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Looking for a way to explore Tampa Bay-area waters? Try stand-up paddleboarding

It’s a fun workout routine and relatively easy activity that can be shared with other water sports enthusiasts.
Published Aug. 4|Updated Aug. 4

TAMPA — It’s easy to get around on the water while sitting inside a kayak, as the mid-walled boat allows paddlers to stay protected from the elements while exploring the outdoors.

But it’s not as free or open as some would like, which is why paddleboarding has grown increasingly popular in recent years, especially since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Timothy Leonard, supervisor of the kayak and stand-up paddleboard department at Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park, said his department’s sales skyrocketed after COVID hit.

“I think there might be a little bit of a cool factor to it,” Leonard, 30, of St. Petersburg said. “I feel like the cool factor comes in when everybody can’t do it, and I feel like a lot of people ... think that it’s really hard (when it isn’t).”

After I spent a recent morning on the water with sports multimedia producer Rachel West, it was easy to see why many gravitate toward paddleboarding.

We explored the area around the Tampa Convention Center and part of the Hillsborough River with the help of Tampa Bay SUP (stand-up paddleboard) instructor Robert Rayle, who has worked at the company since March 2021.

As first-time paddleboarders, West and I were a bit anxious. But after some brief on-land instruction, we ventured out on the water, making our way up the river toward W Kennedy Boulevard. With every stroke, we grew more comfortable during our hourlong lesson, even rediscovering our core muscles and balancing skills.

Instructor Robert Rayle, left, helps Times sports multimedia producer Rachel West get on a paddleboard near Tampa Bay SUP in Tampa.
Instructor Robert Rayle, left, helps Times sports multimedia producer Rachel West get on a paddleboard near Tampa Bay SUP in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Rayle said after a paddler’s first time, it’s pretty easy to get them hooked.

“It’s hard to trust something on the water when it’s made of fiberglass, styrofoam and anything,” Rayle said. “So once you get used to it, it becomes pretty much natural.”

Unlike kayaking, I liked having the options to paddle while seated, kneeling or standing on the board. And to my surprise, it was easier to maneuver from stance to stance when I tired of one.

As an instructor and paddleboard enthusiast, Rayle, 26, of Tampa sees a lot of similarities between paddleboarding and kayaking but feels paddleboarding gives users a more immersive adventure.

Instructor Robert Rayle, left, gives advice to reporter Mari Faiello as she paddles along the Hillsborough River.
Instructor Robert Rayle, left, gives advice to reporter Mari Faiello as she paddles along the Hillsborough River. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

In addition to paddleboarding, Tampa Bay SUP — which also has a location at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay on Bayport Drive in Tampa — offers kayak and pedal boat rentals, as well as eco tours.

An hourlong paddleboard lesson — which includes 15 minutes of introductory instruction — costs $50 for one paddler. Bringing a friend? It’s $80. For more seasoned paddlers, Tampa Bay SUP offers rentals by the hour, starting at $30.

As a near-lifelong Tampa resident, I enjoyed getting to see downtown from a new perspective. The experience gifted me a sweet photo opportunity, and the calm on the water allowed me to escape my ever-growing to-do lists.

The view of downtown Tampa from the water near the Tampa Convention Center.
The view of downtown Tampa from the water near the Tampa Convention Center. [ MARI FAIELLO | Mari Faiello ]

I wasn’t alone in those sentiments.

“A lot of people just want to be away from everything,” Rayle said. “So, find good ways to get on the water and be away from electronic devices or other people, sometimes. (Paddlers enjoy) getting away from everything else and just being on the water and seeing all these different things around here.”

Here are some tips for your first paddleboarding experience.

Know before you go

  • Don’t worry about bringing your own gear. Tampa Bay SUP provides users with a paddleboard, paddle and life vest.
  • Tether your dry bag or belongings to the handle on your board and use a lanyard to hold your phone or camera so you can move around with ease.
Rachel West, left, and Mari Faiello finish paddleboarding near Tampa Bay SUP.
Rachel West, left, and Mari Faiello finish paddleboarding near Tampa Bay SUP. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
  • The longer your stroke, the further forward your board will move, which also will come in handy when battling the current. When you’re standing on the board, keep your feet centered over the middle with a slight bend in the knees and your back straight.
  • It’s hard to balance with wobbly legs, which can happen when you’re first going out or after a long day (in our case, 45 minutes). Using your paddle as a third leg, as Rayle put it, makes it easier to re-balance on the board.

Safety first

What should I bring? A water bottle, snack or anything else you want (at your own risk). Keep small items in a dry bag. Wear sunscreen (or long sleeves) and a hat for protection from the sun.

A display of water sports gear at Tampa Bay SUP.
A display of water sports gear at Tampa Bay SUP. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

What if I fall off my board? Rayle recommends adults grab the center handle with one hand from the back of the board and use their other hand to grab the other side of the board and pull themselves up. Once you get your body on the board, shimmy up to the center and adjust as needed to get back into a kneeling position. Kids, who have less of a chance of slipping due to their weight, should grab the handle and pull themselves up from the middle of the board.

What if I see wildlife in the water with me? Downtown, you might see fish or a manatee. Near the Grand Hyatt, you might encounter a stingray or even a shark. No matter the situation, Rayle said, the important thing is to stay calm.

“Getting stressed will cause more harm than good for yourself and possibly for other creatures,” Rayle said. “More animals are attracted to movement in the water, so when you fall off, there’s movement. But if you stay calm and get your nerves underneath you, then you should be able to get back on pretty easily.”

Have an outdoor adventure we should try? Curious about the ins and outs of fishing seasons in Florida? Know a cool business or owner to profile? Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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