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Adventures in paddleboarding

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One of the best things about being part of the Cottage Life team is that we get paid to constantly think about the cottage. So it’s not surprising that the idea of trying new things on the water occasionally comes up in the office. Late one Friday afternoon, it was stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, that came to mind. It’s the latest trend, everybody’s trying it, and the more we talked about it, the more we knew we just had to get in on the action.

I headed down to the Habourfront Canoe and Kayak Centre in Toronto to give it a try. I met with SUP instructor Matt O’Brien, who first gave me an overview of the sport. Apparently, standing on a board with a paddle goes back thousands of years, though it’s only been done for sport for the past few decades. As for what to expect: A good core workout, sore arms the next day if you’re doing it right, and very sore arms if you’re doing it wrong. Good to know.

Starting out

After gearing up with boards, paddles, and PFDs, we headed out on the unseasonably warm waters surrounding Toronto Island. The instructor provided me with a brief lesson on launching the board. It’s important to watch the fin. The boards themselves are pretty durable, but the fins can be damaged. Without it, you’ll look like even more of a beginner when you can’t stop yourself from spinning in circles.

We waded from the shoreline until we were in about four feet of water, then it was time to get on the board. As it turns out, this is the easy part. Just pull yourself up on it enough to straddle the back end. From there, you can shimmy your way up to the middle.

O’Brien informed me that due to a lower centre of gravity, it’s generally easier for women to get going on SUP. Good news, considering I’m a little clumsy, and have been known to trip on flat ground. For that reason, I was uneasy about my ability to balance on a tippy board.

He demonstrated a knee stand as the first step toward balancing on the board. One leg at a time, with my hands lightly holding my paddle across the front of my board, I made the transition to my knees in the centre of the board. Stand up paddleboards are quite large and highly buoyant, so in this position, it’s hard to feel off balance.

Standing up

Standing up was another story. Standing up on the board is the same idea as kneeling—one foot at a time, slowly so you can keep your balance. At this point, the instructor took some time to teach me how to fall. My first instinct was to flail my arms and make a strangled yelling noise, which is an effective strategy for looking overdramatic, but is lacking on the safety front. When falling, the main objective is to protect your head from hitting the board. A good tactic is to throw your body in whatever direction you’re falling, and push the board away from you with your feet (yelling and flailing is entirely optional). Boards are equipped with a leash that is strapped to your ankle, so you don’t have to worry about your board taking off on you.

After a few wobbly moments and a fall or two, I finally found balance standing on the board. Many boards have a carrying handle in the centre, so that gives you an easy landmark for where to place your feet. With my feet shoulder-width apart, I could rock back and forth and usually still keep my balance. To paddle, you can either stand with your feet shoulder width apart at the centre of the board or, for some added security, one foot slightly forward and the other slightly back in a “surfer stance.”

Paddling

Next came paddling. The long paddles used for SUP are counterintuitive: Without fail, O’Brien says beginners will put the paddle in the water backwards, and so I did. Repeatedly. Fortunately, the instructor was there to remind me to turn it over.  The curve of the paddle is designed to give you a few inches of extra reach. If the paddle curves in toward you, shortening your reach, you’re holding it backwards.

If you’ve ever kayaked or canoed, you should be somewhat familiar with the basic strokes. The main thing to remember is to keep your arms extended, rather than holding them close to your body. This will give you a full range of motion and help you use your core to keep your balance. Keeping your knees loose and slightly bent will also ensure your power comes from your core, which will help prevent injury. And while beginners may feel like following through on the stroke is more efficient, O’Brien recommended pulling the paddle up just behind my body. Pushing it further only wastes energy.

Once you become comfortable paddling straight, it’s time to tackle turning. To do so, use a wide half-moon-shaped sweep stroke, arcing from the front of the board to the back. As a long-time canoer, I defaulted to the j-stroke, the way I normally would steer with a paddle. The instructor noticed, and commented: “You canoe, don’t you?” Expecting praise for my experienced stroke, I quickly replied yes. “Don’t do that,” he said. Of course, he was right. The pull of the water on the paddle while ruddering pulled me right into the lake—for about the fifteenth time that afternoon.

Which brings me to the most important thing I learned about SUP: It’s supposed to be fun, so laugh at yourself. You’re standing on a plank on the water and moving around a lot. So, until you’re a pro (and maybe even then), you’re going to fall off. You may as well enjoy the swim!