The Abridged History of SUP
Standup paddling, better known as “SUP”, has been the world’s most popular watersport for roughly a decade. You can hardly find any beach, river or lake without at least one SUP enthusiast floating over the water, sparking curiosity for the sport in more and more people.
Standup paddling, better known as “SUP”, has been the world’s most popular watersport for roughly a decade. You can hardly find any beach, river or lake without at least one SUP enthusiast floating over the water, sparking curiosity for the sport in more and more people. But where are the origins of this sport, that has taken the world by storm over such a short period of time?
The Early History of SUP
Fisher at Inle Lake in Myanmar. Photo by Hans A Rosbach.
To the uninitiated, SUP might seem like a relatively new sport, that developed in the early 2000s but actually people of many cultures and civilizations have been stand up paddling in some form or another for millennia, be it the ancient Egyptians moving along the Nile with
the help of small canoes and long sticks or the fishermen of Inle Lake in Myanmar, whose fishing technique hasn’t significantly changed till today. In the 1400s, the gondola was used as stand up transportation throughout Italy. Gondoliers used an oar rather than a pole to guide the gondolas throughout the flowing waters. In those bygone days SUP was never seen as a sport but as a simple form of transportation.
So the $64,000 question regarding the history of SUP is: when and where did a necessity become a recreational activity? Where did people paddle the first time for the pure joy of it?
The Modern History
The Mecca of standup paddling as a sport is its place of origin as well: Polynesia which is also where surfing originated. Modern SUP developed out of these surfing origins. Ku Hoe He’e Nalu, the Hawaiian name for SUP gives a pretty good summary of the sport. It translates to: “to stand, to paddle, to surf, a wave”. So not only did the Polynesians pioneer surfing, they were the first modern day stand up paddle boarders!
Surfing has been practiced in Polynesia for centuries. In the early days, it was done for ceremonial and spiritual purposes and was first witnessed by Captain James Cook in the late 18th century. Traditionally surfboards were propelled only by the surfer’s arms so that their hands were free to push up from the board and stand once the wave was caught. For many years it was heresy to use a paddle to catch a wave.
Modern SUP can be traced back to the early 1900s with the famous surfer Duke Kahanamoku. Called "The King of Waikiki Beach," Duke was a renowned swimmer, surfer, Olympic Gold Medalist, and one of Waikiki's famous surfing instructors known as the Waikiki Beach Boys. Along with the Ah Choy brothers, Leroy and Bobby, the Waikiki Beach Boys oversaw tourists while standing on their boards with a paddle to steer. The Ah Choy boys extended the tradition and eventually the style of surfing officially came to be called "Beach Boy Surfing". John Zapotocky followed in these footsteps in the 1960s and kept paddling this way until in his 90s. Passionate surfer John Ah Choy is also usually mentioned among the first standup paddlers.
Originally, they were all surfers and the reason they started propelling their surfboard standing with a paddle is more practical than innovative: as surf instructors, they simply had a better overview of their students. They could also keep their cigarettes dry and take pictures.
Famous big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton started SUPing in Hawaii as a way to train when the surf was down. In September of 2002, Laird was surfing in a six foot swell while wielding a paddle with a huge American Flag. When surf magazines captured Laird Hamilton with his SUP and American Flag, paddle boarding exploded.
For a long time, standup paddling was only a regional Hawaiian thing, which was practiced by surfers as an alternative way to work out and keep in form, when the waves let them down. In 2004, Vietnam veteran Rick Thomas brought the sport from Hawaii to California. From there it spread across the globe like a tsunami. Its popularity can be attributed to its incredible versatility, especially when compared to traditional surfing which had rested on its laurels for many years.
The Advantages of SUP
Surfers are restricted to specific beaches, which provide suitable conditions. But the only thing standup paddlers really need is a body of water - be it the ocean, a lake, or a river. In calm water conditions they can propel themselves with the help of the paddle, but when the waves start coming in, they can also ride them and navigate them even better than surfers, thanks to their paddle. They can paddle slowly and enjoy the view on a beautiful coastline, or they can speed up and participate in races. Some people even do yoga on their boards.
The successful march of SUP seems unstoppable. So why don’t you try it, too? Just about everyone has a body of water near them that they can SUP on!