Get on Board!

With a backdrop of majestically rugged mountains and tumbling gushes of waterfalls, you may be energized and awed by the expert surfers who skillfully catch long waves in the middle of Hanalei Bay. Or conversely, watching a beginner glide over the stillness of Hanalei River is often soothing for the soul.  Either way, the sport of Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP) will definitely capture your interest. “It's a magic carpet ride! Smooth and weightless on flat water, and a roaring rocket on the face of a powerful wave,” says Nate Burgoyne, Honolulu-based author of The Stand Up Paddle Book.

In recent years, many surfers, kayakers, wind surfers, kite surfers—watermen and women of all types—are eagerly trying out SUP because of its diversity in rides, from small to large waves and everything in between. Even if you’re new to water sports, it won’t take long to learn to glide confidently on a paddleboard.

Whatever your age or fitness level, SUP is a fairly easy sport to learn while serving as a great form of exercise—it improves balance, focus and builds strength and endurance in your legs, core and upper body.  It has been deemed one of the best workouts on the water. For your first time out, it’s best to practice on calm and flat waters to acclimate your balance and improve your stroke and technique.  “Relax and smile,” advises Burgoyne. “Take a lesson if you can. You'll have more fun and become proficient in just a couple hours with a good instructor at your side.”

An instructor can teach you basic body mechanics to avoid injuries, such as warm up stretches for your arms and shoulders. They can also provide tips on how to hold the paddle, advising correct form and wrist angles, while showing proper stances so that you’ll be able to position yourself and stand on the board.

Hanalei River is one of Kauai’s most popular and scenic spots for trying out paddle boarding because of its calm and shallow waters. If you’re like many other beginners and find yourself unsteady at first, it is easy to practice sliding back on the board should you fall into the water. The serene river is also ideal for perfecting your side-to-side stroke, a technique needed to control your board and to prevent zigzagging movements.

Other calm Kauai waters for beginning SUP enthusiasts are Anini Beach and Kalapaki Beach.  More experienced paddlers can be seen riding the big waves toward the white sand beaches of Keālia and Wailua. Even if you never stray further than Hanalei’s world-class bay, SUP will never give you the same experience twice. “The water, the air, the sky, the currents, the land onshore, and the marine life—it’s never the same,” explains Burgoyne. “Every time you go out on the water, you're stepping into a new adventure.”

Famed Hawaiian surfer, Duke Kahanamoku is often credited with inspiring the modern reinvention of stand up paddling, as the sport can be traced back to ancient Hawaii. However, it was a Waikiki beach boy in the 1940s, John Zapotocky, who decided that a longer rowboat oar would be more efficient than the shorter canoe paddle that was used by Kahanamoku. Interviewed after a recent ride on his home break on Oahu, the 91-year-young Zapotocky said, “I’ve been surfing for 65-some years and probably 55 years using a paddle. It’s a valuable form of exercise—anywhere there’s water, there’s room for stand up paddling.”

But SUP really took off after it was included as a category in the 2004 Buffalo’s Big Board Surfing Classic held on Oahu’s Makaha Beach. Because the paddleboard offers more versatility and can go greater distances, surfers were able to venture to outer reefs and less accessible surf breaks, greatly increasing the variety of conditions they could surf in. Recreational and long distance paddleboard racing has also become popular on rivers and lakes around the world.

Ready to get started?  You can pack light because in addition to your swimsuit, sunscreen and maybe a hat or sunglasses, you will only need a board and paddle. Boards for beginners are much thicker and longer than a surfboard, usually ranging in length from 12 to 13 feet.  “No shorter unless you’re an expert,” advises Tom Yotwongjai, an instructor at Kayak Kauai. “The long boards are designed for stability and glide,” he explains, “while shorter boards offer maneuverability for expert wave riders.”

The paddle used in SUP looks like a very long canoe paddle and works best if it is eight to 15 inches taller than the person using it. If just starting, Yotwongjai recommends trying a paddle that is adjustable in length so you can find your perfect stance on the board. There’s a wide variety of boards and paddles available, so you may want to try out several rental models before deciding to purchase equipment of your own.

Once the SUP bug has bitten and you go so far as to mastering the sport, you may want to test your skill at one of the many exciting competitions held in Hawaii or go as a spectator for the love of the sport. The Sunset Pro in February is a big wave stand up paddle surfing event on Oahu. Go to or for complete details.

But if you’re just looking for some recreational fun, renting a board or taking a SUP lesson could not be easier. Visit Kayak Kauai’s Hanalei River dock, where beginners can practice right on the river. Catching a small shoreline wave in Hanalei Bay is also just a short paddle away, and once you’re feeling real adventurous, you can head out into the large white water surf. Call (808) 826-9844 for reservations or visit them at

Also in Hanalei, Hawaiian Surfing Adventures is a homegrown company recommended by Laird Hamilton for lessons that provides surfing lessons and outrigger canoe tours in addition to SUP instruction and rentals. Call (808) 482-0749 or at

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