It is difficult to pinpoint when and where modern stand-up paddling really began. But current stand-up has become such a varied sport it defies a strict definition because they are used in so many different ways. The two things that seem constant are people standing while paddling a surf or pointed-style craft and using a paddle to move that craft around.

Paddleboarding in some form or another has been around for thousands of years. Early cultures in Africa, the Americas, Asia and South America used planks, boards, canoes and other floating vessels in combination with a long stick, a spear or a paddle to fish, for transportation, and to even surf waves. For thousands of years, South American fishermen used a craft called a Caballitos de Totora, which means ‘little reed horses’ – a small boat made of reeds that apparently offers a similar experience to riding a horse. They used a wooden shaft similar to an extended kayak paddle for both fishing and surfing, and some believe this is the true root of all surfing.

In the West, paddleboarding was originally used as a way to get around and access more remote areas, but it did not take long for riders to start taking them into the surf. Because of its volume and extra generation of power, it was a lot easier to catch waves both big and small. 

Four paddleboard options

Casper Steinfath of Denmark competes in the Red Bull Heavy Water Stand Up Paddleboard Race in San Francisco, California on October 19, 2016. // Balazs Gardi/Red Bull Content Pool // SI201610200293 // Usage for editorial use only //

All-round boards are typically thicker and wider, which provides stability, so are more appropriate for the beginner. They tend to be between 80cm-90cm wide and 10cm-20cm thick. The nose and tail of the board will usually be round and wide to help with stability. These boards are the middle ground – they do everything easily but are not specific to one thing. They are clearly aimed to get you on the water having fun. Some can be fitted with a windsurf rig and others with a box for fishing. They are very easy to learn to stand up on and anyone can use them.

Touring boards are made for flatwater, open ocean paddling, and ‘down-winders’ (this is becoming really popular and involves going from one location to another with the wind behind you). They are typically longer than all-round boards, and often have a sharper nose to help the board slice through the water. ‘The glide’ with down-wind is the Holy Grail of paddleboarding. This is where you ride one swell (not a wave) to another on the open ocean. I have seen the great Kai Lenny do this in Fiji for five kms non-stop. Most touring board sizes vary from 12’-14’, some up to as long as 18’ in length and 28”-34” wide. The longer downwind boards are often narrower to increase the glide and decrease the drag, but they become more unstable. Some also have an internal rudder system, but these are not as popular currently. 

Race boards are designed for speed and performance. They are similar in shape to touring and downwind boards but slightly wider. It is a constant compromise between buoyancy and drag. Race boards tend to either be 12’ or 14’ long as these are race standards. And often like sailing, the competition involves racing around series of buoys, dealing with upwind, crosswind and downwind conditions. There are a number of clubs around that offer comps on a regular basis.

Surf boards (not surfboards) are another option. SUPs and surfers have not always got on – SUPs can pick up waves a lot earlier than surfers, and in crowded surf breaks, they can catch more waves and be back out the back quicker than a surfer, so this causes some confrontation. But on a paddleboard, you do not need ideal conditions and often now paddleboarders will avoid crowded breaks for a less popular wave but with more room for them to move. Surf stand-up paddleboards are typically shorter, have a narrower nose and tail and more rocker (curve). Lately they have evolved, incorporating graphite and becoming incredibly light. The narrow shape makes the board much more manoeuvrable on a wave. A lot of the world’s top paddleboarders are now doing big airs similar to surfers.

Lastly, to meet the needs of those who like to do more than one aspect of the sport, there are the crossover boards. These have been designed to try and make a single board for all disciplines. It once again is all about compromise and it is difficult to find a board to use for all occasions, but there are some on the market. What works for touring may not really work for surf and what works for surf may not be right for downwind. But I guess it’s all about looking for what you really need and for what you will use it for most.

Solid vs Inflatable

AJ Messier / Red Bull Content Pool // SI201709250143 // Usage for editorial use only //

Not all boards are made equal but the key difference between board types is solid vs inflatable.

Historically, solid stand-up paddleboards were always going to be more efficient through the water as they did not flex at all. They also had sharper and harder rails (the edge of the board) which made for better performance in and through the water. These more defined rails will be more evident on the surf and race boards and will make the board faster. People will argue that this is still the case but there are now highly technical inflatable boards on which you would really not notice the difference. For example, RED boards have been leading the way for years now and are an outstanding inflatable product. Solid boards, depending on what they are made of, are often heavier. Solid also equals harder and thus if you fall on a solid board, the landing is less forgiving.

Inflatable boards used to be ‘pigs’, but now they have caught up in terms of performance. The biggest feature is that they can be deflated and packed away, which is great when storing it in your car, boat, campervan etc. They are also less likely to cause damage to your car or boat. Personally, I have both inflatable and solid boards, and both are great. Historically, inflatable boards also had issues with not being able to be inflated hard enough and sometimes even getting punctures. Those days have now gone. Once again, it is horses for courses. If you need a board you can deflate and throw in the van, inflatable is a perfect choice.

What size board do you need?

Kai Lenny performs a hydrofoil demo at Downwind Voyage for Change in Hawaii, USA on 27 March, 2017. // Andy Mann / Red Bull Content Pool // SI201704190144 // Usage for editorial use only //

There are calculators online and basic rules of thumb, but basically the variables are so many that none of them really work. The best option is to go and hire a board and try it out and then decide where you are going to use it and work backwards from there. Most specialised stores can help you out with this process. 

Lastly, it is the law that you wear a lifejacket of some sort. You can buy a belt you wear, which is the easiest option. Make sure you wear a leg rope, should you fall off at sea and your board drifts away from you – you will be amazed how quickly it disappears. If wearing a leg-rope in fast flowing water, be very aware of boats and other immovable objects in the water that you could get tangled on should you fall off. Make sure you know how to get the leg rope off quickly if you need too.

Paddleboarding continues to evolve with the recent addition of foiling, but start with the basics. You don’t need a lesson – just get a board right for you and practice, be prepared to fall in, and the rest is just fun! 




Article by: Steve Dickinson