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Going Down Wind

Posted on 17 March 2011

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By Georgia Suter

“It’s like you’ve been to another planet. You’re on your own, you’re on the water, it’s a peaceful environment…a total mind-body experience,” says Rick Drew.

Paddle boarding, a surface water sport, has been consistently gaining momentum since its origin in Hawaii in the 1940’s. The sport, which involves standing atop a long board and propelling oneself through the water with a paddle, integrates surfing with paddling and provides, as Drew describes “an empowering and refreshing” workout.

The paddling experience depends largely on the chosen body of water—“there’s distance paddling and then there’s ocean paddling,” notes Drew, who is manager of Main Beach Surf & Sport in East Hampton.

For distance paddling on the bay, “the board is going to be longer. Each stroke is more efficient, and the board goes further, faster and straighter.” For those that haven’t seen the sport in action, imagine an upright silhouette, gliding swiftly across the flat horizon. “The shape of the board is unique and specialized for flat water and mild ocean water conditions.”
For those that are more advanced and daring, downwind paddling, commonly called “stand-up paddle surfing,” requires a different board. “Downwind boards for the ocean have some rocker, so that you’re actually riding waves along the beach with the wind and the wave swell behind you, almost like a boat with the bow shaped upwards a bit.”

Outdoor enthusiast Lars Svanberg, owner of the shop, captures a thrilling moment in his blog entry about a downwind paddling expedition from Beach Lane in Wainscott to Atlantic Beach in Amagansett:

“This is when you start to synch with the wind, waves, tide and current. Your board rises up, the nose starts to pitch and you know instinctively that you are about to paddle down a six-foot rolling swell. You paddle quickly, feeling the momentum build, you pull hard over the edge…..ahhhhh, release. Now you’re flying down the face with all in your favor—wind, tide and swell. You keep paddling hard and you reach the next crest, a little lull as the board again pitches and the rise and fall repeats itself. Paddle hard, drop, glide, cruise, feel the flow, the momentum, you are one with the elements….”

For the novice, entry level paddling is best on the calmer surface of the bay and “with a lesson or a few days of practice, you can go out on your own.” For those eager to move right into an ocean paddle, Drew recommends taking a paddle surfing or surfing lesson, just to get an idea of how to get in and how to get through a break. “You don’t want to find yourself between the board and the beach — there are certain fundamentals of ocean safety that everyone should understand, and typically a lesson should be required if you want to paddle along out there.”

The paddle board experience is multi-dimensional, involving a careful dynamic between the body, the board and the big sea. Gliding upon the water brings a great awareness to the body and its movement. While a lesson can provide some key pointers, Drew explains that a big part of paddling successfully comes from learning to adapt to the changing rhythm of the water and the balance of the board.

“You want to learn about the tides, the winds, how your body responds to the board with your own weight distribution. There are certain skills that come in handy, such as correct stroke and then developing an efficient stroke. If you’re in the wrong stance, for instance, your knees might hurt—correct form is definitely important for an enjoyable experience.”

A precaution when cruising along is trying to avoid “pearling.” For those that have been more land-bound, pearling refers to the nose of the board digging or sinking into the water, causing the tail of the board to lift and the person to be ejected. This can also happen when one stands too far back on the tail, and the nose goes up and the tail starts sinking. “There’s a lot of footwork involved to prevent this from happening,” explains Rick. “You’re moving to the back and then to the front.”

Once acquainted with the dynamics of the board and the water, the physical benefits of the activity are enormous, providing a kind of heightened workout in one of the most serene environments.

“It’s low impact, good cardio and it’s great strength for the core. It’s becoming the off-day kind of workout choice for a lot of competitive trainers.”

Because the surface area of the board is so spacious, there’s room for doing more than just standing.

“Many personal trainers are even starting to use the sport, taking their clients out and incorporating yoga moves, push-ups, and squats, all on the board. All the benefits are accentuated because of the balance that’s required.”

Along with the health benefits, Drew elaborates on the empowering properties of the sport.

“There have been women that have wanted to go out on their own and kayak but they haven’t been able to get the kayak on their car. Now there are these paddle boards that weigh 15 pounds and you can easily be on your own with an amazing workout ahead of you.”

Opportunities for the curious abound and outfitters organize group paddles ranging from level-one distance paddles along the Montauk lighthouse, through Georgica, or circumnavigating Shelter Island. The group paddle sessions can be the perfect solution for those that are curious but hesitant about miles of paddling all on their own.

Completing an outing and returning to the land on the 14 foot board can be, as Svanberg describes, another journey in itself:

“Here comes the real challenge — getting to shore unscathed with your board and yourself all in one piece. I line up a huge outside set wave and paddle hard to catch it, knowing the last one has to be a good one. Got it, now the drop, stomp on the tail, bend the knees to absorb the impact and ride the white water home…timing is everything. Quickly I see a window of opportunity as I turn and paddle hard on the backside of a small roller as I approach the beach. The surge of water hits the sand and I glide on top of the foam ball to the safety of the sand.”

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One Response to “Going Down Wind”

  1. Dominique Mystere says:

    Great description of the challenge, technique and pleasure of paddleboarding.
    I didn’t know there were 2 types of board- I used the flat style in the ocean as well as the bay.

    Even if you’re older and out of shape, this is great. Don’t let age or weight keep you from trying it.


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