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Paddle Boarding History by Chris Ahrens

Posted on October 14, 2014

The Long Paddle Home

Morning, September 4, 2014, Cardiff by the Sea, CA.
There are no spaces left in the lot, so I walk the three blocks from my house to the scene of yet another petty crime as a two-to-three foot swell struggles toward a pack of swimmers, bodysurfers, bodyboarders, shortboarders and longboarders, all of who feel entitled to a share of whatever rolls in. The aforementioned sub groups have been locked and loaded in what could be described as a 20-year heat, a range war whose outcome is determined daily by wave possession. Sadly, that usually means the surfer with the most volume in their vehicle gets the most waves, regardless of ability.
While I’m contemplating the lineup, three stand up paddlers (SUPs) stroke quickly to the outside. One continues past the break, toward the kelp beds. One stands guard in the channel, waiting for whatever scraps swing wide. One attacks the peak like a shark in a tuna pen. As he devours every set wave, the grumbling in the lineup is nearly audible from shore. Before he gets another wave, three other SUPs have joined him. To my surprise, they hold their fire, and one of them apparently chastises the wave hog, who seems to take his scolding to heart and paddles down the beach. The other SUPs politely get into the rotation, sharing waves without incident until they paddle out a quarter mile, to explore the kelp forest.
This brings up a question of resource management. In this case the resources (waves) are limited. What is virtually unlimited is the greater portion of the ocean, a vast liquid world where nobody objects to whatever non-motorized vehicle someone brings to the party.
While an increasing number of SUPs are venturing beyond the surf zone, many of them still want to ride waves. They have the right, but few among them would disagree that it seems fair for someone with superior paddle power to give way to some with less.

Surf’s packed and not worth a go on my 7’0” anyway, so I spin on my heel and begin my march back home, mumbling beneath my breath as I retreat. One guy in particular attracts my venom as he walks by dumbly smiling, dragging two drugstore sponges by their leashes through the sand. I gaze downward as I pass and mutter something nasty, just beyond earshot. That’s when I notice his artificial leg. Right then and there I vow never to judge anyone by his or her choice of surf craft, again. Although it takes less than a week for me to break my vow, this encounter forces me to contemplate what vehicles should be allowed in the lineup. While the simple answer is all of them, safety and common sense eliminates vessels like powerboats and six-man outriggers in crowded conditions. SUPS? Maybe. Maybe not. Should they be regulated? Segregated? If so, what regulation of high-volume longboards?

It’s not the board, it’s the rider.
--Unwritten longboard proverb

Skip Frye often rides boards over 10-feet long and it’s never been a problem for anyone, to my knowledge. Well, maybe for one guy. Someone recently heard a beginner with a department store softboard and paddle gloves call Frye, whom many regard as the patron saint of style and grace a kook, rebuking the legendary Frye for catching what he deemed “too many waves.” Forever the gentleman, Frye, who never interferes with anyone, simply paddled in without a word. I can’t explain why this guy was wrong, but we all know he was.
There is a group of amputee kayakers who ride Cardiff regularly. Most everybody is stoked to see them enjoying a temporary reprieve from immobility and gladly share the lineup with them. It seems that regulating the break according to vehicle type is no easier than deciding who is a kook.
Hawaiian bodysurfing legend, Mark Cunningham, who jokingly calls himself “the lowest life form on the totem pole,” drives the nail home. “In Hawaii there seems to be a lot less prejudice about the type of craft you ride than there is in the Mainland. Nobody would call Brian Keaulana a kook because of the craft he’s riding.”

