Battle of the boards erupts over paddle surfing

Stand-up paddle surfers use larger boards and paddles to catch waves, but traditional surfers resent the intrusion of the often-novice boarders in their waters.

Charles More
Taking surf sides: Stand-up paddle surfers, like this one in Malibu, Calif., use a large board and a paddle to catch waves more easily than traditional surfers.

It’s been nearly 30 minutes since the last rideable wave rolled through first point at Malibu, and about three dozen surfers are cold and downright cranky. “Would someone please deposit a token to start the wave machine,” grouses one surfer.

A few chuckles and pseudo dolphin cries later, a wave forms in the distance and a mass migration of surfers begins jockeying for position.

“It’s mine, it’s mine,” a longboarder shouts as he maneuvers his 10-foot projectile in front of the oncoming wall of water. He is sandwiched between 15 other surfers, all of whom are charging the same wave with ravenous eyes and visions of 10-toe glory.

And then there’s Tom Tilberg, already standing on his board and gracefully sweeping the water with a paddle like a gondolier. Two quick strokes and he’s the first one in the wave, enjoying a 50-yard ride that ends with a frothy finish.

“It’s just too easy to get into waves on this thing,” says Mr. Tilberg, riding his stand-up paddle board. “Sometimes you get dirty looks.”

Wave envy – or perhaps animosity – runs deep in southern California as more people jockey to ride the same crowded breaks. Now a new form of surfing is gaining popularity that is adding to the congestion off coastlines around the country.

Called stand up paddle surfing, or SUP for short, it involves using a big surfboard that is stable enough to stand on when in flat water. Then, wielding a paddle or “blade” for propulsion, SUP riders canoe up to catch a wave.

The technique makes it far easier to paddle into everything from a snapper to a hollowed-out A-frame and has opened the exclusive world of surfing to more novices.

Which is where the problem begins. Many traditional surfers, a cliquish group to begin with, resent these table-top-size boards invading their aquatic turf.

They sniff that SUP is like riding a bike with training wheels. Like skiing with a helmet. Like hitting a baseball off a tee.

Or, as veteran Malibu surfer Eric Walker, puts it: “It’s like watching a Mack Truck come down the line versus a Toyota Echo.”

But the purists may want to get used to their paddling cousins. Like snowboarding, SUP doesn’t look like it will vanish with the next swell. “It’s not a fad – it’s already sticking,” says Matt Warshaw, author of “The Encyclopedia of Surfing.”


On average, waves at Malibu’s first point, arguably among the best on the West Coast, provide rides that range from 5 to 10 seconds. When you consider that several dozen surfers usually vie for each swell, you can begin to understand the arithmetic behind the animosity.

Moreover, just having someone slashing around in the surf with a paddle, and already in the standing position before a wave even breaks, further irritates traditional boarders, who spend most of their time laying idle on their bellies.

Surf shops up and down southern California’s coast are selling stand-up boards and offering lessons. The problem is that SUP riders with little or no surfing experience don’t understand the etiquette of the water.

“SUPs will pull into a wave with their paddles right in front of you, and you’re like, ‘really, did that just happen?’ ” Mr. Walker says. “Too bad there isn’t a bike lane for stand up surfers.”

Yet not all SUP riders are new to the sport. In fact, the roots of stand-up surfing reach back more than 100 years ago, when wave riders in Hawaii were using paddles and wood planks for transportation. Some surfers even believe that today’s version of stand-up surfing echoes the practices of the ancient Polynesians.

“SUP is a throwback to what true watermen all aspired to do, and once you try it, you’re instantly hooked,” says Scott Bass, a San Diego surf talk radio host. “But it’s also a curse.”

Mr. Bass, who prefers stand-up surfing when the waves aren’t big enough for shortboarding, says SUP is like having too much of a good thing.

“People see stand-up riders catching waves and suddenly they’re everyone’s enemy,” he says. “There are some beaches where there’s such a negative vibe that stand-up surfers don’t even step foot in the water.”

On a recent weekend afternoon at Topanga State Beach in Los Angeles County, nearly 40 surfers bobbed offshore without a single SUP. The crowd at Malibu was similar, as Sunny Chang, an outdoor instructor for the store REI, was just finishing up her session.

Ms. Chang says contrary to what traditional surfers think, she believes SUP riders are always welcome.
“It’s just a slightly different way of surfing,” says Chang, her 9-foot, 2-inch longboard tucked under her arm. “Everyone is entitled to surf.”

But Jefferson Wagner, a Malibu city councilman, disagrees. “Stand-up paddle boarders should be banned from the surf zone,” says Mr. Wagner, who owns Zuma Jay, a surf shop that is a Malibu icon. “SUPs are too large and bulky for a person to control around other people.”

Most SUPs are nine to 10 feet long, not much different than longboards. But they are at least an inch and a half thicker and wider than traditional boards. And many SUP riders don’t wear leashes to keep their boards from tumbling toward surfers and swimmers closer to shore.

“I can just see some unsuspecting family visiting from the East Coast getting slammed by one of these boards set loose in the water,” Wagner says.

Kayaks are already banned at Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, so Wagner doesn’t think it’s unreasonable to banish SUPs as well. Of course, the cost of stand-up surfboards could end up being more of an impediment than any government restrictions or gnarly vibes in the water. Most SUPs, often carbon-wrapped, run anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000, and that usually doesn’t include the $250 paddle.

Freddie Morales, a longboarder, says he has no problem with SUPs “in the lineup” as long as stand-up riders and traditional surfers respect each other.

“There used to be a rivalry among longboarders and shortboarders, but that has basically dissipated,” says Mr. Morales, who works at Masi Custom Surfboards in San Diego. “I suspect the same will eventually happen between SUP and traditional surfers.”


Some resistance to SUP clearly remains more philosophical than pragmatic. Many purists believe using a paddle and a lumbering board is like surfing with a pontoon boat.

They prefer the purity of using arms and legs to propel themselves into a wave and then relying on their own dexterity and balance and feel to negotiate the water – in other words, “true” surfing.

“I have no interest in trying SUP,” says Chris Dewind, a devoted shortboarder and college student from Malibu. “You see these SUP riders sitting way outside or on the shoulder [of a point break], and they just don’t care about the other surfers.”

Mr. Dewind admits that it is more difficult to catch a wave on a shortboard than a SUP, but “I still think they should go find their own peaks – away from traditional surfers.”

Still, not everyone believes there needs to be segregated surf zones. Greg Bonann, a Los Angeles County lifeguard and creator of the TV series “Baywatch,” draws a comparison between SUVs and smaller cars.

“One is bigger, and you don’t want to get hit by it, but there is no reason that you can’t share the road together,” Mr. Bonann says. Then he offers a piece of pure laid-back L.A. advice to SUPs: “Surf politely, enjoy one another, and enjoy the waves.”

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