The Last SUPper

Rob Gilley on where SUPs fit into our aquatic world.

The SUP is not always an inappropriate craft—just usually. Photo: Gilley

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

Recently a friend of mine took me to a hidden surf spot. Not a full-on secret spot really, but more of an out-of-the-way place that I had never surfed or shot before. The weird part is that it’s not too far from my house.

Even though it was a Saturday there was only a handful of dudes out, including one guy who was taking full advantage of this spot’s coastal privacy: a solo, stand up paddle surfer waiting way out the back. This guy was oar-stroking into capping set waves, fading, banking off the white water, executing a couple of on-rail turns, backdooring the shorebreak, and then kicking out right before dry docking on the sand.

More importantly, when this guy got even remotely close to one of the prone surfers, he immediately cut his ride short, kicked-out, and simply stroked back outside.

“Wow,” I thought to myself, what do you know, a polite SUPer who actually knows what he is doing. In addition to the guy I saw stroking from his moored sailboat to shore the day before, this was the second positive thought I had had about a stand up paddler in the past 48 hours.

Maybe pigs can fly after all.

Truth be told, I’ve haven’t really had many positive thoughts about SUPers ever since they started to populate our lineups over a decade ago. In fact, for the last 10 years I’ve been pretty vocal about my anti-SUP stance. For example, I often refer to them as “Oar Dorkers.”

It occurred to me that there’s a segment of the surf population that has absolutely no idea that some people are down on stand up paddling, so I thought I might explain how I arrived at my own position—a position that seems to be shared by a fair amount of prone surfers in my area.

But first we need to rewind the tape.

Not long after Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama were pictured oar-logging small Maui lefts in The Surfer’s Journal in 1996, a collective light bulb seemed to go off in the public’s mind. Almost overnight, everybody and their brother and their brother’s hairdresser wanted to try stand up paddling. For some reason, the visual message received by the herd seemed to be that if Laird does it, then they should probably do it too.

Since SUPing is a lot easier to pursue at surf spots with length and associated channels, our local point and reef breaks began to populate with groups of erect, oar-wielding zealots.

Problems began to arise immediately.

As it turned out, adding SUPers to already crowded lineups was like adding Sherman tanks to an already crowded freeway system. They didn’t mix well.

In addition to a select handful of talented surfers, this new sport seemed to attract three principal personality types: aging alpha males who saw SUPing as a way of maintaining their dominance over the pack, severely out-of-shape surfers who suddenly felt re-invited to a party they left years ago, and complete neophytes who thought stand up paddle surfing looked cute in a Nordic Track kind of way.

Irrespective of personality, about 1 in 3 of these new SUPers seemed to have a blatant disregard or ignorance of the unspoken rules for sharing the lineup, and would consistently back paddle the prone surfers who were patiently waiting their turn. In addition, even decent SUPers would lose their unleashed boards while riding, and these errant behemoths would plow through the lineup, cleave-axing all within striking distance.

As you might expect, this new SUP reality wasn’t exactly received well by many, myself included.

And it just got worse from there.

Next, SUPers, possibly emboldened by mainstream media coverage, the birth of a recession-proof cottage industry, and the existence of SUP boards at Costco, started to invade beach breaks. Near havoc ensued.

Not full-on pandemonium really, but ignition of new Waterworld realities in which SUPers, with feigned nonchalance, would routinely edge towards a pack of stink-eye emoting prone surfers in High Noon games of water-borne chicken, in hopes of raiding the kitty (the only relief coming when a peak would bottom out, and an unsuspecting SUPper would get unceremoniously rammed and dispatched to the pit, accessories and all).

Comic relief aside, it was only a few years ago that SUPers began to realize that they weren’t being received with open arms, and started to take the hint. Some of them began to abandon marquee spots for more remote reefs and would simply paddle down to the next break if prone surfers paddled out. Also, like the tide, SUPers seemed to recede from most our beach breaks. SUPing, at least for the time being, seems to have leveled off.

Which has provided a welcome break from the onslaught, and allowed for moments of reflection and clarification.

Watching this last talented SUPer at the hidden spot near my house was one of those moments—a pause when I realized that I’m not categorically against stand up padding. In fact, it’s nearly the opposite: I see SUPing as an extremely valid training and transportation means, an environmentally friendly motor-less activity that is a fantastic way of navigating still water, and, if the conditions are right, for wave riding too—as long as it doesn’t impinge on the nuanced realities of existing surf spots.

In the end, what I concluded is that my views on oars are similar to my views on hand guns: most people can’t be trusted with them. So, like the six gun-toters who were required to check their pistols at the outskirts of the Old West, perhaps we should require SUPers to turn in their oars at the beach once they get a certain distance from a major surf spot.

Kidding aside, to seamlessly include SUPers into the democracy of a normal surf crowd makes for good parlor philosophy, but just doesn’t work in the real world. It’s just too apple and orange-ish. Too oil and water-ish. Too India and Pakistan-ish. And since prone surfers represent the vast majority and were there first, it is my opinion that SUPers should stay clear of crowded, or even semi-crowded surf spots.

And if you think that’s a harsh, elitist opinion, then you really don’t want to know what I think about goat boaters.