History of Stand Up Paddle Boarding

The History of Paddle Boarding Goes Way Back…

Stand up paddle boarding (SUP) or Stand up paddle surfing is an offshoot of surfing that originated in Hawaii. Unlike traditional surfing where the rider sits until a wave comes, stand up paddle boarders stand on their boards and use a paddle to propel themselves through the water. The sport was documented in a 2013 report that identified it as the outdoor sporting activity with the most first-time participants in the United States that year.  Variations include flat water paddling for outdoor recreation, fitness, or sightseeing, racing on lakes, large rivers and canals, surfing on ocean waves, paddling in river rapids (whitewater SUP), paddle board yoga and even fishing.

Stand up paddlers wear a variety of wet suits and other clothing, depending on water and air temperature since most of their time is spent standing on the board.  A related, traditional sport, paddle boarding, is done kneeling on a board and paddling with the hands, similar to a butterfly swimming stroke.

Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku c. 1912

Standup paddle boarding (SUP), the act of propelling oneself on a floating platform with the help of a paddle or pole, traces back thousands of years and across many continents, but its current form and popularity originated in Hawaii in the 1900s. Records of earlier forms of SUP have been found as early as 3,000 B.C. and its iterations span across nations as diverse as Peru, Israel, Italy, China and beyond.

By contrast, the modern form of stand up paddle boarding, where a surfboard-like watercraft is used, has a much clearer heritage, dating back to the 1900s and emerging from a collection of loosely related activities by a few very specific characters, such as Duke Kahanamoku and Dave Kalama. Once it reached California in the early 2000s, stand up paddling formed four epicenters, each with its own fountainhead: Rick Thomas (San Diego), Ron House (Dana Point/San Clemente), Laird Hamilton (Malibu) and Bob Pearson (Santa Cruz). From there, the sport gained exponential popularity and California served as the catalyst for worldwide adoption. By 2005, SUP, which had until then been almost entirely a surfing discipline, began to diversify into racing, touring, rivers, yoga, and fishing. Its surfing heritage coupled with its various disciplines made the sport attractive and accessible to everyone all over the world, paving the way for its global growth and enthusiastic adoption.


Jérémy Massière (champion of France of SUP 2009) surfing on the beach of Biscarrosse in September 2012

Source: A.belloc 

Kai Lenny, Windsurf World Cup 2009

Source: HOCH ZWEI Photoagency GBR – Pressestelle des World Cup Sylt

Standup paddle boarding in Lake Annecy

Source: Guilhem Vellut – Lake Annecy

By the early 2000s, Archie Kalepa and the Hobie Dream Team gave the world a hint that stand-up paddleboarding had a potential far grander than waves. Kalepa began unofficially participating in cross-channel races between the islands of Hawaii, making him one of the forefathers of downwind stand up paddle racing. Meanwhile, in California, three athletes (Chuck Patterson, Colin McPhillips, and Byron Kurt) joined forces to represent the newly-formed Hobie SUP Race Team. The three would show up at local prone paddleboard races, which were just beginning to have SUP divisions, and put on a show of not only performance but also product R&D. Each would carefully pull his board in and out of board bags, trying to keep their edge in product development on the nascent race scene. Sensing and expanding on that flatwater movement, Ernie Brassard (together with Rick Thomas, Bob Pearson, Blane Chambers and a few others) organized the world’s first inland SUP event and race, hosted at King’s Beach on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, California. It was dubbed “Ta-hoe Nalu” and still runs to this day. That event in 2007 was arguably the world’s first stand up paddle specific event. Since then, the market has evolved to include paddle boards meant specifically for flat water. The contemporary form of the sport originated in the 16th century where Hawaiian surfers would surf on boards of up to 5 meters in length. These surfers used a paddle to operate boards that were otherwise unwieldy.

SUP continued in Tel Aviv in the twentieth century where lifeguards stood on wide boards to ensure a clear view of possible swimmers in distress. The lifeguards used a paddle to propel them through the water quickly to rescue swimmers. 

In the 1940s, Waikiki surf instructors Duke Kahanamoku and Leroy and Bobby Ah Choy would stand on their surf boards, using a canoe paddle to move about the water and position themselves, as a way to keep an eye on surf students while also monitoring the incoming swell. They also utilized the vantage point of being out on the water to take pictures.

In the 1990s SUP was taught at Hawaiian surf schools as an alternative way to surf when there was little swell. This practice became increasingly popular so surf instructor Brian Keaulana decided to add “beach boy surfing” to the world-recognized Buffalo Big Board Contest in 2003. The response to this new category was overwhelming, with many recognized surfers participating.

SUP races became common; in 2012 Kai Lenny won the season’s finals of the first Standup World Series championship races.

The first magazine devoted to the sport, Standup Journal, was founded in June 2007.

Growth of stand up paddleboarding
Number of participants in stand up paddling in the United States from 2011 to 2019 (3.5 million)

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