by Gael A
One day during my annual paddle off western Scotland, while waiting out a gale near Glenuig and enjoying some familiar Highland music (howling wind, drumming rain, crashing waves, whistling guy lines), I lay daydreaming of my imminent summer holidays in Sardinia. What would be the best use of these heavenly three weeks of typical Mediterranean conditions: hot days, warm water and mostly moderate wind? I needed a new way to roam this now familiar place. I’d kayaked the Ogliastra coast several times, hiked most of the hinterland, and wasn’t interested in mountain-biking or climbing. I wanted to try something new and that’s when stand-up paddle-boarding came to mind. According to some fellow paddlers who’d taken up SUPing some years ago, it was particularly enjoyable on calm seas with a light wind, no current and insignificant chop, allowing the paddler to see deep into the clear water below and enjoy a higher-than-normal viewpoint.
Back home, a bit of sit-down web surfing convinced me a SUP board would definitely be my next beach toy. SUPing is a fast-growing sport (if not the fastest according to some) so there are heaps of manufacturers offering flotillas of models in various materials, shapes, sizes and prices. Moreover, a wide range of inflatable models are available in this booming market, and thanks to innovative drop-stitch technology, most can take up to 20psi, (1.38 bar) making them almost as rigid as regular solid boards. As in the realm of kayaks, iSUPs aren’t as sleek and swift as solid boards, but they’re said to offer reasonable performance as well the usual benefits of inflatables.
How I chose my board
In a nutshell, SUPs fall in three categories: short ones less than 9’ for surfing (the original purpose of the craft) and long ones over 12’ for racing, touring, and ‘downwinding’, which is surfing down big wind-induced offshore swells. Those in between are called all-rounders.
While sales people in shops advise a wide 30-inch plus all-rounder for beginners, web research leads logically to responses like ‘depends on your type of paddling’, just as with IKs. What is my type of paddling going to be? More or less the same as my IK-ing: coastal exploring mostly with the occasional bit of inland – ‘flat water’ touring in SUP-speak. Flat water might be any sheltered expanse of water, lake, river, inlet, channel or bay which doesn’t get too rough under the action of wind, though from my experience and that of many others, such ‘flat water’ can get quite bumpy at times. For that the longer SUPs are faster and easier to keep straight. More length also means more buoyancy and room on deck to carry a payload.
I bought an WSK 12’6” Race ST for around €600 from Kite Spirit near Auray in Brittany, not far from the Golfe du Morbihan, my favourite paddling playground. WSK is Kite Spirit’s own brand and is significantly cheaper than other top brands. It claims to be an original manufacturer, but all iSUPs are made in Asia. Sacrebleu: a French manufacturer using imperial measurements? I feel seasick! Someone call the Académie Française!
- 12’6” long
- 29” wide
- 5.5” thick
- 26.5 lbs
- 18 psi
- removable fin
- 4 cargo D-Rings
- 1 D-ring on the tail, 1 under the nose
As its name suggests, this board is supposed to be a race board which is why the width is slightly under 30”. Most touring/exploring oriented boards are wider than 30”. They are a bit more stable, but are slower.
ST stands for Super Thick. The advantages of this 5½” (14cm) thickness are stiffness and buoyancy. Stiffness is even more important for a SUP than for an IK. It would be very difficult to keep balanced on a sagging board, speed and manoeuvrability would be poor: for that we have Slackrafts. Buoyancy enables a heavier payload or paddler but it also means more windage. At 12kg the 12-6 ST is very comfortable to carry.
Unpacking the bundle
iSUPs are generally sold with a fin, a repair kit, a pump, a paddle and a carry bag. The 12-6 Race ST uses a US Fin Box: a commonly used slotted box that allows fitting various fin styles. You guessed it; mine is a classic style deep fin for all-around paddling. It’s held in position by a small screw and plate which requires a screwdriver unless you use hand-tightened screws. For both types I use my Gerber multi-tool that goes into my repair kit.
The pump (1.25 kg) is a tough, simple, single-action barrel pump with a built-in pressure gauge. The weak part is the cheap plastic tube that doesn’t inspire confidence.
The repair kit (183g) includes glue, patches and valve key neatly stored in an orange cylindrical container with enough room for other tools and spare parts. I added the multi-tool and a spare fin screw in it.
The carry bag is a cheap piece of canvas with shoulder straps which wouldn’t survive the rough baggage handling in airports. However it should survive a journey from a car park to the beach.
