Making Waves

Is there enough room in the water for stand-up paddle surfers?

Photo by David Croxford

Paddle surfing has attracted pros to such events as the Steinlager Shaka Longboard Series last May.

The tension between longboard and shortboard surfers in the lineup has been around for decades. But add stand-up paddle surfers, armed with oversize fiberglass paddles and 12-foot boards, and watch tempers flare.

“The pecking order has changed,” said Todd Bradley, a longtime surfer and part-owner of C4 Waterman, a leading company in the sport.

Stand-up paddle surfing, or SUP, has been around since the ’60s, tracing its roots to Waikiki beachboys who’d stand up on their big surfboards, using paddles with longer shafts, to take photos and watch for sets. Just a year ago, you could count the number of SUP surfers in the lineup, even in Waikiki. Now, they’re at nearly every break, from beginner-friendly Canoes to experts-only Pipeline. According to industry estimates, there are hundreds of SUP surfers in Hawaii, and the sport is growing worldwide.

“The interest is so overwhelming, and it’s coming from every angle,” says Doug Lock, owner of Wet Feet in Aina Haina, which sells SUP gear.

But the fast-growing sport has spurred arguments on Craigslist, angry outbursts in the surf and stink-eyes at breaks around the island.

Traditional surfers are annoyed by the wave-hog behavior of some of these SUP surfers at already congested surf breaks. They also complain about novices who often wipe out, sending their 30-pound stand-up boards hurling into crowds.

“It seems very few SUPers can resist the temptation to take as many waves as they want with the enormous paddling advantage they enjoy,” wrote one disgruntled surfer on Craigslist. “I see very little connection to the spirit of surfing in that.”

This worries veteran SUP surfers and business owners, who are concerned about how this will affect the sport’s image. “It’s something we’re nervous about,” Lock says. “We want it to be peaceful out there.”

The ones causing the most problems at surf breaks know what they’re doing, says Bradley. They’re just taking advantage of being on a larger, more buoyant board—with a paddle. “Once a wave hog, always a wave hog,” he says.

Beginners cause their share of mishaps, too. More than half of Lock’s customers are not just new to SUP, they’re new to surfing in general. And they usually don’t know its unspoken rules—like don’t catch every wave, don’t cut off another surfer or don’t forget to wear a leash.

Says Lock, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you could hurt somebody.”