Searching for the original SUP

According to Wikipedia, “The popularity of the modern sport of SUPing has its origin in the Hawaiian Islands. In the early 1960s, the beach boys of Waikiki would stand on their long boards, and paddle out with outrigger paddles to take pictures of the tourists learning to surf. This is where the term ‘beach boy surfing,’ another name for Stand Up Paddle Surfing, originates.”
If SUPing was “beach boy surfing” in Hawaii in the ‘60s, there should be reels of film, stacks of photos and countless words from the not so distant past. But Wikipedia is partially correct, as some beach boys were among the first to ride SUPs. John “Pops” Achoy ranks with the most notable among them, and he passed on the sport to his sons Leroy, Ricky and Bobby, who was unique in the late ‘70s, using a longboard with a paddle to take photos of tourists.
Pipe master, SUP convert, Gerry Lopez, who grew up surfing Waikiki recalls seeing only one surfer riding the South Shore’s outside reefs with the assistance of a paddle in the ‘60s. Prior to that, he heard rumors of the legendary Scooter Boy using a paddle while riding Waikiki with his dog, Sandy, in the 1940s.
Doc Paskowitz recollects seeing Duke Kahanamoku pick up a canoe paddle in the early 1940s and take his board out to the lineup to catch a few waves. We’ll never know if this was spontaneous on Duke’s part, or something he had learned decades before any of those reading this were born. Turns out the search for the first SUPers is something of a Bigfoot hunt.
Still, using a paddle with a surfboard seems obvious, after the fact. In Hawaii and Tahiti surfing and paddling are so closely intertwined that it would seem likely some ancient riders used paddles to catch waves. Ancient art pieces prove that ocean-going canoe riders caught waves standing on their craft. Is it surfing? It surely looks like it. Still, there’s little doubt that surfing for most of its recent history has been up the proverbial creek with nothing but arm strength to propel it.

To my knowledge there is no evidence that SUPing was in common practice until around the year 2000, when Maui locals and dynamic watermen, Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama inadvertently changed the surfing world. Initially, they used SUPs on tiny summertime waves that would not normally warrant their attention. Eventually they scouted out increasingly remote and otherwise inaccessible spots on SUPs, where they rode alone for years. Blame Laird (does anyone do that to his face?) or thank him, but lineups from Cardiff Reef to Broken Head are increasingly being ridden on SUPs.
Hamilton, who credits the SUP for much of his outstanding fitness, also says that SUPing has helped him stay interested in wave riding when the waves are as small as six inches. As the James Bond of the surfing world, Laird could make line dancing in cowboy boots on a skimboard cool. While SUPs may have caught on without him, the super hero’s endorsement has greatly helped SUPers gain legitimacy.
The biggest worry about SUPs, however, is not from traditional surfers who have grown up with surfing’s unwritten rules, but from inland, where molded planks are stacked to the rafters in department stores and their riders are multiplying like an invasive feeder fish waiting to leap over the dam and into the big saltwater pond. Kids locked into the middle of the country are weaned on images of wave riders, and with no ocean in sight, they do the next best thingthey learn SUPing in the local rivers and lakes and eventually head for the nearest coast, fueled by “North Shore” (the movie) dreams, to attempt surfboard riding. Older adults are often attracted to SUPs as body parts fail, to stay fit, as a check on their bucket list, or just because it’s fun. They’re all coming, but nobody’s leaving.

Rules, unwritten and otherwise
At this point cities are free to enact bans on SUPs at their discretion. Cities like San Clemente have done just that, by relegating SUPs to their own zones.
The blessing and the curse of SUPs is that you don’t have to be particularly athletic to use one, as kids skimming over lakes and bays around the world are finding by learning to balance and paddle long before they ever touch the ocean. While many see in the SUP industry realize this as a benefit to business, others fear surf-ready tourists will soon geometrically explode into already crowded lineups.
While some push to regulate SUPs, others worry that the resulting restrictions could make our sport far less free than it has been. The main three options in play are State regulation, self-regulation, or the increasing tension brought on by accommodating the status quo.

If you take too many waves here (in Hawaii) people aren’t gonna call a cop; they’re gonna educate you directly.
--Legendary waterman, Brian Keaulana

There have always been unwritten rules governing surfing. These were common sense approaches that attempted to help divvy up waves somewhat equally. Legendary surfer Sam Reid made as good attempt as anyone ever has in writing them down, 50 years ago:
1) First surfer on a wave has the right-of-way.
2) Paddle around a wave, not through it.
3) Hang onto your board.
4) Help other surfers.

Perhaps it was modern surfing’s (and SUP’s?) father Duke Kahanamoku who summed up the rules best with his version of surfing’s golden rule, saying, “Don’t hog all those darned waves.”

