Walk on Water

Story and photography by Holly Leitner

For thousands of years, men and women have stood on boards and paddled atop water. Ancient cultures throughout the world used boards powered by a long stick for transportation, fishing and just catching a wave. Yet the new boards that gracefully skim our lake’s shoreline today have transformed an age-old form of transportation rather quickly.

“It’s what snowboarding has been to skiing,” is a common buzz phrase about Stand Up Paddle boarding (SUP) or Beach Boy Surfing. SUP is the fastest-growing water sport in the world according to Men’s Fitness magazine. Local Geneva Lakes area outfitters claim that their SUP sales are 10 times more than the kayak or canoe sales. The SUP sport rides in the wake of the kayak craze, but offers potentially greater health benefits and something a bit different.

Modern day stand-up paddling is believed to have originated in Peru, says Michelle Peterson, manager at Fontana Paddle Company. It is thought that fishermen would paddle, while standing, out to their fishing boats. The easy method of transportation made its way to Polynesia. Vintage photographs from the 1940s depict photographers on SUP boards as they shoot photos of Waikiki surfers. These photographers and other hobbyists paddling around were referred to as “Beach Boy Surfers.” The fad made its way inland in the early 2000s, and then made waves toward the Midwest during the last decade.

“It’s really a full body workout,” says Shannon Blay, Adventure Club coordinator at Clear Water Outdoor in Lake Geneva. “You use your core, arms and legs.” Given recent research revealing the hazards of prolonged sitting, this interactive sport gets you up. Similar to yoga, the sport requires basic balancing abilities, which slowly strengthens and tones the muscles used to hold the position.

Not only is this a low-impact and strength-building sport, it offers a great vantage point on the water. You’re gliding above the water, able to peer down to what’s below. Over Geneva Lake’s crystal clear waters, that’s a big bonus opposed to other watersports where you merely get a view of the shoreline. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure sport, you can make it competitive or you can enjoy a Zen-like cruise. SUPing can also take you places where other watercrafts can’t go, for instance, to explore shallower waters of Lake Como or areas of Lake Delavan.

For some, the price point of a new board may seem high, as costs range from $300 for a polyurethane model to $3,000 for a carbon racing style board. But compared to costs associated with other means of getting on the water (boats, repairs, maintenance, storage and dock space), SUP is a very affordable option.

Getting Started

A great way to test out the waters is by visiting one of our local paddle shops, such as Clear Water Outdoor in downtown Lake Geneva and Fontana Paddle Company in Fontana. Both offer board rentals, sales, lessons and memberships.

SUP 101

Choose the right board.

SUP is something that anyone of any age can do. You just have to start on the right board, otherwise you’ll never do it again, says Sean Payne, Clear Water Outdoor Store manager.

Be in at least knee deep when attempting to get on a board.

There is a fin below the board so be sure not to scrape the bottom. Follow the 120 degree rule: the combination of the water and air temperature should total 120 degrees or higher.

Once on the board, start on all fours. Place the paddle perpendicular in front of you. Raise one leg at a time while maintaining balance. Stand with each foot around the handle in the middle of board. If you are too far forward, your board will be dipping into the water.

Now you’re paddling … keep that paddle close to your board. Your paddle is like your kickstand when in the water, it helps keep the balance. Lift the paddle out of the water around where your feet are—not any further back. The faster you go, the more stable you will be.

Have your Personal Floatation Device (PFD) on the board or wear it.

You are required to have a PFD at least on the watercraft. During the side seasons (spring and autumn), it’s best to wear the PFD because cold water temperatures can cause your muscles to lock up.

Clothing: don’t wear cotton.

If you fall in the water, it takes longer to dry. “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing and gear,” says Payne.

A note about safety: non-motorized watercraft have the right of way, but not all boaters know this. Be careful.

Let people know you’re going out.

If you fall? It’s ok, it’s just water.

Choosing your Board

“This is not a one-size-fits-all sport,” adds Peterson at Fontana Paddle Company. There are several different types of boards for each person. It’s best to utilize the rental programs at the local paddle shops, or try out boards that you are interested in purchasing. Fontana Paddle includes a one-hour paddle lesson with the purchase of any board.

Surf specific boards: Narrower, shorter, lighter, and have a skinnier nose and tail. These are designed for quick turns, high performance and are used mostly for surfing. They are not so great for long distance paddles, as they are less stable and you will have to do a lot of work to keep them on a specific track.

All-around/touring boards: The perfect beginner board. These multipurpose boards are typically much wider, longer and bulkier. They are much more stable and perfect for flat-water paddling. There are many options including displacement and planing hulls to choose from.

Inflatable stand up paddleboards: This is a great choice for those who have storing and/or transportation issues.

Racing boards: They are much longer, narrower and have a very pointy nose and a very long fin. They’re designed so you can stay on one track and cut through the water as fast as possible. Stability is low unless you are moving quickly.

Yoga boards: Designed as wider and longer boards. They usually have a cushioned top and places to hook up various exercise equipment or for securing an anchor.

Pedal boards: The latest craze in the sport, these boards have pedals and handlebars propelling the board forward.

“The sport just keeps evolving,” says Peterson. With the latest advent of the pedal board, who knows where boards will veer off to next. SUP isn’t going anywhere, so kayakers and other boaters, please make room.

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