Spreading the SUP Stoke


“You’re doing good kid!” I shout across the water.

The sun has sunk almost completely below the trees behind me, and the light is perfect. A cormorant flies overhead and Alana points it out, trying to mimic its call. Jake stops his paddling to watch it pass by, the SUP slowly turning as his paddle drags in the water.

“Use your core more,” I call out to him. “He looks like such a goon,” I chuckle to Alana as she moves to stand beside me.

Jake takes a few test strokes, and I sit on the dock with my camera as Alana dives in. She moves out toward Jake, swimming through the cool water. I snap a few photos of the both of them, reminding myself to take more photos of moments like this.

The light is golden on the trees and camps across the lake, and the water looks soft and welcoming in the last good light of the day. I dive in and follow Alana out across the water, moving toward the inflatable SUP so that I can critique him.

Jake had wanted to try to SUP for a while, so we planned an evening trip after work. Our friend Alana tagged along just to see Jake fall off the board.

As I rest my forearms up on the board, Jake shakily tries to sit down. Alana tries to knock him off, pushing the board across the water with a hard shove. She laughs and swims away from him as he falls hard to his knees.

I grin as he rolls his eyes and finds a better way to sit so that I can talk to him.

“Not to sound all sensei, but you’re doing too much,” I say. “You’re working harder than you need to. Just chill out and maybe fall a little.”

He looks at me like I just asked him to eat something gross.

I laugh.

“No seriously, you’re working too hard because you don’t want to fall. If you relax and just let it happen, you won’t be so nervous. Even just fall off on purpose.” I always tell people that if they’re going to take a tumble, might as well do it on purpose. Once you get the ‘worst over with,’ new paddlers tend to get more used to balancing because they won’t try so hard to stay up.

I had started teaching entry-level SUP classes at the beginning of the summer. I’d been paddling for a few years, but teaching was somewhat new for me. I’d noticed out of everyone I’d taken out on the lake, the people who were scared of falling in had a harder time balancing and feeling relaxed. On the other hand, those with a healthy fear of water certainly listened to me a lot more when I was demonstrating the correct form for a paddle stroke.

It was nice taking Jake out for his first time at a favorite local spot of ours. During the evenings the light was just right, cool in the shade, but dazzling and beautiful on the water. I wanted to just get him out on the board so he could mess around, feel how the water moved beneath him. Everyone learns differently, and I wanted to craft the experience to fit him—out having a good time with friends.

Even teaching in larger groups, you can feel the vibes of each individual paddler. There’s always someone who just wants to get on the board and go, and someone who wants to hang back and take it slow. You don’t want to just jump into things too quickly for those a little nervous, but you also don’t want to hold people back.

Teaching others makes me think a lot about my own first time, perched awkwardly in front of a cooler and a boom box after a lake party, hand paddling while my friend Matt fought the slowly sinking board with his paddle on the mile-and-a-half long journey back to the car. Jake had gotten the better end of that stick.

When I first started teaching, I found that everyone expects different things from a class. If people get on a board and just want to go explore, that’s what we’ll do. If someone wants to relax out on the lake and have a more formal lesson, then I’m alright with that, too.

In the end, it all comes down to letting people learn for themselves with a little help from yours truly. If someone is worried that we will just be paddling hard for fitness, I tell them that my favorite thing to do is paddle upriver into this canyon I know with a book and a beer, lay down on my board, and float half-way back.

They usually smile and ask me where it is.

Knowing Jake, as soon as we had gotten to the lake and I had demonstrated the basics, I let him go do his thing for a while. The more comfortable he was, the easier it was to work on his paddling form. So, I critiqued his work from the dock and from swimming beside him as he explored the lakeshore around us.

“Your forward stroke is a little too far from the board, that’s why you’re turning so much.”
“Oooh look at that bird.”
“See how your arms are bending as you paddle, keep them straighter like this and use your abs instead.”
“I love the way the trees are reflected in the water.”
“There you go, that’s exactly the length of paddle stroke you need!”

He’s ready for a break. I make him tow me back to the dock, my legs trailing out behind me like I’m a remora on a shark. We go over what he needs to work on for a moment: using his core, paddling closer to the board, getting more comfortable standing. Not wanting to overload him, we end the discussion and go back to swimming.

I always find it’s easiest to learn in the same way that shampoo bottles tell you to wash your hair. Rinse and repeat. Learn the basics, take a break, and then get back on the board. Things start to fall into place the second or third time around.

Part of teaching SUP is just letting someone learn to have fun their own way and that’s the best way to share the stoke of paddling.

Let people learn for themselves what they like best, and along the way, show them how to do it. That way, they get fired up and want to keep doing it. Too much information can really slow the pace of a good adventure. For myself, I feed off the energy of those around me, and when someone is stoked to learn, I’m stoked to share. So, I set myself up for just that.

Guest Contributor: Cody Updike is a weekend warrior with an icecream obsession and a deep passion for everything to do with the outdoors. He has worked as a freelance photographer, writer, whitewater rafting guide, paddle board instructor, and when he isn’t working, he’s probably doing those things anyway.