So you’ve got yourself a SUP board, now it’s time to get out there and do it. It looks so easy and elegant, surely there can’t be that much you need to know? Just go for it, right?
Well, the reality is that lots of people do exactly this – and most get away with it, in that they’re still alive and breathing at the end of their session. However, it would have been obvious to every other paddler on the lake that they were ‘self-teaching’, because paddleboarding is one of those activities that isn’t anywhere near as intuitive as it seems, and there are a million ways to do it wrong. And while doing it wrong on a paddleboard is not in the same league for potential catastrophe as doing it wrong with a hang glider or a SCUBA diving kit, it can still get you into difficulties, cause injury through poor technique, or simply just make things a whole lot harder than they need to be.
So the best advice is most definitely to start your paddleboarding career off with a proper lesson. Any decent SUP school will have beginner-friendly equipment, you’ll get taught the right way to do things, you’ll get a whole heap of great (and very important) safety advice, and you’ll have someone who is hopefully lifeguard-qualified keeping a close eye on you while you’re out there. It doesn’t get much better than that as a first-time experience.
Unfortunately, though, we don’t all have a SUP school in our neighbourhood. So your next best alternative is to get some good advice. And you’ve come to the right place – in this article and video, we will take you through everything you need to know and give you a plan of attack for when you hit the water.
So let’s make a start.
Where to go?
Maybe you only have one local option for paddling, in which case it’s going to be picking the best day (or time of day) for the right conditions. Or you may have a choice of venues. So, what should you be considering? It’s easy – you just want the most benign conditions you can find. Mirror flat water and zero wind and current, if at all possible. The most ideal location would be a small lake or sheltered inlet so that there is always a friendly shore close by. Bumpy ocean conditions will make learning so much harder, and anything more than a light breeze is simply going to blow you away. This really matters! For starting out, you’ve got to stack the odds in your favour, otherwise, you almost certainly won’t be able to stand up and get paddling.
Not wanting to ramp up too much on the negatives, but the other thing you always need to consider when weighing up the suitability of a venue is which way the wind is going to be blowing in relation to the shore. If you’re on that small lake or inlet then even if the wind blows you to the other side it’s not a major drama. But if you’re paddling at a bigger lake or a coastal venue, stop and think – is the wind trying to push you out to sea? This is known as offshore wind, and they’re one of the biggest dangers for beginner paddlers. In early August (2022) in the UK, the local lifeboat crews in just one small area of the Welsh coastline had to rescue over 100 paddleboarders in a 48-hour period! They had all fallen victim to the ‘offshore wind trap’. You see, the problem with offshore winds is that they can feel light at the beach, but when you get a little bit further out to sea they get a whole lot stronger, and then you can’t paddle back against them. So stack the odds in your favour; don’t expose yourself to offshore winds.
Next up, let’s think about safety equipment. Don’t worry, we’re not going to be sending you out there weighed down with a tonne of stuff, but there are a couple of items you really do need. Most importantly, a leash. It’s the most vital piece of safety equipment you can have; the SUP equivalent of the seat belt. Without a leash, if you fall off it’s just all too easy to get separated from your board. Your board probably came with a leash supplied, but if it didn’t, be sure to get one. (A simple surfboard leash is fine in ocean and lake conditions, but not suitable for moving water,(ie rivers, strong tidal currents, etc). Click here for more information on this.
Next up, is some sort of flotation device. In many parts of the world, they’re a legal requirement and you’ll be fined for not having one, but even if it’s not compulsory, it’s just being smart to wear one. The ‘life jacket’ style of flotation coat – with a high collar to keep your head out of the water – is not really practical for paddleboarding, so the usual choice for SUP is a buoyancy vest; much less bulky and more comfortable. If you’re a competent swimmer and the water is warm then a great option is the ‘beltpack’ personal flotation device (PFD) that you wear around your waist, and inflate via a CO2 cylinder (like the ones on planes) if you need it. You won’t even know you’ve got it on, but if something did go wrong on the water it could save your life.
