Standup-paddle craze fueled, in part, by star power

Jennifer Aniston has tried it. Lindsay Lohan did it with a giant smile, before her recent troubles.

Pierce Brosnan, Jennifer Garner, Matt Damon, Ben Harper, Lance Armstrong and countless other personalities, along with thousands of ordinary people, have taken up the long paddle and climbed aboard a giant surfboard to workout or seek adventure.

They paddle, while standing, because it’s healthy, fun and new, and because everyone else seems to be doing it; and if they aren’t paddling on the ocean, they’re trying it on lakes, even swift rivers.

It’s called, simply, standup paddling (SUP for short), and whether people are in it for low-impact exercise or to actually catch and ride waves, they’re part of a craze that is sweeping the nation and the world, providing a powerful boost to a flagging surfing industry.

“It’s becoming a major force in surfing — which is interesting because it’s one of the oldest forms of surfing there is,” Doug Palladini, president of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn., told the Los Angeles Times recently.

SIMA will include SUP sales and participation figures in its 2010 Retail Distribution Study, results of which will be released next year. But it’s already clear that this is a genuine phenomenon.

Standup boards are outselling traditional surfboards by a 6-1 margin, according to some estimates. SUP boards, which sell for between about $500 and $1,500, have arrived at REI stores and mainstream sporting goods outlets. Even Costco is selling them. Many beach and lake concessionaires have added them to their fleets of surfboards and kayaks.

“I can tell you right now it hasn’t even begun to be as big as it’s going to be,” predicts Laird Hamilton, a legendary waterman and SUP pioneer, who has licensed his name to standup board designs for various companies. “I think that the number of people who are going to do it globally is going to quadruple.”

Hamilton, who resides in Hawaii in the winter and in Malibu during the summer, began experimenting with standup paddling off Malibu about 15 years ago, as a way to get into the ocean and enjoy a workout when the surf was flat.

Though ancient Hawaiians, even the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, had stood and paddled into waves, it was Hamilton, and later a few of his close friends, who began to refine equipment to help launch today’s SUP movement.

The sport’s beauty lies in its simplicity. You have an oversized surfboard, in the 10-foot range and much wider and thicker than a traditional surfboard, and a specialized paddle with which you propel yourself across the water or into waves.

But it’s not as easy as it looks. Paddling on flat water requires basic balancing skills, but on choppy water or in a brisk wind the balancing becomes trickier, and foot muscles asked to keep the body upright are the first to complain.

The larger the board the easier it is to remain upright. But smaller, narrower boards are best for those who want to ride waves.

I once paddled with Hamilton and was astonished by how much distance I could cover in a short time. As a lifelong surfer, I enjoyed the different perspective. I could see farther offshore and peer deeper into the water than I could while laying or sitting on a regular surfboard.

I felt the workout in my feet, legs and upper body, and realized this sport, or pastime, had potential.

Hamilton, though, has taken SUP to an extreme level. He and surfing partner Dave Kalama once paddled across each of the main Hawaiian Island channels, in daylight, darkness and on wind-blown seas. They did this to raise autism awareness.

They now use these oversized boards to ride monstrous surf at notorious spots such as “Jaws” off Maui and Teahupoo off Tahit. They use the paddles to help maneuver the boards in the waves’ sheer faces.

When asked about the appeal for celebrities and the non-surfing general public, Hamilton explained that SUP is far less intimidating than surfing and added that about half the participants are women.

“People feel secure because they’re not actually in the water,” he said. “They’re not sticking their arms in the water or having their legs dangling in the water. People feel safer and there’s something very elegant about the movement, and something primal about it, which draws people in.

“It’s a lot nicer than a kayak because your butt’s not wet and you’re not sitting down, so you can see a lot farther, and the perspective is unreal.”

Of course, the SUP movement has critics, mostly short-board surfers who do not appreciate the presence of a standup-paddler. Not only can a SUP surfer catch a wave outside of where a short-board surfer can, the SUP board is monstrous and can pose a danger, especially during a wipeout.

Some short-boarders do not regard people who catch waves via SUP equipment as actual surfers, but Hamilton presents a good argument to the contrary.

“The Duke did it,” he says. “It’s an ancient Hawaiian activity and technically it’s more like surfing in the true essence of what the Polynesians would call surfing.

“If I took a SUP board and paddle back to the ancient Hawaiians and showed them that and a a 6-foot thruster with three fins, they would understand the SUP board more than they would the little board. Half of these giant Hawaiians wouldn’t even be able to lay on one of those short boards.”

The Duke did it, Hollywood stars have embraced it, and Joe Public wants to come aboard. The surfing industry, to be sure, is not complaining.

— Photos: Laird Hamilton and daughter Reece paddle on a river, courtesy of Joel Guy (top, protected by copyright laws); Lance Armstrong paddling and resting, courtesy of C4 Waterman surfboards (middle); Laird Hamilton in huge surf off Maui, courtesy of Darrell Wong (third image, protected by copyright laws); man paddling with best friend off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, by Pete Thomas