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Stand-up paddle boarding came to the Chesapeake Bay region about seven years ago and shows no signs of waning. The sport is growing in popularity: There are paddle board races, paddle board team-building activities, paddle board yoga, paddle board youth camps and even a cool nickname for the sport — SUP.
While paddle boarding dates back thousands of years, the sport originated in Hawaii as a form of recreation when waves were slack. It’s a natural fit for the Chesapeake and its tributaries, where flat water and shallow areas dominate much of the landscape. And with more than two dozen outfitters around the Bay, it’s easy to try paddle boarding before making a commitment to buy a board and become a regular.
“The learning curve is quick. You don’t need great athletic prowess. In 30 minutes, you’ll be comfortable out there. You’ll see,” promised Hal Ashman, owner of Ultimate Watersports in Eastern Baltimore County.
Ashman said that paddle boards overtook kayaks about a year ago as his most popular rental item. People love them, he said, because the boards allow for exploring in “skinny water” that only a kayak or a small board can access.
Paddle boards are also appealing because they offer the “coolness” of surfing without the necessary athletic abilities, Ashman said.
Rentals and lessons are a great way to try out the sport before buying a paddle board, which can cost around $1,000 without the paddle. Many outfitters sell their boards at a discount after the season ends.
Ashman’s company offers basic lessons, and I asked him to show me how easy and carefree paddle boarding could be. I told him the same thing most people tell him — that I am reasonably fit, but also clumsy and lacking any semblance of balance.
He laughed. “Terrible balance is not a real thing. That is a perception. The trick is teaching a student how to relax. If you are relaxed, you are going to learn quickly,” Ashman said.
If I am not good at balancing, I am even worse at relaxing.
Ashman began the lesson by showing me how to hold the paddle and adjust it to my height. He explained how to turn around, how to stop and how to stop abruptly. Then we took the boards out to Dundee Creek, which is well worth exploring for its lush underwater grasses, a shoreline full of swaying reeds and plentiful wildlife.
We waded in to our knees. (In water more shallow, you risk breaking your fin, a $40 expense.) I knelt on the board and we practiced getting up, which for me was the hardest part.
After a few drills, Ashman asked me to paddle to a spot, then turn around. It was pretty easy until a wind came. He showed me how to paddle diagonally so as not to hit the wind. And when I fell off, he taught me how to get up.
Ashman carries a cell phone and a radio and requires every paddler to wear a life jacket. He said that he has never, in 31 years, sent a customer or staff member to the hospital. The most important safety rule he follows on the water is to never go out alone. That’s a good idea for many reasons but, in paddle boarding, it seems essential. I could not have gotten back on my board without his help.
Once I fell, I actually could relax. The wind died down, and we “downwinded” back to the dock. Paddle boarding doesn’t seem like a huge workout while you’re on the board, but the next day, I felt a burn in my core as well as in my ankles. It was nothing a little Advil couldn’t handle. And I can’t wait to be back out on the board again.
Dozens of outfitters in the Chesapeake region offer rentals and lessons.