Finally, just think about what you’re going to wear. If the water is warm then it’s easy, you’ll probably be more concerned about not getting a sunburn (which is a very sensible consideration because you burn twice as quickly on the water!). If the water is cold, then a neoprene shortie or vest will be wise. You generate a lot of upper body heat when you’re paddling, and as long as you’ve got that leash, you’re never going to be spending too long in the water, so there’s probably no need to go for too thick or full a wetsuit.
And last but not least, something for your feet. If it’s a sandy or smooth bottom and warm water then barefoot is fine, but otherwise, wetsuit shoes or similar is great. Indeed you can use pretty much any footwear as long as it’s not tight – your feet tend to swell up a bit when you’re paddleboarding, so restrictive shoes are definitely a no-no.
Dry Land Practice
So, you’ve got your board, a paddle (hopefully adjustable in length, so you can set it to the correct size for your height; about ten inches taller than you are is a good ballpark size), a leash and PFD, and some suitable clothing – you’re ready to go! But don’t be heading to the water just yet – the very best thing you can do before you get out there is some dry land practice.
Spending a bit of time standing on your board and practicing the basics on dry land is hugely beneficial. (After all, if you can’t do it in your garden or lounge, do you really think you’re going to be managing it on the water??). Your garden is probably the best place for this, but the beach is fine too. Putting your board on grass or sand won’t hurt it. (Remove the fins if you can, or just rest the tail of the board on something to raise it up a bit).
In the video above, we show you how to stand on your board and practice the basic paddling and turning techniques.
The main thing to understand about the paddle stroke is that it should all happen out in front of you. This is another of those non-intuitive SUP things – it naturally feels like you should be pulling the paddle back past your body, but you really shouldn’t. That is just a great way to hurt your back, and it’s extremely inefficient too. Reach forward, plant the paddle blade on the ground up by the nose of the board, and drag it back to your toes, then lift and repeat. “Nose to toes… Nose to toes”. Easy as that.
Once you’ve done a few strokes on one side the board will start to turn, so you need to change your paddle over to the other side and do a few strokes there to straighten up. Remember to swap your hands over as well when you change sides with your paddle. The hand on the paddling side should always be the lower hand, and the hand on the non-paddling side should always be the top hand (ie the hand on the handle). As your paddling skills improve you’ll be able to do more strokes on each side before you need to change sides. But paddling on both sides is an important part of the whole stand-up paddling experience, so even if you’re already an experienced kayaker with a full repertoire of steering and draw strokes, don’t try and bring your J Strokes into your SUP paddling.
Next up, practice some turning strokes. Again, if you’re coming from a sit-down paddling background, then the same sweep stroke turning techniques will work just fine on a SUP. Draw those big rainbows; put the paddle into the water by the nose and push it out as far as you can, drawing a big curve that goes right round to the tail. The further you can get the blade from the board, the better the turn will be. On the water, you’ll probably find it much easier to start out with just half-sweeps or even quarter-sweeps, as it’s less destabilising. The main thing is that the paddle blade is pushing away from the nose (or tail) of the board, at 90 degrees, rather than pulling back. This is what will make the board turn, and you’ll know when you’ve done it right because the board will really respond!
The last thing to practice at this point is the ‘emergency stop’ – simply plant your paddle into the water (or ground in this case) at your side, and hold it there with the blade in nice and deep, and facing so it’s against the flow (ie maximum resistance). Your board will quickly come to a halt, skidding sideways as it does.
Once you’ve got the hang of doing it standing up, have a go at paddling from a kneeling position, which in SUP we like to call the ‘safe position’ because this should always be your go-to position if you’re in any discomfort, or struggling against the wind, or because it’s got too choppy or whatever. While it may be slightly less comfortable and efficient, it is always easier to paddle from a safe position. The paddling technique is essentially the same although this time it’s ‘nose to knees’ rather than ‘nose to toes’. The turns and stopping techniques are all the same.
This land practice really is time well spent. The most useful aspect of dry-land practice though is working out how to transition from a safe position to a standing position – in other words, the stand-up. There are various ways to do it, so play around and find out what works for you. Remember, it’s not a ‘pop up’ like a surfer does – you can take your time over it!
