What is this sport, exactly? You might call it a cross between a Venetian gondolier without the passengers and and a surfer with a long paddle. You may have seen "SUPers" out on popular surf beaches on Tortola, like Apple Bay or Josiah's Bay, the difference is the boards are longer and wider than modern surfboards and are propelled with a paddle not arms. The surprising place you might also spot these "herons of the high sea" is along the islands' quiet bays and inlets. The versatility of this sport is one of its biggest appeals.
I recently got a chance to try out my "water legs" in this sport on a bright sunny morning with the help of Andy Morrell, owner of the locally based HIHO water sports shops and clothing brand. Andy brought his 12-year-old son Joshua along (to make me feel better) and another veteran paddle boarder. But they needn't have worried; I was up on my 12-foot Starboard brand board in minutes gliding over the still waters between Tortola and Beef Island just beyond the bridge. I was aware after I pushed off from the shallow shore, that the small fin at the rear of the board was designed to keep me on course. I started my "reach paddling" rotating sides, attempting to get the maximum pull from my lightweight oar. I was amazed at how quickly I glided across the water without a lot of effort.
The first thing one has to learn to master is the correct balance position on the board. The ideal location, Andy explained, is generally close to where the natural hand groove for holding the board is located (about two-thirds away from the front of the board). This area has a non-skid foam deck pad for a good foot grip. The adjustable paddle comes in aluminum or even lighter weight carbon and is elongated to reach your highest arm stretch while standing on a flat surface. It is the flat side of the paddle that pulls though the water, not the curved side with the spine. The paddling technique is a basic canoe-style with a longer reach and shorter strokes. The trick of course is maintaining your balance with a combination of slightly bent knees when leaning into a stroke and a casual stand up position when gliding in between.
Wow, I thought as I glided along looking down through the shallow aqua water at rust orange starfish and wavy sea grass, I could get several friends hooked on this sport. Low impact, great core building exercise and could I really go so far as to say,
So easy a cave man could do it?
But of course we hadn't gone upwind yet or mastered the art of the wave. This is slightly more challenging and I soon learned the trick here is to "keep paddling!" I felt a bit like one of those runners on a treadmill – I was exerting a lot of energy but not getting very far. However, once out of the current and on the lee side of the island, I was back in the driver's seat again as we all paddled up to a sandy stretch of beach and got down to our knees to glide on the waves in.
Andy continued to tell me about this sport he likens to "a hike on the water." "Boards that are specifically designed for flat water paddling follow a straight course in the water. Wave boards have a more pronounced shape on the underside of the board called a "rocker," that allows you to turn into the waves. Paddle boards range in size from nine feet to 12 feet, much longer than wave boards. Frankly, I preferred my wide nose board and wasn't planning on catching any ultimate waves. I liked the stability and the ease of getting back on the board after taking a spill into the warm ocean waters.
Instructions on this probable event are: get back on the board first and surfer-style swim to retrieve your paddle next.
There are many ideal spots around the BVI to get started in the SUP experience. On the east end of Tortola, Well Bay, Beef Island is generally calm year-round and has some beautiful mangrove areas and interesting shoreline.
Trellis Bay is another good spot to launch from and is also home to Boardsailing BVI, a water sports firm where boards can be rented and pointers given by owner, Jeremy Wright. Brewer's Bay towards the west end of Tortola on the north shore is another nice launch site with a large bay to explore and interesting coral formations. If you are cruising for the week and want to know which other island sites are ideal spots, check with your local captain. Water sports stores in the islands can deliver to most locations and encourage the weekly rental over the day paddle offering a better seven-day price.
This will be the first year that stand-up paddle boarding will be an official competitive event in the annual Highland Spring HIHO Windsurfing Regatta held at the end of June. Andy Morrell, the event founder and organizer hopes to have between 15 to 20 competitors, many of these coming internationally, like California competitor Ernie Johnson, who has done a lot to bring recognition to this sport. There will be two types of races: island circumnavigation and inter-island downwind races, and as in all the HIHO events, fun and racing are mixed in equal parts.
For first-timers and families, SUP is a sport that can be enjoyed by all. A quick scan of Youtube videos shows a child of three beginning to master paddle boarding. Next time out I plan on taking my dog with me. There is plenty of room up front for her to also enjoy a hike on the water.
For SUP rentals contact: HIHO Watersports at 494-0337 or Boardsailing BVI Watersports at 495-2447.