Stand Up Paddling (or SUP) has become the fastest growing watersport in the world, and we here in Northern Michigan are lucky to be surrounded by some of the best and most beautiful paddling waters anywhere. Hopefully this SUP guide will help those of you who have just started thinking about SUP or those who are confused by the huge array of different boards available.
There is no one-size-fits-all board package. There are more board choices than ever, making it very hard for people to decide which board is best for them. We at Sailsport Marine are here to help. Hopefully looking over this SUP equipment guide will help you narrow your focus, but we encourage you to call or email us for help in determining what will be right for you.In order to determine what suits your needs best, you'll need to know the answers to a few questions:
The first thing to decide when looking for a SUP board to buy is what you want to use it for. Boards can fall into a few general types of use designations: Tour/Race, Surf, or All-around recreational. Touring or race boards are for paddling in the open water and going a distance. SUP Surf boards are made to be maneuverable and easy to catch a wave and carve turns on. All-around boards are designed for do-it-all fun, comfort and simplicity. Depending on what the board's use is to be, it is designed around some basic design variables: length, width, volume, and shape.
Length of a board determines speed and maneuverability. A longer board will generally glide better through the water. Maximum hull speed of any displacement boat is determined by length. SUP boards act as displacement boats until they start surfing. A longer board has a higher hull speed. A longer board also has more resistance to being spun around, so it tracks a straight line better.
The width of a board is the main factor for stability. A wider board is generally more stable. A wider board is also going to have more wetted surface area, causing more drag, so it will be slower. Also, a board with a wider tail is going to be more stable, while a narrower tail may turn easier.
A board's volume determines how much weight it will float. A smaller person can paddle a smaller and lighter board. Some boards are designed for specific sizes of people. In general, a high volume board can be used by lighter people, although it may not sit down in the water as designed. A SUP board for surfing can be lower in volume because it will rise up in the water when it starts surfing down a wave.
A board's shape influences maneuverability and stability too. Looking at the shape from the top, a more rounded shape is going to be easier to turn and won't track as well. Looking at the profile of a board, a board with a curved or rockered shape is going to be more maneuverable than one with a straighter rocker front to back. This also means it will not track a straight line as well. We can look at the nose of a board to determine how well it will cut through the water. A pointed nose like that of a race or touring board is made to slice through the water and lengthen the waterline for better speed. A more rounded surf board nose will ride up over waves without diving.
Now we can try to tie all these variables together with the type of board you are looking for.
Touring boards are generally made to go in a straight line quickly and efficiently in flat water or chop and wind. To track a straight line we want a less maneuverable board: one that is long with little to no rocker to the bottom and a pointed displacement nose. You don't want to have to switch sides with the paddle too often - that wastes your energy. A longer board is not only going to track a straight line better, making it more efficient in the open water, but it is going to have a higher hull speed. Race/touring boards are typically 11'-14' or more in length. Also a crosswind will want to push you around, so we want to minimize the surface area on the side of the board by making the deck low for less windage.
Wave surfing SUP boards are generally made to catch a wave easily and carve turns smoothly. Wave boards vary greatly according to rider preferences. They are usually between 10'-12' long. Some paddlers like really short and wide boards to throw around, and some like longer boards to get long rides on small waves. Surfing boards will have quite a bit of rocker in them for carving and to avoid nose diving. They are typically shorter for more for maneuverability, although longer boards can catch a smaller wave. Surf SUP boards may also use a different fin setup. A three fin thruster setup will give more stability and drive through carving turns.
All-around SUP boards are usually a blend between surf and touring boards in design. These are some of the most popular shapes available right now. They are usually between 11' - 13' in length and have a somewhat surf-like shape with less rocker and more parallel rails. They can be used for anything from cruising and fitness, to riding small waves.
There are many different ways to build a SUP board, and there are lots of manufacturers trying to build better and/or less expensive boards. Many are being sourced in Asia and built in questionable facilities using lower quality materials. Some discount boards may look just like a more expensive board, yet they may not hold up well over time due to the use of lower quality materials and build methods. Durability issues we've seen include delamination, heel dents, cracking, and excessive flexing. Before you buy a SUP board you'll need to know what to look for in construction quality. You don't want to waste any money on a product that won't hold up.
Most high quality SUP boards are built using EPS foam and some sort of an epoxy sandwich construction consisting of either a wood veneer or high density foam sheet between layers of fiberglass on the deck or throughout the board. They will also use high density foam blocks as reinforcement around fin boxes and plugs. This construction is light weight and will stand up to years of use and retain its shape, weight, and performance characteristics well.
Molded poly boards such as the Bic ACS boards are super durable. Polyethylene plastic is molded over a polyurathane foam core providing for unmatched durability. This construction method is heavy compared to epoxy boards, but they are ideal for recreational boards used in harsh environments.
Inflatable SUP boards are ideal for those with storage and transportation constraints. These are a great way to go for travelers and those that want to take a SUP board on a larger boat. Inflatable SUP boards can be packed into a backpack for storage and transport. They are not going to perform as well as a hard board, but they do quite well as a recreational board. Inflatables are also ideal for whitewater paddling.
SUP Paddles come in many different shapes and constructions too. The paddle choice can be just as important as the board. Your paddle transmits your power to the water and it's what you're lifting, pushing, and pulling all the time. The blade size and shape will determine a paddle's power and how efficiently it pulls through the water. The construction will determine the paddle's weight, strength, and stiffness. Lighter paddles are almost always preferable. The less weight you throw around the easier it is. A bigger blade will provide more power for stronger paddlers and greater acceleration. A smaller blade will allow a faster paddle cadence and less windage. Stiffer paddle shafts transmit your power more efficiently to the water, but a more flexible shaft is going to be more forgiving and easier on your joints.
Many beginner paddles use an aluminum shaft and a molded plastic blade. These work well because they are durable, flexible, and less expensive.
Most fiberglass paddles are good for intermediate paddlers. A fiberglass paddle is stiffer and lighter than aluminum for better feel and efficiency.
Carbon paddles are the lightest, stiffest, fastest, and most expensive paddles. Most SUP racers use some sort of carbon paddle, but many recreational paddlers can also benefit from a lighter, more efficient paddle.
There are many schools of thought on paddle length, and just as many variables to determine the right length, but ultimately it's what works best for you. A general rule is to have a paddle that is about 8" taller than you are for all-around use. Flat water paddlers will typically go more toward 8"-10" taller and wave surfers will go more toward 6"-8" taller.
Most paddle constructions come in an adjustable version. If you want a paddle the whole family can use, adjustable is the way to go. Having an adjustable paddle also allows you to figure out just what length you like - and you may like different lengths for different conditions.
A leash keeps you attached to your board. In the event of a fall off of your board, the board can get away from you awfully quickly if you are not attached. Leashes come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and lengths. Most flat water paddlers use a coil leash to keep it from dragging in the water. A leash is a must have item.
If you use your stand up paddle board beyond the limits of a swimming , surfing or bathing area, the US Coast Guard requires you to have an Approved life vest on board. There are inflating belt pack PFDs that are small and comfortable.