When the surf is down, and the winds are slight, it's time to walk on water -- or so say an increasing number of Bay Area residents reveling in one of today's hottest sports, stand-up paddleboarding.

Nicknamed SUP -- and pronounced like a slacker's greeting -- this splashy rec activity can be enjoyed by nearly anybody anywhere there's a body of water. And it's gloriously addictive.

"We got hooked," Oakland SUP-er Parker Page confesses. After just one lesson in Alameda, Page and his wife, Laura, bought their own boards and paddles. Now they scour weather reports so they can rush out and paddle on calm mornings.

"We're honing our skills," Laura says. "We want to make sure that if a boat wake comes at us, we're good."

The sun sets as these stand-up paddleboarders set off from Sausalito.
The sun sets as these stand-up paddleboarders set off from Sausalito. (Sea Trek Kayak & SUP)

What began as a niche hobby -- albeit one with an ancient Polynesian past -- hit the mainstream in 2010, when the Outdoor Industry Association's annual survey of outdoor pursuits counted a million passionate paddleboarders in the United States alone. By last year, it was 2 million -- and SUP had more first-time participants that year than any of the other 40+ outdoor recreational activities included in the annual study. The sport is popular in lakes, rivers and coves from Russia to Peru. It has its own competitions and even its own magazines.

A huge part of its popularity is its equal-opportunity aspects, says Jane Cormier, who owns Boardsports School & Shop with partner Rebecca Geffert. "We get a lot of couch surfers who don't do a lot of other sports," Cormier says.


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Although their operations in San Francisco, San Mateo and Alameda also focus on kiteboarding and windsurfing, Cormier says, "Paddleboarding appeals to the masses more than anything else that we do. It's so approachable. It's so easy -- it's very social."

Cormier sees a wide range of ages, both genders and every level of fitness among customers, who take lessons or just paddle around in happy groups, followed by the occasional curious baby seal, as rays and fish glide below.

San Francisco Bay paddlers will likely see an array of birds wing past -- gulls, cormorants or loons, depending on the season -- while they admire the ever-present views of cityscapes and the towering hills that ring the Bay.

"I really love the idea of standing up on the water as opposed to sitting in a kayak," Parker says. "It's a very different experience."

Whether around a bay, in a lake or river or on the coast, SUP delivers quick, positive reinforcement, says Scott Ruble, who owns Covewater SUP in Santa Cruz with his wife, Leslie. "Within three or four minutes, that feeling of instability -- maybe you're shaking a little bit -- goes away."

Students learn the basics in an hour and a half, Cormier tells her beginning students, and serious upper-body strength is not a requirement. Ruble makes similar assurances. That first lesson, he says, is spent learning "how to stand up, how to turn, how to go straight, how to stop. All the things needed to be sufficient on a shore or a lake. That's all you need to next get on any body of water and have fun."

A few SUP newbies forgo lessons, a shortcut that may end up taking far more time, says Mitch Powers, a manager at Sausalito's Sea Trek Kayak & SUP. "I can't tell you how many people I see out there who do it on their own, and they have poor technique," he says. They struggle with their balance, hunching their posture and bending over too far -- which skews the odds toward a dip in the drink. They stare at their feet instead of the horizon, lock their knees instead of bending them and some even hold the paddle backward. A learning curve that could be swiftly conquered gets very steep indeed when you're holding your paddle the wrong way.

So take a lesson, the experts say, and keep an eye on the weather. Ideal paddling conditions involve "little wind and calm water, because most people haven't invested enough in lessons and practice to take windy, choppy conditions," Powers says.

Parker is even more blunt: "If it's too windy, your body becomes a sail and that makes it much more difficult."

Windy or not, SUP is serious exercise, a bit like straddling an ever-moving balance ball while rolling your arms. It's a full-body workout that strengthens the core muscles -- and there are more advanced forms of the sport, too, including stand-up paddle surfing. Now it turns out, SUP and paddle surfing are wooing some former surfers, including Santa Cruz firefighter Frank Laguna, back to their sport. Laguna took up SUP eight months ago.

"Once I tried it, I never looked back, and I've had a great time," he says. "It got me back in the water again and enjoying life."

Now, Laguna paddleboards or stand-up surfs with his whole family and savors one particularly enviable benefit: While regular surfers wait for that elusive wave, "you can catch one- or two-foot ankle-biters and just cruise on those."

Another red-hot SUP offshoot is paddleboard yoga, which increases the usual yoga perks by working new muscle groups to stay balanced on the board. And then there's the environment.

"I teach yoga at indoor studios, and the only place where you really feel connected, awake, aware is on the water," says yoga instructor Malia Hill, whose SupAsana East Bay offers classes in the 80-acre lake at Pleasanton's Shadow Cliffs.

If you're worried that your downward dog will end up a waterlogged pooch, don't fret. Wider boards with built-in mats and modified yoga poses make this version of yoga accessible to both novices and experts. "When people fall off these boards, it's because they've gotten so comfortable on them that they walk off," says Kathleen Carpenter, Hill's business partner. "Or they fall in to cool off."

Like many fellow SUP-ophiles, Carpenter became so enthusiastic about the sport, she got her husband and daughter hooked on both SUP and its yoga variation. They love the exercise, the peaceful environment and the escape from stress.

"We're so passionate about it," she says with a laugh, "we need an intervention."

The 411 on SUP

Stand-up paddleboarding is hot -- and getting hotter by the day. Here's the lowdown on where, when and how to catch a ride.

The basics: Obviously, paddleboarders need a paddle and board, equipment you can borrow or rent from any SUP supplier or tour operator (see list below), but you'll need clothes too. Spring and fall are peak seasons for paddleboarding in the Bay Area because of milder winds. Depending on the season and water temperature, you may need only board shorts, light tops or bathing suits. You likely will need a wetsuit for rougher weather, colder seasons, chilly water and more advanced versions of SUP, such as paddle surfing and "downwinding" -- using the wind at your back to go longer distances fast.

Best places to SUP: Most paddleboarders seek flat water and low winds, which makes locations like these optimal: Sausalito's Richardson Bay, Tomales Bay, Bolinas, Lake Tahoe, Fremont's Quarry Lake Regional Park, Foster City's Leo J. Ryan Park, Alameda's Crown Beach, Livermore's Del Valle Regional Park, Princeton's Pillar Point Harbor and Capitola's harbor and New Brighton Beach. Find dozens of launching spots for paddleboards, kayaks and canoes around the Bay at www.watertrails.info/SFBayPutIns.

Lessons and tours

Boardsports School & Shop: The best location to learn SUP among this operation's three sites is Alameda's Crown Beach. Introductory classes are $69, and semiprivate or private clinics run $99 and $139, respectively. Tours ($39-$59) and custom trips are also available; www.boardsportsschool.com.

Sea Trek Kayak & SUP: This outfitter, which operates in Sausalito's beautiful, protected bay, offers introductory lessons ($60) and tours ($60-$75); www.seatrek.com.

Covewater SUP: This Santa Cruz operator runs beginner's classes in the protected harbor ($59) and introductory ocean SUP classes in calm Capitola ($69) as well as coastal tours ($69); www.covewatersup.com.

SupAsana East Bay: These popular SUP yoga sessions are held in the lake at Pleasanton's Shadow Cliffs Regional Park. Introductory lessons ($35) start with SUP instruction. Extended classes ($45) and custom events also are available. Find details at www.facebook.com/SupAsanaEastBay; book a class at www.bookwhen.com/supasanaeastbay.