Sunday, September 23, 2018

So you've seen paddleboards. What's the big deal?

It was springtime in Missouri, and someone warned a younger me about hopping on the kayak in the still-too-cold lake. Of course I got on anyway and of course I got soaked. So when I started seeing people standing up on wobbly paddleboards a few years back, many times in sweater weather, I wondered what was wrong with them.

What was wrong with them? Better question: What was wrong with me? Partly because of that learning experience years ago, I never gave paddleboards a chance. Plus, I just knew I would fall in, probably in front of a bunch of people who would laugh at me.

While I tuned out the sport, stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, had become all the rage.

According to the Outdoors Foundation, an estimated 3 million people in the United States took to paddleboards last year, up from a little more than 1 million in 2010, when the nonprofit, an offshoot of the Outdoor Industry Association, started tracking the sport. Tampa Bay businesses have sprouted up to sell new and used boards, craft custom ones, arrange guided tours and rent boards to vacationers.

At Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park, Darry Jackson, who helps run the store, said the boards are more than a product. They're conversation starters. When an enthusiast sees one atop another enthusiast's car, they talk about it — the differences in each one, the places to paddle, the techniques.

"We started selling paddleboards 15 years ago when nobody knew what a paddleboard was, and now we're selling pretty much as many paddleboards as we do kayaks," Jackson said.

Why the interest? What I never thought about before Jackson mentioned it was the vantage point you get. In kayaks you see the water at surface-level, but on a paddleboard you get a bird's-eye view.

"It's just like you're gliding on top of an aquarium," said Cory Rider, owner of C-RIDE SUP Board Shop, on First Avenue N in St. Petersburg.

Another reason is the wide appeal. You can race, fish, surf, do yoga, or simply tour. It's also a great equalizer, said Aimee Conlee, co-owner of Urban Kai, a board shop with a location in both St. Petersburg and Tampa.

"One thing we really love about the sport is that there's so many age groups, sizes, athletic abilities," she said. Depending on whether someone has the right board, "You can still all get together and have a good time."

The last selling point: fitness.

"You're using your whole core and a lot of additional muscles that in a kayak you don't activate," Conlee said.

"I'm not really a gym guy," Rider said. "Any way I can trick myself into getting exercise is good."

For my part, I tried out paddleboarding for the first time at one of Bill Jackson's free classes. It was fun. The murky water at Freedom Lake behind the store isn't conducive to seeing a lot of wildlife, but I got the point.

Jackson put me on a 12.5-foot touring board. I'm 240 pounds on a good day; Jackson said he would probably encourage shorter boards for smaller people. Making sure your body size and the dimensions of the board mesh is key, shop owners say. They recommend testing out any board before buying it, and all the shops I talked to offer that. It's good for customers to see what works for them, and it's good for the store, too, because once someone who is on the fence gets out on the water, there's a good chance they'll be hooked.

I was a little "tippy," as Jackson says, at first, but once I caught my balance and tried out all the different turns he taught us, it felt natural. One guy in the class kept falling in, and he was definitely embarrassed about it. He looked to be about 6-foot-3 and might have been heavier than me, and was on the wrong board. (He switched to a wider board with more volume later on.)

"That's going to be me in a few minutes," I said to a woman paddling beside me the first time he fell, remembering my general clumsiness.

Despite a few close calls, I didn't fall in.

Contact Jack Suntrup at [email protected] or (727) 893-8092. Follow @JackSuntrup.

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