department program specialist Harry Johnson said of the new offering, "We wanted to bring something like that. It gives use to our beach, a new experience on our beach."
Having sampled it himself, with others from the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce at a recent ribbon-cutting for the business, Johnson said, "It's definitely a workout. A good portion (of the people attending) got on the board and enjoyed it, and said they'd come back again."
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]