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Water Boarding

Stand-up paddling surfs into Vermont


Published June 24, 2009 at 10:26 a.m.

There is no room in my schedule, in my house or in my heart for another sport. Already, I stare longingly at Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains from my home office, trying to figure out how to squeeze longer runs or more far-flung bike rides into my overloaded days juggling work, exercise and two tiny kids. Already, I feel pangs of guilt every time I climb into my car and see the dusty canoe, the sagging tennis rackets and the mildewed windsurfing harness hanging like forgotten antiques in the garage.

I’m not worried, though, as I drive to meet Jason Starr of Colchester for a stand-up paddling (SUP, also known as stand-up paddle surfing, or stand-up paddleboarding) demo at Burlington’s Oakledge Park on a recent Wednesday evening. After all, I’ve seen it before, and it seems, well, completely pointless. Somebody stands on a board, noodles around with a paddle, and that’s it? What about waves? What about wind? What about getting a workout?

Still, I’m curious to see what Starr has in mind for this summer. A former competitive freestyle skier and current journalist and entrepreneur, Starr has emailed me with plans to help bring SUP to Lake Champlain. The sport has existed in Hawaii for centuries, but, as Starr explains in the email, “It’s grown over the past couple of years to become popular at flat-water spots like Tahoe, the Hood River and in Minnesota.” Now, he and others are bringing the ancient sport to brand-new waters in Vermont through free demos, group events, and rentals and sales of the specialized boards in Burlington.

When I meet Starr, 34, at Oakledge, he’s busy attaching fins to a 12-foot board made by Montréal-based company Imagine Eco Surfboards — its founder is Olympic kayaker Corran Addison, who brought river surfing to the St. Lawrence. Next to the boards is a pair of what look like oversized water skis, or a surfboard split in two. These fiberglass and foam creations, I learn, are Starr Surf Skis, designed by Starr himself to carve ski turns on a wave.

“The first time I got on a surfboard, one of my first thoughts was, Why can’t I be skiing right now?” Starr recounts of a surf trip at age 22 to Santa Cruz. “I looked at the wave as just another piece of downhill terrain.”

Right now the Starr Skis, made by a friend in Florida and affixed with wakeboard bindings, are still in the R&D phase. So, this summer, Starr is providing free SUP and flat-water surf-ski demos on Wednesday nights at Oakledge, selling the Imagine Eco boards and offering limited lessons and rentals.

Though Oakledge Park is usually filled with the recreational gamut, from fully clad scuba divers to bocce-playing college students, Starr and I draw plenty of stares as we carry the gear down to Blanchard Beach. I’m happily surprised to find that the boards are much lighter and much less unwieldy than most of the windsurfing and surfing gear I’ve tried in the past.

“Mommy, what are they doing with those surfboards?” asks a girl of about 6.

What, indeed? Holding the canoe-style paddle, Starr gives me a quick rundown of the SUP stroke — sort of like a J-stroke, he says, to go in a straight line without constantly switching sides. He also offers me a pair of neoprene booties to help keep my feet warm in the lake. “But it’s very rare that you actually fall in,” Starr says. “Once you spend two minutes on the board, you’ve got it.”

Just before we set off, I ask Starr what’s so great about SUP. “One is the vantage point you get, as opposed to sitting in something like a canoe or kayak,” he says. “And it’s the minimum amount of equipment to be out there — you really feel like it’s you and the lake.”

After a couple of minutes testing the board’s stability on my knees, I stand up and paddle a couple of strokes so that I drift away from the beach. Starr, who is now doing a cross-country skiing stride on his surf skis across the water, is right. I can see a wide expanse of the shallow bottom, and as he and I paddle toward downtown Burlington, I’m struck by just how easy it is to be boating with no boat at all. No motors to fuss with, no sails to hoist, no slips or moorings or tricky backing down ramps. The sun is starting to set, the lake is calm, and it’s one of the coolest sensations in the world to be gliding over the deepening, darkening water as we leave the shore behind.

Suddenly, I’m infatuated with this new sport.

Just before we reach Burlington, Starr suggests that we pull over to a rocky beach so that I can try out the surf skis. “People say that paddleboarding is like walking on water,” he says. “Well, wearing these skis is like running on water.”

I’m not able to find out if that’s true. Though I can put the skis on and stand up, my inner thighs are working so hard to stay stable, I beg Starr to give me back the paddleboard for our trip back to Oakledge. The skis are neat, I think as our demo session comes to the end, but my crush is on the board.

The next morning, I meet Rachael Miller, owner of Stormboarding and the pioneer of winter snowkiting and summer kiteboarding and ROV shipwreck tours on Lake Champlain, for another SUP session. Miller has a large trailer full of Oxbow paddleboards — the kind that surfing legend Laird Hamilton rides — and is offering a slew of fitness classes, group adventures, crossings, relays, expeditions and more this summer.

“We’re going to really mix it up,” says Miller with her infectious enthusiasm. “And we’re going to help people work out in a really fun and different way.”

Miller and I launch from the Coast Guard docks and, though it’s a bit choppier than the day before, I’m still able to stand and paddle without ending up in the drink. I’m falling further in love with SUP as I realize its versatility: I can go alone or with friends; I can go on Lake Champlain or to smaller lakes and reservoirs around the state, even rivers; I can lazily paddle as I sightsee, or, as Miller starts pushing me to do now, I can focus on the fitness aspect.

As we undertake a quick interval of hard paddling near the breakwater, my heart starts beating fast and I can feel my obliques working. (With pleasantly sore sides, I later learn that SUP is a top core training method for many celebs in California.)

The only drawback to my newfound love? The boards are pricey — around $1000 and up for the flat-water models best suited to the Green Mountain State, depending on manufacturer and size. But, as Miller points out, folks don’t have to pay for much else beyond a board and paddle. And judging from the SUP activity about to happen on the lake this summer, new stand-up paddlers won’t need any storage space in their garages — they’ll be too busy using the boards.