Beaches worldwide have coaxed new breeds of athletes and thrill-seekers, from surfers and skimmers to body- and wake-boarders. Now there’s another sensation that’s hitting the water, catching curious eyes and ambitious beachgoers. Welcome to the world of SUP (stand-up paddle) surfing.
The pastime may look like a funky combination of canoeing and surfing, but as businessman and surfing enthusiast Jim McGrath explained, SUP surfing can be the perfect solution for all ages and levels.
“People are always looking for something new to do,” said McGrath, who has owned and run Bethany Surf Shop and warehouse with his wife, Sheila, since 1980. “Paddle surfing really started catching on again a few years ago, out in California. It’s obvious by the spike in sales.”
Calm ocean waters, rivers, canals and bays are most suitable for the sport, although it’s not too uncommon to find adrenaline-fueled surfers riding the waves in, paddle in hand.
The first thing those new to the sport will notice is the exaggerated size of the boards used. The longboard surf hype of the 1930s kicked off along the West Coast and in Hawaii, and the trend later shifted to make way for sharper, smaller, trick-style boards. SUP surf boards return to the longboard fashion, ranging from 10 to 12 feet.
“A lot of surfers who come in are really surprised at the size of these boards,” said McGrath. “Surfers nowadays can ride boards under 4 feet long. In SUP surfing, a 10-foot board is considered short.” The bodies of the boards are also much thicker than traditional surfboards seen today, measuring 3 to 4 full inches.
Due to the extended size of the boards, Bethany Surf Shop keeps them in their warehouse, located on Town Drive in Ocean View, just west of the Assawoman Canal bridge on Route 26.
Though a seemingly new concept, SUP surfing has been around for decades, perhaps even centuries.
“It could be, conceivably, the oldest form of surfing,” noted McGrath.
The board’s wide and thick body provides a sturdy base, similar to a canoe or kayak. The one-sided paddle used resembles that of a canoe, simply with a longer handle. While standing upright is the traditional means of using the board, lying down and kneeling are other common methods, especially for getting past the shore break.
Equipped with a well-experienced crew, McGrath has started offering lessons, demonstrations and rentals of SUP surf boards.
“We start with our basic lesson, called Level I,” he said. “It does not involve catching waves, and we show you everything you need to paddle surf. You don’t need to be a surfer. As long as you have decent balance, you can pick it up pretty quick.”
Mornings, before wind picks up, are the most ideal environment for beginning SUP surfers, but when conditions are controlled by Mother Nature, little is guaranteed.
“There’s a lot you have to take into consideration,” said McGrath. “The water can’t be too choppy or rough when you’re first learning. You have to be aware of the tides coming in and going out, and, with lifeguarded beaches, surfing can be limited.”
Lessons and demos are generally started around 8:30 a.m. during the week, weather and waves permitting.
The big, bulky boards can sometimes be challenging in themselves.
“They’re heavier than the surfboards that most people are used to,” McGrath noted. “There are a lot of precautions to take. You need to be careful. It’s different when you’re out there with a board that big.”
McGrath has noticed that most riders have no problem balancing on the board and quickly find ease in the sport.
“Once they start paddling and get the board moving, surfers can catch waves pretty easily,” he said. “Girls are enjoying these just as much as the guys, too.”
After riders get the hang of hanging 10 in the ocean, transitioning to glassy waters of a canal or bay is a breeze.
“It can be really relaxing to get out there,” said McGrath.
The sport has caught on, not only on California’s coastline, but on lakes, as well.
“It’s really good exercise and a great workout,” he added.
SUP surfers turn a lot of heads, too, as they seemingly glide across the surface of the water.
“There’s definitely an interest in it,” said Sheila McGrath, who helps organize lessons and rentals with the oversized boards. “People come up to us all the time to ask about it when we’re out here doing our demos.”
The Level I classes are held right on Bethany Beach’s shore in mornings, available upon request. Daily rentals for SUP boards and paddles are available, too.
For more information, contact Sheila McGrath at the Bethany Surf Shop by calling (302) 539-6400 or stop by the shop at 99 Garfield Parkway in Bethany Beach or the Bethany Surf Shop Warehouse, just off Route 26 in Ocean View.