Work out how to get your feet into the correct position, while still down in a crouch, with your hands still on the deck of the board. The correct position when standing is for your feet to be around shoulder-width apart, equidistant on each side of the handle, and facing forward. Imagine you are standing on railway lines. Your toes should not be pointing out to the sides (we call this ‘duck stance’, and it’s how most of us normally stand. But that’s because the floor isn’t normally wobbling underfoot!). So you need to get your feet into this position before you stand up because once you’re stood up it’s a whole lot harder to move them.
Then comes the scary bit, the actual stand-up. You should try and achieve it by driving upwards using your thighs and glutes like you’re standing up from a squat in the gym. Getting your back straight, keeping the head looking up and forward and your butt down, puts you in a really good stable position – as opposed to straightening the legs first so your butt is higher than your head, and then pulling your upper body up with the head down, which puts you into a horribly unstable position.
If you don’t really understand all these muscle names and gym references, just simply concentrate on looking up as you stand up! Fix your gaze on some distant point on the horizon and focus on it as you stand up. Just don’t look down! It is pretty much the worst thing you can do, as looking at moving water is not in any way going to help your balance. And as soon as you’re coming upright, drop that paddle blade down so it’s contacting the ground.
Practicing all this on dry land will make it all so much easier when you try it on the water. Do it a whole bunch of times. Get the routine really worked out; exactly which body part you move in which order. It really will pay dividends.
Onto the Water
So now you really are ready to hit the water. This is how you should organise your session.
Walk the board out into knee-deep water, and then get on in the safe position. Paddle around for a bit in this position, practicing your paddling on both sides, changing your paddle from one side to the other, and turning backward and forward. Remember, when paddling in the safe position place both hands quite a long way down the shaft. Do not attempt to hold the handle with your top hand – this is an easy way to injure your shoulder, and also means that the paddle blade is probably a long way from the side of the board so that each stroke is more of a turning stroke than a forward stroke. Ideally, your blade should be going into the water close beside your board. Check that you are really getting that paddle blade fully immersed in the water, and that you have your paddle the right way round (the blade should angle forward, not back.). With your turns, really concentrate on pushing that blade out as far away from the board as possible – the further the better. You’ll know when you get it right because your board will suddenly turn really quickly!
Don’t rush this ‘safe position’ phase; this is time well spent. See how fast you can paddle in a straight line, and see how aggressively you can turn the board. It will all really help your control and paddling ability when you stand up.
The Stand Up
And now it’s time to try standing up. The ideal location for this would be water that is at least waist deep, but still shallow enough to stand up in, just in case you do fall and then have problems getting back onto your board. Most importantly though, just ensure that you’re on the smoothest piece of water you can find. Some instructors recommend doing a few paddle strokes before standing up because the extra speed helps stabilise your board. Personally, I don’t bother teaching this as clients find it distracting and actually the stability gains are minimal. But some people do swear by it, so feel free to give it a try if you want.
The first time you try to stand up, the board is going to feel very wobbly. But those wobbles aren’t actually coming from the board, they are being produced by you! Your brain is frantically trying to work out how to balance in this strange new unstable environment, and your leg and balance muscles are over-correcting, which is what creates the wobbles. Fortunately, it soon settles down. Stand up paddleboarding is just like riding a bike – once you’ve stood up once, your brain knows you can do it. From then on it’s that much easier. Just remember; keep that head up! If necessary, plant the blade of the paddle onto the centreline of the board and use it as a stabiliser to hold on to; this is entirely legitimate.
It may take you several goes before you stand up successfully. Get the paddle blade into the water as soon as you can, as this helps stabilise you more. Now – start paddling! Just gently, delicately, no big sudden movements. Keep your head up throughout. You will need to keep reminding yourself of this – just keep saying it to yourself, head up! Head up! Pick that stationary point to look at on the horizon. And remember to breathe. Relax, and in a surprisingly short amount of time you will find that the wobbling has reduced, and you’re starting to feel pretty good.
Well done! Welcome to the elite society of stand up paddleboarders. We hope you stay with us for a whole lot more advice and guidance on your journey.
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