Stand up paddle boards vs. canoes

Every sport has snobs.

Competitive cyclists scoff at recreational bikers as if they relied on training wheels. Marathon runners bristle at being lumped in with 5K joggers. Serious downhill skiers turn their noses up at cross-country schussers (and vice versa); both poke fun at snowshoers.

The latest discord involves stand up paddle boards (SUPs), surfboards and canoes/kayaks, which I’ll get to in a moment. First, though, a little background.

A few decades ago, canoes ruled the waterways. Anybody who lived on a lake or took a river camping trip paddled a canoe made of wood, canvas or aluminum.

Then, along came the kayak, which now, according to national sales figures, is the paddling vessel of choice. Canoes, even those made of such high-tech materials as Kevlar and carbon-fiber, are definitely considered old-school.

Meanwhile, though surfing has spread over the years from Hawaii and California to beaches from Maine to Florida, it continued to be regarded primarily as a West Coast fad.

Not long ago, a strange, new vessel bobbed up: Long, skinny boards propelled by standing paddlers who maneuvered slowly among fresh-water lily pads and salt-water lobster pot buoys.

“What the heck is that?” I recalled asking a friend as our kayaks approached an upright figure on what looked like an oversized surfboard.

“Beats me,” he said. “Let’s go check it out.”

Turns out it was a young woman on a SUP. (Incidentally, is it my imagination or does virtually every promotional photograph of a SUP show a young woman, usually clad in a bikini?)

After a cursory examination of the watercraft, my friend and I pretty much dismissed it as a flash-in-the-pan novelty, like the kayak “shoes” I once saw — especially when we zipped away in seconds, leaving the SUP in our wake.

“Who would want to paddle something so slow?” I asked.

Turns out, lots of people.

According to an industry report, only seven years after the first SUP arrived in California in 2004, 1.2 million people had tried one.

The next year, SUP participants went on 9.6 million outings, and that number has continued to grow.

That brings us to the dispute: Is the SUP more like a surfboard or a canoe? At stake is which organization should control SUP competition if paddleboarding, as expected, becomes an Olympic sport during the 2020 games.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport is now mediating the controversy over whether SUPs should be regulated by the International Surfing Association or the International Canoe Federation. Both have staged SUP races and therefore claim jurisdiction.

Incidentally, there’s no way Olympic SUP racers would mosey along at the languid pace of most enthusiasts I’ve seen — not that there’s anything wrong with slow, contemplative paddling. Evidently, that is part of the charm of the sport.

Having tried friends’ SUPs a few times, I’ll only say I prefer kayaking. At the same time, I like having SUPs on the water, just as I welcome the presence of surfskis, Dragon boats, Irish curraches, traditional Banks dories, multi-oars gigs, sliding- and fixed-seat shells, outrigger canoes and all other human-powered vessels.

More of these on the water will discourage speedboats, Jet Skis and other noisy, disruptive, recreational watercraft that run on gasoline engines.

This gratifying trend appears to be unfolding at many of the lakes and ponds I visit. All I can say is, more power — make that less power — to the non-motorized boaters.


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