As stand up paddleboarding is gaining recognition in the Caribbean, it's also gaining a few new names. This surf-inspired sport is really a hybrid between paddle sports and surfing and is known by its enthusiastic fan club as "SUP "or just "stand up." It encompasses the benefits of the kayak experience – self propelled by paddles in a light vessel – with the thrill of surfing – catching "runners," (ocean swells that don't crest) for a long smooth ride.
Spotting a group of SUPers, can seem visually out of place at first. These "herons of the high seas," are standing upright on modified surfboards with six foot paddles, cruising along the open sea near reef breaks, or "gunkholing" in and out of quiet bays with mangroves. The sport is grabbing a following not just from the cross over surf crowd, but increasingly with soft adventure enthusiasts and families. The beauty is that SUP can be picked-up by a beginner in less than an hour.
Most boards range between nine and 14 feet in length (some longer) and provide a wide stable platform with a non-skid deck pad. The paddle motion is designed to make the board plane by pushing the water down and then dropping the pull for another reach. It's a great core work out that involves many different muscle groups and requires balance, agility and endurance.
Generally islands in the Caribbean that offer water sports such as surfing, windsurfing or kayaking will also provide equipment for SUP. In Puerto Rico, SUPers can take the nature route and enjoy Lake Carrizo (20 minutes outside San Juan) surrounded by lush hills or the Piniones Estuary (just east of Isla Verde), a mangrove forest inhabited by many varieties of birds, animals and sea life. Another two popular spots are San Juan Bay for off shore reefs or the Condado Lagoon.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the island of St. John boasts a national forest reserve which covers two thirds of the island. There SUPers can find hidden bays and coves only accessible by water. Last year three intrepid souls – two in kayaks and one on a SUP – circumnavigated the island for a story published in a popular canoe and kayak magazine. The adventure was described as both arduous and rewarding with the SUPer doing best on down wind courses and quiet bays. A SUP can support travel gear lashed to the bow with the paddler carrying additional backpack supplies.
The popularity of the sport in the BVI has grown as well. One used to see a few SUPers mixed in with the surfers at Josiah's Bay or Apple Bay. Now, it is not odd to see a flotilla of SUPs cruising the palm tree-lined shores of Brewer's Bay or exploring the quiet coves of Little Jost Van Dyke. Water sports centers in Tortola report an increase of charter yachts that request a SUP rental as part of their cruising water
Both Puerto Rico and the BVI have recently begun promoting SUP as a competitive event as well. The 2009 San Juan SUP Run In November was the first professional stand up paddleboarding event in the Caribbean, attracting amateurs and pros from California and the USVI.
This year in the BVI over the last week of June will be the 26th annual Highland Spring HIHO windsurfing races, which have now added SUP to the competition. Pros from the US, including Californian Ernie Johnson, winner of the pro paddle board event in San Juan, are expected in courses that vary from downwind runs to island circumnavigation. For more information on this month's upcoming event: www.go-hiho.com.
Jane Bakewell is a freelance writer who has called the BVI home for the last 15 years. An active supporter of the KATS program, she also ran a day charter/snorkeling business for five years.