- james buck
A massive tube of inflated red rubber snaked around the grass at Burlington's Perkins Pier, one end slithering into the water. Two standup paddleboarders pulled the rest into the lake, followed by two inflatable nets, a set of modified paddles, and what looked like a small red, white and blue soccer ball.
Plenty of peculiar sights have appeared at Perkins Pier, but this was perhaps the weirdest: a floating standup paddleboarding arena, complete with goals and boundaries, bobbing in the waves. The laborious setup would soon give way to the first-ever SUP polo game in Vermont.
"Actually, one of the first-ever games in North America," clarified Burlington's Russ Scully while pumping up his blue-and-white paddleboard, custom made for SUP polo. The guy who brought Burlington its first surf-themed restaurant and surf shop (the Spot and WND&WVS, respectively), Scully is accustomed to breaking new ground when it comes to promoting water sports in landlocked Vermont.
On this day, however, the sport harkened back to a very old pastime — one that conjures images of thoroughbred horses, princes named Harry and hushed sideline conversations. Erase that image. Replace manicured grass with waves, horses with boards and mallets with funky-looking scoops, and you begin to get the picture. SUP polo turns the mannered, age-old sport into an activity of raucous fun.
"That is awesome!" said Scully, watching the Spot's manager and fellow paddleboarder Shannon Lipkin slip into the water with more equipment.
Over the years, polo has spun off in different directions; bike — aka hardcourt — polo has caught on, particularly among urban hipsters. But SUP is its latest incarnation. The game consists of two teams of three, with each player on a board. The first team to score three goals wins.
To Scully's knowledge, only one other match has ever been played. It happened last September in Costa Brava, Spain, at the annual meeting of worldwide dealers for Starboard, one of the top standup paddleboard manufacturers. There was a dinner, there were cocktails — and then suddenly there was a pool illuminated by colored lights around which 400 people crowded to witness the debut of SUP polo, Scully recalled. "It was majestic," he said. Any skepticism he had about the sport's gimmicky nature dissipated when he hit the water and tried it for himself.
At the conference, Scully says he helped team USA topple Spain, Germany and France before ultimately losing to Canada. But for the Vermonter, it was a winning moment. He envisioned the sport's potential for the Green Mountain State, despite it being covered in snow for half the year. In warm-weather months, SUP polo can be played on outdoor lakes and ponds; after October, it can shift to indoor pools. Either way, it's a vigorous workout, noted Lipkin.
Scully noted that the game, which has no halftime, "could take 30 minutes, or it could take three hours." Its premise is simple. But the play is anything but straightforward, as anyone who witnessed the recent game near Blanchard Beach could attest.
The inflatable boards are rounded on both ends so that players can easily switch directions. Think bumper cars but with boards, and players deliberately colliding to knock the ball back into play. They have to be back on their board in order to pick up and pass that ball.
"It takes some skills," observed Scully. "You've got to have some paddling ability, and you've got to have some balance and agility, since you're moving all over the board quickly."
"My expectations were blown out of the water," said Lipkin. "Once the game started, I was hooked and a kid again." With just enough surface area to allow players to blade through the water efficiently, the paddles feature retrofitted scoops to grab the ball. Think jai alai and lacrosse. "In fact, I don't know why they didn't call this lacrosse," Scully said with a shrug.
One thing that may make it difficult for SUP polo to catch on: With its bright red arena and rowdy nature, the activity can raise a few eyebrows. But Scully, who's been working with Burlington Parks and Recreation and a local fitness chain, is confident that the city will get, er, on board with the new sport.
"The opportunities are huge," said Scully, pointing not only to a new local SUP polo league that's starting up next month, but to the potential of renting equipment for birthday parties, team-building corporate events and other gatherings.
Another possible downside: With all the inflating and floating, setup takes nearly 90 minutes. But, Scully added, that time will drop as the team gains experience. And in colder months the team will play indoors, which will eliminate the need for the inflatable arena.
SUP polo adds another dimension to Vermont's authentic surf and watersports culture. It also enables adrenaline junkies to take standup paddleboarding from meditative to exhilarating.
"Some people might not enjoy sitting back and taking in the scenery and having SUP be a very passive experience," remarked Scully. "We're always trying to figure out new, creative ways to be relevant, and new, creative ways to share stories. This is a new story."