Balanced atop a wobbly 11-foot board, knees bent, arms wielding a long angled paddle, I took a deep breath and braced myself for the boat wake that rip curled towards me. Not far from the kelp forests, rock cliffs and sandy white shorelines of Newport Beach California, there I was, a student at Stand-Up Paddle Boarding Boot Camp, trying my best to learn a new sport, get some exercise and not topple face first into the freezing cold waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Stand Up Paddle Boarding (a.k.a stand-up paddling or just SUP to those in the know) is an emerging activity that is growing in popularity all over the world. Health and fitness experts are boasting about its cross-training benefits, claiming that it helps strengthen the core, improve posture and sculpt the buns, thighs and abs.

Modern SUP began in Hawaii in the 1960’s with the ‘Beach Boys of Waikiki.’ These water sports instructors would use their long boards and outrigger paddles to navigate the ocean and monitor their students learning to surf.  In the early 2000s, Hawaiian surfers such as Rick Thomas and Laird Hamilton brought Ku Hoe He’e Nalu, (the Hawaiian word for SUP’ing) to the mainland as a way to train while the surf was down. Since then, this decade-old sport has exploded into the mainstream as a growing recreational activity.

Reid Inouye, publisher of Standup Paddle Magazine, says that interest for the sport has grown by as much as 800%. “We’re still in that first level of people finding out about (the sport). We had a competition in Tahoe five years ago, and seven guys entered. This year, there were 400,” he told a Desert News reporter in last summer.

While the hub of stand up paddling is concentrated along the Californian Coast, there are more and more companies popping up in “non traditional surf areas” all across North America, from New York, where you can paddle the Hudson River, to Nashville, Tennessee, Vail Colorado and the Okanagan Valley in British Colombia.

The Sup Spot an adventure company based in the Newport Beach area of sunny Southern California, is one of many companies offering stand-up paddle boarding lessons across all levels, from beginners who’ve never paddled, to hardcore racers looking to perfect their sprint stroke. Who better to teach a newbie paddler like me than Jodie Nelson, a professional surfer, the Sup Spot owner, and the first woman to paddle a grueling 39.8 miles from Catalina Island to Dana Point. Not only did she raise $125,000 for Breast Cancer awareness but she had a close encounter with a Minke whale that landed her a guest spot on the Ellen Degeneres show.

My hour-long crash course began with the basics: the correct stance and form, to paddling techniques and proper equipment usage.

standuppaddling2 (Jodie Nelson, professional surfer and my SUP instructor)

“A common mistake people make is holding the paddle the wrong way,” explained Jodie. “For a further reach and more efficient stroke, the angle of the paddle should be facing away from you, not towards you,” she continued. “Another common mistake is to have your hands too close together. Keep your hands shoulder-width apart, one hand on the center of the paddle, the other on the T-bar.  If you lift your paddle over your head, your arms should be at 90 degrees,” demonstrated Jodie, arms over her head like a sea-dwelling superhero.

Successful stand up paddling is all about balance, so, as I climbed up on the board, I found the center point, kept a wide stance, distributed my weight and slowly crept from the kneeling position to standing upright.

True, there was a little arm flailing and a few “whoas” did escape my lips but I’m happy to report that I didn’t fall in! Instead, I learned that I’m actually quite good at stand-up paddle boarding! Who knew? That said, before I give myself too much credit and quit my job to join the surfer circuit, I must resign to the fact that it’s truly a sport that anyone can do.

“Surfing can take years to master, but with stand up paddle boarding on flat water, people can get up on the board and start enjoy themselves in a matter of minutes. It’s low impact, it’s not intimidating and can be done in almost any body of water around the world by people of any age,” explained Jodie as we skimmed effortlessly across the water’s surface.

“Also, the vantage point from a board is a completely different view from a kayak or canoe,” said Jodie as she explained that in the protected area of Corona Del Mar, not far from Laguna Beach, the turquoise waters are so clear it’s as if you’re on a glass-bottom boat. You can spot brightly-colored orange Garibaldi fish, dolphins and migrating grey whales that swim alongside you. Jodie admits “I’ve seen more wildlife since I started SUP than I ever did all my surfing life!”

Skimming calmly and meditatively along the water, calories burning, arms and quads toning effortlessly, I learned first-hand that SUP is not just a growing hobby among water-sport addicts, it’s also a cool way for tourists to spend a day out on the water and sightsee as they sculpt.

For more information:

The Sup Spot Stand Up Paddling Bootcamp classes are held year round, through all weather conditions.  For more information, check out Hour-long private lessons are $100, semi private are $75 per person and $65 for groups of three or more. Classes are held in Malibu, Marina Del Rey, Long Beach, Huntington Beach and Newport Harbor.