But some surfers don’t seem able to help themselves from hogging every darn ripple in the ocean. Of course not everyone with a paddle is a wave hog, and many are among the most courteous in the lineup. By nature, however, wave hogs are attracted to bigger surf vehicles the way their culinary counterparts are to bigger forks, something that is no problem until there’s not enough to go around. When called out for their gluttony, wave hogs often site Reid’s rule number one.
While effective in it’s time, that first item actually became obsolete during the longboard resurgence of the mid 1980s when there were suddenly two drastically different sized boards at the same crowded break, something that offered those on longer boards an obvious wave catching edge. Twenty years later, SUPs upped the game again, which may be nothing more than Karmic justice. According to surfing’s poet laureate Derek Hynd, “I note a certain poetry in longboarders being usurped by SUPs after so many years of longboarders taking advantage of their lineup power.”
How about updating Reid’s initial rule to read: “The surfer first to their feet has the right of way, unless they have a superior paddling vessel to another surfer competing for the same wave. In such cases, the surfer with the paddling advantage should yield to the surfer with less wave catching potential.” I know it’s ridiculously wordy and won’t fit well on a sign in Ventura’s C Street parking lot. I also realize that most surfers don’t pay attention to written rules anyway. As Hynd says, “There can be no unwritten law when there's no possible lineup authority short of physical intimidation.”
Dave Daum of King’s Paddle Sports agrees. “I don’t see outside regulation being the answer, and SUPers are self-regulating more and more all the time. There are still those who don’t get it, but whenever one of the regulars sees someone on a SUP doing laps in the lineup, they will probably talk to them and that usually corrects the problem.”
The SUP controversy may soon become a moot point anyway. Reid Inouye of Stand Up Paddle Magazine believes, as an increasing number of other do, that “The future of SUPs are not in the lineup anyway, but in offshore exploration.” If, in fact, droves of SUPers abandon the surf zone in favor of paddling further out to sea, this could, ironically, increase the average surfer’s wave count.
Scott Bass is a master of a large range of surf vehicles. He has been SUPing for over ten years, but has basically quit, except in small conditions, or to accommodate his sometimes aching back. Bass feels that the SUP dilemma will eventually self regulate, but not without the possibility of exploding first. “If a major lawsuit goes down against someone using a paddle, SUPs will either not be allowed in the surf zone at all, be relegated to their own spots, or have to stay 500 yards away from surfers without paddles.”

Pretty much anywhere you surf, you’re better off on a stand-up board.
Gerry Lopez

With few exceptions like Laird and Dave and now young guns like Kai Lenny, not many surfers can or care to ride powerful reef breaks on SUPs. A minority of surfers can handle waves like Pipeline on any board, so smaller, easier breaks tend to attract the masses. While these waves accommodate all types of surfboards, some people consider the innate glide of the SUP perfect for average and below average days, especially in Southern California where the surf rarely tops five feet.

It’s another packed out Memorial Day, and Joel Tudor and his oldest son Tosh have been enjoying a few decent waves at Cardiff Reef, before melting into the warm sand. Joel was one of the original SUPers at Cardiff Reef, but eventually dropped the paddle in response to not wanting to be a part of overcrowding. At one point Joel even considered helping get SUPs banned from Cardiff, but quickly realized the down side of increased regulation in the lineup. He’s been around long enough to believe that if given enough time and no outside regulation, surfing will regulate itself, just as it always has. According to him, “Self regulation in the lineup is already starting to happen.”

Although I live within spitting distance Cardiff Reef, I hadn’t surfed there in nearly five years, not since SUPs became a dominant force. It’s late summer, the weather’s hot, the water’s warm, the surf is a fun looking two to three feet and it’s a good opportunity to test the self-regulatory theory. In spite of being severely outgunned by the six or seven SUPs in the break, I prone paddle a thin 7’6” out, and brace for the assault that never comes. I am surprised to find everyone getting along and politely taking turns, regardless of board size. Everyone, me included, get a decent amount of surf, and I for one, paddle in satisfied.
It then occurs to me that long before SUPs hit the lineup, the surfing world was banging rails, flattening tires and sometimes pounding on each other over wave possession. So, maybe it is the surfer and not the vehicle after all. Regardless of what we ride, the hope is that we will eventually learn from our turbulent past, work out our differences, and attack our true and common enemies, polluters.
For now it seems things have indeed worked themselves out at Cardiff Reef, and I am encouraged they will in other parts of the world also. Our sport may have once again survived those of us who participate in it. All is well in the surfing world. But wait; is that the sound of a motorized surfboard on the horizon?

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