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Balancing Act

Balancing Act

Aug 2014

Words Mark Samuel

I’ve got that Elvis shaky-knee thing going on, and I’ve probably only been at it for about 25 minutes. I was convinced I’d be way better at this, even though it’s my first time… And it’s not only in my legs that the exertion is taking its toll: I can feel it in my shoulders, my tummy muscles and my arms – even in my toes! But I’m loving every minute of it. 

SUPing – that’s stand-up paddle surfing, or stand-up paddle boarding, if you’re being pernickety – has taken the water world by storm. In just under a decade, it’s gone from being a virtually unknown sport with Hawaiian roots – practised by only a handful of watermen and -women in North America – to a global activity that’s enjoyed everywhere and on every type of waterway you can think of. Oceans, rivers, lakes, canals and dams – you name it, there’s a good chance that some adventurous soul has SUPed it. And it’s growing. From what I’ve witnessed at Muizenberg beach, a popular surfing spot in Cape Town and one of my regular haunts, SUPing is on the rise.

For me, right now, referring to it as ‘stand-up’ is a bit of a stretch. I have splashed into the water, lain on my tummy on the board, sat on my bum and knelt, probably a bit too much to call myself an SUPer. And the paddling part is also a challenge. 

It’s quite unlike the relaxed position associated with sitting in a kayak or a canoe, where you stroke the water on each side of the craft with a double-bladed paddle. Here, you are standing, with a lightweight paddle made from carbon-fibre, plastic or even wood, that should be about 20 cm taller than you are. The blade, located only on one end, is positioned at what seems a rather awkward angle. While facing forward on the board with knees slightly bent, you’re meant to stroke it through the water gracefully, approximately three times on one side, and then, swapping your hands around, repeat the process on the other – all the while keeping your balance. 

It’s funny how much smaller the board looks when you’re actually out there on the water standing on it. I have surfed conventional boards for years now, and ‘we’ in the surfing community have always considered the SUP boards to be absolute behemoths. They are – right now I’m on a board that’s sized for a novice, at around 10”6’ (3.2m). In surfing terms, that’s massive. And along with the length of this SUP board comes immense width and thickness. It’s safe to say the sheer size of the craft is doing little to make this a simple task to master. 

Fortunately, the conditions are flat; there’s an ever-so-slight gentle offshore wind blowing and the waves that do occasionally push through are around knee height. Gaining some courage after having just about found the sweet spot for balancing, I attempt to paddle into a wave – and quickly discover that stroking on one side for too long means you’ll go in anything but a straight line. Then the wobbles overcome me and – for what feels like the 73rd time – I splash back into the chilly Atlantic. 

Did I say this was fun? Really, it is!

Loitering about 100m off the backline, a southern right whale and her calf seem to be taunting me. Mom’s spy-hopping about, blowing plumes of spray up into the sky, raising a pectoral in the odd royal wave, then mooning me with her tail. 

When I’m actually standing, I’ve got a front-row seat to their antics. Another advantage SUPing has over conventional surfing: you’re well above the water, so you can see the sets of waves long before they arrive – and the marine life, if you’re in the right neck of the woods. 

I’ve borrowed this board and paddle from Roxy’s Surf Emporium, one of the best surf schools in Muizenberg. Chatting to William Davis, Roxy’s husband, before I head out, he tells me she and her crew have trained around 20 000 budding surfers over the years. That’s really something, and it instils in me the confidence that they absolutely know what they’re doing. Their primary focus is traditional surfing, but recently they’ve added a few SUP boards to their arsenal, and they’ll happily send out one of their accredited coaches to give you some guidance and tips when you’re starting out. 

And if you’re still in any doubt as to their credentials, Roxy herself is a six-time women’s South African surfing champion, has surfed the best breaks all over the world, worked as a chef on-board one of the top surfing charter boats in Indonesia – surfing nine hours a day in the process – and yet still remains the most humble, kind and approachable person. In a nutshell, when it comes to all things wave- and board-riding related, she has got ocean-loads of experience behind her.

By the half-hour mark, I’ve managed to paddle into and catch a small wave, and that familiar feeling of exhilaration washes over me … before the ocean once again washes over me when I tumble off at the end of my ride. 

My rush of exhilaration is due to a whole riot of sensations: I am (albeit slowly) conquering a new sport, I’m out on my beloved ocean accompanied by gentle-giant mammalian spectators, I’m getting an awesome full-body workout, and I’m not causing any damage to the environment in the process – this is a bona fide earth-friendly pastime! 

At the end of my 45-minute session, I’m standing (most of the time) and I’ve successfully caught two waves. As such, I’ve ticked the ‘It’s been a success (mostly)’ box. Now for the jelly-legged walk back up the beach, holding this barge under one arm and the paddle in my other...

As I’m handing the gear back at Roxy’s, William explains the fantastic thing about SUPing in South Africa is that people living away from the coast can also enjoy it, which isn’t the case with traditional surfing. Even the man-made lakes dotted around Gauteng are an ideal playground. And if you’re a coastal dweller, but there aren’t any waves, you can always tackle a sightseeing fitness paddle along the shoreline – or even down to your local pub if you’re fortunate enough to live near Kalk Bay.

As for me, I’m hooked. I’ll catch you out on the backline soon, or perhaps down at the Brass Bell midway through my summer paddle... 

Whole-body workout

SUPing is an excellent way of getting fit and strengthening your core muscle groups. And, if you have a strong core, you will greatly reduce the likelihood of getting backache. In fact, your entire body receives a healthy workout, which is fantastic news if you sit at a desk for most of the day!

Good to know

What you’ll need 

You can purchase your own gear, but it’s a good idea to try before you buy, renting what you need from a reputable outlet or surf school in your neighbourhood. Boards and paddles are both pricey, so, before you spend your hard-earned bucks, you should be confident this sport is really for you. 

For the colder climes – such as Cape Town during winter – a full-length wetsuit is recommended. Sun protection, such as a floppy hat, is also a good idea, as is applying loads of sun-protection lotion. A shorty wetsuit is ideal for spots such as the Durban beachfront. And, if the weather and water are really balmy, boardshorts and a T-shirt will suffice. A good pair of polarised sunglasses, with a secure head strap, also comes highly recommended.

Depending on the size, boards are priced from around R8 500 through to R15 000, and more. Paddles, on average, cost between R1 000 and R2 000. You’ll also need a leash, so your board doesn’t get away from you; these cost about R400.

Where to get it 

If you're in Cape Town, head through to the Surf Emporium, on the Muizenberg beachfront. Here, you can hire a board and paddle – and a coach if you’d like some pointers. You can also make all of your purchases from the shop, be it SUP gear, surfboards and apparel, or general beachy stuff you’re after. 021 788 8687, 082 562 8687

In Durban, call Xpression on the Beach in Browns Road at the Point Waterfront. You can hire a board and paddle, take a lesson with some skilled guys, or make purchases. They’re open most days of the week.  031 337 7850, 082 805 2032 (Brandon) 071 605 9283 (Justin)

Ocean Riders is somewhat of a portal. Visit it to arrange lessons and rentals all over SA, including Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and other centres. It also sells new and secondhand boards and paddles. 082 454 0398 (Greg)

Check out Starboard for anything and everything related to SUPing. From sales to lessons, equipment hire to SUP fitness advice – these guys know what they’re talking about. They have agents in most major centres in South Africa.

Source: AA Traveller


AA Traveller