Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is currently the fastest growing water sport in the world. With origins in the Hawaiian Islands, the beach boys of Waikiki would stand on their long boards and paddle to distant reef breaks using outrigger paddles. Laird Hamilton and Dave Katama are credited with re-introducing this ancient sport to the modern world. Then, Vietnam vet Rick Thomas brought paddleboarding to the mainland in the late 1990s.

We carry two brands of paddleboards at St. Louis Sail & Paddle, BIC and Starboard, and we often get questions about how to get started in the sport and how to choose the right board. We reached out to Matt Lennert, our Midwest Starboard rep and founder of Windy City Waterman, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to growing the sport, to get his take on the subject.

Why do you think stand-up paddleboarding is so popular right now?

In part, because stand-up paddleboarding has a low barrier to entry. Almost anyone can get on a board and learn the basics in 15 to 20 minutes. You don’t need a lot of technical know-how, and the equipment is relatively inexpensive, especially compared to water sports like wind surfing, kite sailing and boating.

Because you have a great time on board, you hardly realize that you’re getting great exercise, developing core strength, balance and body awareness. Like with any water sport, paddleboarding gives you that great sense of freedom of being on the water.

Because paddleboarding is a relatively new sport here in the Midwest, people often ask me, “How do you pick a paddleboard?” What are your recommendations?

The first thing you need to know is that there are a number of directions you can take the sport:

  • Recreational paddleboarding, which is paddling for fun with friends or family and trying out different lakes and rivers,
  • Fitness paddleboarding can include strength training, aerobic paddling and SUP yoga,
  • Adventure paddleboarding includes loading up a board with camping equipment and going out for a multi-day expedition,
  • SUP anglers outfit their boards with rod holders and tackle. Because the angler is standing, he or she can see where fish align and cast accordingly, and
  • SUP racing has something for everyone. There are two-mile recreational races, seven-mile elite races and endurance races that can be several hundred miles. They can be point-to-point or a course around buoys. These events usually have a festival environment with paddleboard demos, music, food and activities for kids.

The second thing you need to know is that there are different paddleboards for each of these activities:

All-around paddleboards have a rounded nose and look like a traditional surfboard. However, they’re wider and more stable, typically 30 to 36 inches wide. All-around boards can be 10 to 12.5 feet in length and ride on the surface of the water. They come in a variety of constructions, from blow-molded plastic to wood veneer inlay on fiberglass. They work on the flat water of lakes and rivers, as well as for surfing. Being the most easy to use, most beginners start with an all-around shape. It’s a good choice for recreational paddling, fishing and SUP yoga.

Touring or fitness paddleboards have a pointed bow and are great for the flat water of our lakes and rivers in the Midwest. These boards are typically 12 or more feet in length. With their longer waterline, sharp bow and the fact that they displace water, these boards glide and track better. The boards range from 23 to 29 inches wide. They’re five to six inches thick, with tie-down points in order to handle gear. Touring boards are good for fitness and adventure paddling.

Racing paddleboards also have a pointed bow and are great for the flat water of our region’s lakes and rivers. There are two standards lengths for race boards: 12.5 and 14 feet. They’re narrower and less stable, making them a faster ride than the touring board. Typical width is 25 to 27 inches. While beautiful, these boards are stripped down and lightweight for more maneuverability.

And then, of course, there’s budget to consider.

Yes, you need to know how much a paddleboard costs and figure out your budget.

An entry-level board of blow-molded plastic is about $850. These super-durable boards can weigh up to 40 pounds. An epoxy fiberglass board can range from $999 to $1,699.

The higher-priced boards come with a cool-looking inlaid wood veneer. They can weigh 25 to 35 pounds. Carbon fiber boards range from $2,700 to $3,500. They have excellent maneuverability, with a weight of only 17 to 25 pounds.

Typically, if a fiberglass board is less than $1,000, the quality of construction has probably been compromised with only two layers of fiberglass and poor quality epoxy.

With all those variables, how do you choose the board that’s right for you?

You need to decide which board is the right fit. In the case of Starboard, every model of board is available in all the different constructions. To decide which board is right for you: First, pick the size and shape board that you want based on the type of paddling you want to do. Second, pick your construction based on your price range, volume and aesthetics.

Last but not least, you need to pick a paddle. Paddles are made of aluminum, fiberglass or carbon fiber. Aluminum paddles are relatively heavier and less expensive. Fiberglass is a good middle ground, offering lighter weight but still relatively low pricing. Carbon fiber is the best, offering very light weight, stiffness and durability but at a higher price point.

Paddles are either cut to fit your size or are adjustable. Adjustable paddles are a good option if multiple people are going to share the same paddle and board, like families, siblings and spouses.

If you buy a paddle just for yourself, you’ll want one cut to fit your size. They should be cut approximately 10 inches over your head. People often trade in and trade up boards but keep their paddle. If you’re purchasing a one just for you, you’ll probably have your paddle longer that your board, so it’s best to buy a good quality, lightweight, carbon fiber paddle.

So, what is next with stand-up paddleboarding?

It’s up to us! The publisher of Stand Up Paddle magazine, Reid Inouye, said, “[Stand-up paddleboarding] is still in its infancy, and it’s just going to keep getting bigger. The biggest growth now is inland, which, if you think of the U.S. with its tens of thousands of lakes and rivers, has limitless possibilities.”

So, here in the Midwest, we’re the ones writing the history of stand-up paddleboarding now.

Author: Amy Narishkin, PhD, is the co-owner of St. Louis Sail & Paddle
Image: Courtesy of Starboard SUP