I bought an adjustable 500g carbon-fibre paddle which can be extended to the 225cm length I need. As a spare, I took a three-part adjustable (782g). By putting the blade on the shaft of my two-part paddle, I get a kayak style paddle for handling strong headwinds or swift currents.
Just as sure as the sea is wet I’m sure to fall off on the water but don’t want to be separated from my board. At sea any inflatable object will be carried away by the wind faster than most can swim. Instead of buying a fancy surf-like leash, I use my old wave-ski one which I also in my IK.
On a SUP you need to carry the same basic kit:
- Painter / towline
- Straps, bungee cords or cargo net to lash down equipment on deck
- Map (in a watertight case) and compass or GPS
- Safety kit (signalling mirror, whistle, flares, flashlight)
Much like with my open decked touring IKs, all the gear must go into dry bags tied down on deck. Multiple cargo tie-downs allow for a large quantity of gear to be carried on the nose and tail. While my 12.6 ST sports four D-rings on the front deck, I purchased four more from the local Red Paddle reseller (sold without the plastic ring) to be glued on the rear deck.
On the Water
End of July I got a chance to try out my SUP. On that day, after a late lunch the sky darkened with ominous black clouds over the Sardinian mountains. Most people left and we had the beach for ourselves – all the better for my first attempt at riding my board.
Conditions were perfect: no wind, flat sea, incredibly warm water. As advised in all beginner lessons I’d watched on youtube, I put the board in a foot of water with leash attached, knelt on it and paddled 20 meters then tried to stand up.
I knew how hard it would be to just stand up and maintain balance and had imagined the first 20 minutes would be very frustrating for me and very entertaining for the spectators. Actually they were, even though the only onlooker was my wife.
To make things worse, I made some mistakes like wearing my Tevas instead of barefoot, not washing the sand off the deck, and falling forward on the board, as I did when I tried to stand up. Next time I fell in the water and soon I was exhausted. My knees were raw, my hands were bleeding and my chest and forearms sore from rubbing against the board.
Within about an hour, spent mostly swimming alongside my board, my balance improved enough to look up from my feet and make my first forward strokes. Like a kayak, the pressure of the paddle on the water provides some lateral support and when I gained some forward momentum I felt significantly more stable and my confidence increased. Now I could stand for 20 minutes at a time before falling while trying to turn too sharply or tipped off by the wake of some motor vessel.
The next challenge was to paddle straight. Since a SUP paddle is single blade, giving several strokes along one side then the other causes the board to yaw, even if keeping the paddle as vertical and as close to the board rail as possible. Although it proved impossible to achieve a straight line, switching sides about every 4 or 5 strokes produced an acceptable S-line while maintaining an almost continuous paddling rhythm. in spite of my precarious stance, my awkward paddle strokes were effective enough to drive me and my board along the desired route and reach the spots I was aiming at (buoy, yacht at anchor, jetty). The more proficient I grew, the more direct my course and the faster my pace became and the less I fell off.
Upon reaching my target I had to execute the next manoeuver in the learning path: turning. SUP turning manoeuvres are very similar to sweep and draw strokes with as a kayaker, with a big difference: in a stable IK, I wasn’t punished by a dip when I got it wrong!
A kayak has inherent static stability and a lower centre of gravity, plus the paddler is wedged in his cockpit and integral with the craft. That is not the case on SUP. Any force on the paddle tended to pull me off the board before the board turned. I had to bend my knees to lower my centre of gravity and pay even more attention to my balance.
Coping with headwinds
While paddling a kayak into a headwind can be frustrating, paddling a SUP in the same conditions is sheer drudgery. The board itself has a very low profile but the windage of the standing paddler is huge. In addition to the effort required to push into the wind, you of course have to deal with the wind-induced chop which sometimes gets the better of you.
The recommended tactic in a strong headwind is to kneel or sit: less windage, better balance. Should I have to paddle a long way against a stiff breeze, I’d replace my paddle handle with a blade and paddle kayak style.
On days when the grecale blew across the Tyrrhenian Sea I paddled up to a harbour breakwater. After a 50-minute slog and a bit of rest, I returned to the beach in 10 minutes, carried downwind by the breeze and gliding along the choppy waves.
My last year vacation ended before I got confident enough to try an overnighter. Now summer is almost there and I’m prepared to resume my SUP education. I still need hours of practice to improve balance and achieve longer paddling times before attempting a ten-mile coastal trip. So far, after an hour on the board, I badly need some rest. And SUPing makes me very thirsty too. In calm conditions I could grab my bottle of water when paddling, but not in windy conditions. I might consider buying a fancy hydration vest, or just slit open the back of my old pfd for a water bladder, as Chris has done (right).