Above The Waves

A first-time lesson in stand-up paddling provides some shaky moments—along with fun and fitness.

Photo by Meg Haywood-Sullivan/Aurora Open/Corbis.

It’s a beautiful summer morning down the Shore, the kind I’d normally spend lounging on the beach. But on this day, I’m going to check out a new way of enjoying time on the water—and get a workout in the bargain. I’m heading out early for my first stand-up paddling lesson.

I’m excited but nervous. I’m worried about falling into the water, about whether I’m wearing the right gear, about getting sunburned. I’m fairly active—I’ve even windsurfed—but on this day I am definitely feeling intimidated.

Maybe it’s because I am meeting my instructor at a place in Neptune called Shark River Bay. Just before I leave, my husband reminds me that sharks have been found in that bay before. In fact, the book Jaws was based on true events that took place nearby in the early 1900s. Great.

I meet my teacher, Jack Dwyer, on the small, scruffy beach next to the bay. We are the only ones around, except for a few die-hard sunbathers. Dwyer is 29, friendly, extremely fit and thoroughly tanned. He travels the world surfing when he isn’t teaching at the Jersey Shore. (After living in Manasquan last summer, Dwyer moved to California and found work as an engineer—what he calls “a real job.”)

Dwyer tells me that stand-up paddling—aficionados call it SUP—was originally the sport of Hawaiian kings. “No one else could afford to carve out such a big tree to surf on,” he explains.

Known as hoe he’e nalu in the Hawaiian language, stand-up paddling was revived in the 1960s by Hawaiian lifeguards to help them keep watch over swimmers and surfers. You stand upright on a surfboard that’s wider and longer than normal (up to 17 feet long) and use an extra-long paddle to propel yourself over ocean, bay or river. It sounds easy, until you hit some waves or a strong current. That’s where core strength and balance come in. The activity makes for a great workout.

The exact length and width of the stand-up board depends on whether it is used for surfing, racing or touring (leisurely paddling down a river or on a bay). Some boards are made of plastic with a polystyrene foam core, while others use a hollow wood construction; inflatable boards have also become popular recently. The boards usually have one or three fins, like surfboards. New boards cost from $600 to $1,500.

Stand-up paddling was popularized in Hawaii in the early 2000s by surfers such as superstar Laird Hamilton as an alternative way to train. Other surfers and celebrities—including Jennifer Aniston, Matthew McConaughey and Rihanna—soon caught the paddling bug and have helped raise the profile of the sport. It came to New Jersey about 10 years ago, says Shaun McGrath, owner of the Summertime Surf school in Belmar.

“Every year, more and more people are getting into it, especially people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are doing it to get into shape,” says McGrath, 29. “I love it because it’s a great way to go out and enjoy the ocean when the waves aren’t suitable for surfing. It keeps me in the water every day, even on the days when I normally would have gone to the gym to work out.”

Unlike surfing, stand-up paddling can be done on any large body of water. No waves are needed. SUP also gives the paddler a better view because  you stand upright, instead of crouching. That lets you look deeper into the water—at marine life—and further ahead, where you can take in the scenery, as well as incoming boats and waves.

To get started, I called Summertime Surf to book a class. I was advised to take my first lesson on Shark River Bay, where the water is calmer than the Manasquan River, the school’s other location. 

Before setting out, Dwyer teaches me the three things every stand-up paddler (and surfer) should do: check the wind; ascertain whether it’s high or low tide; and examine the surrounding geography. If you’re paddling on the ocean, you will want to check the waves, too. The best way to try SUP for the first time is to do it in a place where there’s very little current or wind and no waves, such as a bay or a river. Today, there’s little wind and the bay is exceedingly calm. I’m lucky.

We wade in until it is deep enough to mount our boards. Nearby, jet-black cormorants dive into the water, seeking breakfast. Otherwise, the bay is practically empty.

With my paddle in one hand, I clamber onto the board on my knees and slowly try to stand up at the center. It’s not too hard to do in the calm water—especially since the board, which has a traction pad for the feet, is so wide. 

Still, I’m shaky and unsure of my balance. We set off, Dwyer on his board alongside me. After a few minutes of paddling, Dwyer reminds me to push the paddle deeper into the water. I start to catch on. At his instruction, I point both feet forward, about shoulder width apart. I hold the paddle with one hand at the top and the other halfway down the shaft, switching hands as I switch sides. In this way, I can use the paddle to steer.

Just when I’m starting to have fun and feel confident, a large fishing boat passes by, sending its wake our way. “Paddle into the wave!’’ Dwyer shouts.

For a few queasy moments, it feels like I’m going to pitch into the bay. Paddling as hard as I can straight into the waves, I make it through. I’m a little shaken but still standing.

By the time we reach the other side of the little bay, I’ve worked up a good sweat. Dwyer instructs me to make long backward strokes to turn the board around. As we continue paddling, I realize this sport is a little like kayaking—quiet and solitary, it lets you get closer to nature and away from crowds. Looking down, I see a school of fish pass by; crabs and starfish are also visible. Dwyer says that dolphins will often come close to his board when he’s on the ocean.

I’ll have to wait awhile for that experience, since it’s much harder to stand-up paddle in the ocean, where you have to battle wind and current. That’s for far more experienced paddlers, who will even catch small waves and ride them, surfer-like.

After about an hour, the lesson is over. My feet are feeling a little numb and my shoulders are stiff from paddling. We’ve only gone about a mile on this day, but it feels like we’ve been out for hours.

I feel pleased with myself. I didn’t fall in or embarrass my effort; at times I probably looked like I knew what I was doing. I also had a great time. I assure Dwyer I’ll be back one day soon. For now, I think I’ve earned a bit of lounging on the beach.

Jacqueline Mroz, a freelance writer in Montclair, is still trying to find balance in her life.

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Getting Down With SUP
Here are some Jersey Shore businesses where you can try stand-up paddling for yourself:

Summertime Surf, based in Belmar, offers private stand-up paddling lessons and classes throughout the summer. Private lessons cost $75 per person for 75 minutes of instruction (including equipment) and are best for beginners. There can be up to six students per lesson. Classes for experienced paddlers cost $10 with your own equipment, $30 to rent equipment. (732-599-2700; summertimesurf.com)

Harbor Outfitters has six locations in New Jersey, including Ocean City, Stone Harbor and four in Sea Isle City. Private lessons are $70; $40 a person for groups of 3 or more. (609-368-5501; harboroutfitters.com)

Stand Up Paddle NJ offers one-hour lessons from $55 to $80 with equipment, depending on the size of the class. Contact George Borab (732-996-4710; standuppaddlenj.com).

 

 


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