ST. PETERSBURG — Bruce Denson is not a man prone to exaggeration. As a former prosecutor and now a criminal defense attorney, he chooses his words carefully. So when he says that he is "addicted" to stand-up paddleboarding, he means exactly that.
"I don't want to do anything else," said the 45-year-old father of three. "I'm serious."
Denson grew up in Ocala, attended the University of Florida and then moved to St. Petersburg to attend Stetson Law School. "Like all kids in Florida, I water skied, wakeboarded, basically just lived in the water," he said.
But then one morning three years ago, driving by Northshore Park, Denson noticed a couple of paddleboarders silhouetted against the rising sun.
"They looked so relaxed," he said. "I knew then that I had to try it."
Denson took lessons and eventually bought a couple of boards for the family. He paddled every chance he got, using this fast-growing water sport as a way to release the stress and tension from his job.
"One day it just hit me," he said. "Why not combine my passion for paddleboarding with my professional life."
Denson has many clients who find themselves in trouble because of substance abuse.
"I don't think you can find anybody today who does not know at least one person who has struggled with some type of addiction," he said.
The answer for many is therapy. Replacing self-destructive behavior with something positive, such as exercise, is often the first step for many addicts. So Denson approached some of his colleagues in the criminal justice system with an idea: Why not introduce people in recovery to paddleboarding?
His idea quickly gained momentum. A Pinellas County judge heard about Denson's program and began offering it as an "official challenge program" that gave participants credit against probation for participating.
"Since we began, we probably have had 40 people come through the program," Denson said. "The response has been great."
Denson's ideas about recovery and paddleboarding go hand in hand.
"Our program is pretty simple," he said. "We have five basic tenets."
1. Balance is the key.
2. Move forward under your own control.
3. It is easier to keep balanced when you are moving forward.
4. Always keep your eyes on the horizon.
5. If you fall off, just get back on the board.
Denson and his friend, Jon LaBudde of St. Petersburg's Reno Beach Surf Shop, formed a nonprofit organization called PaddleAddict.org. Their goal is to raise more than $20,000 to expand the program, buy equipment and pay instructors so the positive aspects of paddleboarding can be made available to more who may need it.
This Sunday, weather permitting, Denson hopes to hold the first stand-up paddleboard Race Across Tampa Bay. The 7.5-mile elite course, from Tampa's Picnic Island to Spa Beach in downtown St. Petersburg, will be a challenge for even veteran paddlers. But there will be a shorter, 3-mile race around the Pier in downtown St. Petersburg for newcomers, and even a kids race.
"We are going to keep a close eye on the weather and may have to adjust the course accordingly," Denson said. "We want to keep it challenging and fun, but safe for all competitors."
Competitors can register online or Sunday morning at Spa Beach, where the boards will be loaded and transported to Picnic Island. Entrants ($45 for the elite race) can also register from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday at Jonny Reno's on the Pier.
"We are bringing in the best paddlers from around the state, so you will see a high level of competition," LaBudde said. "But this will also be a great event for families and beginners, so everyone should come out and enjoy the party."
For information, go to paddleaddict.org or contact Denson at (727) 896-7000 or [email protected]