October 3, 2012
Paddleboarding: The equal opportunity watersport


Paddleboarding is fun.

That’s my big take-away from the time I spent, over the past month or so, paddling borrowed or rented boards around Hatteras village.

I went alone and I went with groups. I went in the sound and I went in the ocean. I paddled quickly and furiously to get exercise, and I floated leisurely through the water, enjoying wine and sunsets with old friends. 

I even went on a tour with local guide and international paddlegirl, Jody Stowe, the proprietor of Sailor Jo’ Adventures in Hatteras, who—much to her credit—somehow managed to coach me through a sun salutation yoga exercise while we were gliding down a marshy creek.

Most of these trips went perfectly. Some, of course, were more challenging than others, and one ill-fated adventure ended with me calling my fiancÚ to come pick me up in his boat because I was unable to paddle against the wind and had gotten myself stranded on some sand island back in the sound.  Many lessons were learned that day.

Each trip was different, but they were all fun.

And before you conclude that I’m using “fun” as a euphemism for “just ok” or “not all that exciting,” hear me out.

When I say paddleboarding is fun, I mean that it’s genuinely, almost effortlessly, enjoyable—a fact that I attribute largely to its wide accessibility.

Unlike other popular watersports on Hatteras Island, such as surfing or kiteboarding, paddleboarding (also called stand-up paddleboarding or SUP) doesn’t require a lot of training, a high degree of physical fitness, loads of specialized knowledge and equipment, or heaps of time and money. It’s a low-risk, non-exclusive, cost-effective way to experience the island.

It’s the equal opportunity watersport. 

Stowe, a long-time Hatteras village resident who has paddled all over the world and who recently opened a SUP tours and rentals business next to the Sandy Bay Gallery in Hatteras, said that in the year or so that she’s been guiding tours, she’s only had one or two people who weren’t able to stand up on their board.

Most people, she said, were standing and paddling comfortably within a few minutes of being in the water, and few fell off their boards—almost entirely irrespective of age, gender, experience-level, and physical condition.

Part of that is because Stowe has a wide variety of boards that she matches to each individual’s needs.

Part of it is that she researches the wind and weather forecasts for each day and plans her outings accordingly, ensuring the smoothest, most enjoyable trip for everyone.

And part of it is that she’s a good instructor who doesn’t overcomplicate the process and who cares as much about building your confidence as she does explaining technique.

But the truth is, a lot of it just boils down to the fact that, especially as watersports go, paddleboarding is pretty simple. And for the most part, anyone can do it.

In fact, the only exclusion Stowe mentioned is the non-swimmer. Despite the relative safety and simplicity of paddleboarding, it is still a watersport, and participation is not advised for those who cannot swim at all or who do not swim well.

The fact that paddleboarding isn’t a training- and practice-intensive sport is what makes it such a great option for vacationers. You could spend five weeks learning to surf and never catch a wave, but you can spend five minutes learning to paddleboard, and for the rest of your vacation, you’ll have a unique way to explore the island.

Not only does that make paddleboarding fun, it makes it really cost effective.

Most paddleboards cost between $40 and $80 per day to rent, and a weekly rental will run you anywhere from $100 to $180.  Considering how user-friendly the paddleboard is and all the options available for use—there’s a lot of water around here—it’s pretty cheap entertainment.

And if you’re not sure what you want to get out of the experience, book a tour.

The one I booked with Sailor Jo’ lasted nearly four hours, and was customized just for me.  We paddled under bridges, past fish houses, and down marshy creeks, during which time I learned more about local geography, wildlife, and history than I could ever have learned from a book. And of course, I had the unique opportunity to do yoga while floating through the village creeks and harbors.

The whole thing cost me $60.

While Stowe in the only licensed and insured paddleboard guide on Hatteras, there are a few other options for those who want additional instruction.

REAL Watersports in Waves offers lessons and camps that focus on skills and ability training and allow paddlers of all levels—from beginner to advanced—to work with coaches and trainers to take their skills to the next level.  Beginners can take a two-hour group lesson (up to four people), for $100 per person, but all levels have the option of private lessons (for one to two people) that range from $75 to $150 per person per hour. REAL also rents and sells paddleboards. More information is available at www.realwatersports.com.

Kitty Hawk Kites has several locations on the Outer Banks, including Hatteras and Ocracoke, and offers rentals and lessons at some of the locations. Lessons are $59 for an hour and a half. More information is available at www.kittyhawk.com.

But, of course, the average, casual paddler doesn’t need that level of instruction to enjoy paddleboarding.

That said, while you may not need an intensive course, it is beneficial to at least get a basic level of training before venturing out into the great wide open. Spending even five minutes with someone who knows what they’re doing will vastly improve your experience.

I should know, since I did exactly the opposite. 

I decided to skip any sort of basic training, opting instead to just rent a board and start paddling, thinking that my innate athletic abilities and my Vibram FiveFingers footwear would be all the support that I needed. 

So, I spent a whole week propelling myself forward with the wrong side of a too-short paddle.

I also didn’t know how to launch or retrieve my board, so I could often be found awkwardly draped over docks and bulkheads, trying desperately to either get on my board before it floated away, or to fish it out of the water without falling in.

And one day, I laughed until I thought I might cry when my fiancÚ—who had spent a solid 10 minutes paddling around in circles and couldn’t figure out why—finally realized that he was sitting backward on his board. We had no idea that it mattered which end of the board faced forward.

It wasn’t until I actually went on the tour that I discovered how much more fun my adventures could have been. More lessons learned.

All things considered though, I had such a good time over the course of the past month that I talked to Stowe about buying my own board.

Like any other sport or hobby, paddleboarding starts getting more complicated and more expensive when you start talking about researching and purchasing your own equipment.

There’s more than one style board and just as many options for paddles. There are several different types of use (surfing, flatwater, racing, fishing, etc.), and there is a litany of considerations beyond use and style that should inform your purchase.

The good news is that even though paddleboards aren’t cheap—a used one can run you as much as $500 for the most basic model and a new one can cost anywhere from $600 for a lower-end model to well over $1,000 for higher-end boards—they can, once again, give you more bang for your buck than other watersports equipment.

Paddleboarding is increasing in popularity all over the world, and not just in coastal areas.

People are paddleboarding on lakes, rivers, ponds—any and every available and appropriate body of water.  You need not be on the Outer Banks to enjoy your paddleboard.

And what’s more, you aren’t limited to a particular season or weather phenomenon with paddleboarding—it’s a sport for all seasons.

A chilly, late-fall afternoon could be just as enjoyable as a hot summer day.

And unlike surfing or kiteboarding, you probably don’t need a wetsuit, even in cooler temperatures—at least not for casual, flatwater paddling—because you’re probably not going to be spending any time actually in the water. (Waterproof shoes might be helpful, though.)

Stowe was supportive of branching out and trying new types of paddling. In fact, she said that she is taking a couple boards with her to Pennsylvania next week, where she plans to do some white-water paddling.

So the next time you’re down here, and you think to yourself, “I want to try paddleboarding,” go ahead and do it.

It may not alter your life. It probably won’t silence your inner adrenaline junkie, and there’s a chance you might not even get a good workout.

But if you give it a chance, I bet you’ll have fun. 

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