Far from its Pacific origins, paddleboarding finds fans in Maine.
They arrive at the beach one-by-one. Some wear wetsuits, others are dressed in bathing suits, and a few seem to be sporting hiking gear. The group is mixed—there are men with white hair and women who look fresh out of college, and all age groups in between. They come carrying boards. Long, unwieldy objects, their epoxy resin surfaces are shiny candy-apple red and ultramarine blue, and each one is longer than its carrier is tall. The weekend warriors line up on the silky sand of Willard Beach and look out towards the horizon. In minutes, they will be paddling toward Peaks Island. The racecourse is over eight miles long, and even the best paddlers won’t be back to shore for several hours.
I watch them as they push out into the water and set out for Peaks. Each stand-up paddleboarder is his or her own vessel, a one- person ship with a single rudder, a single oar, a single goal.
I first came upon the sport of stand-up paddleboarding—known as SUP—four years ago, but like many contemporary trends (including home brewing and tiny houses) this so-called fad has been around for centuries. SUP is believed to have originated in seventeenth-century Hawaii, and for many paddleboarders, it’s the simplicity of the sport that explains the longevity of its appeal. “I have always thought it was interesting that paddleboarding seems like the final iteration of water sports when really it is the most obvious iteration,” says Rafael Adams, founder of SoPoSUP and the Casco Bay Summer SUP racing series. “If you look at the way we’re built, the evolution of humans, we’re made to stand on our feet, and our arms are clearly made to use a tool—like a paddle. It’s almost like we’re designed to do this.”
Craig Brett, a South Portland-based cardiologist, says that although he grew up around boats, he has since become a paddleboard convert. Like Adams, he finds SUP more physically comfortable than sitting in a kayak or canoe. Plus, it is just easier. “Boats are great, but you have to trailer them, launch them, maintain them. They’re a pain and they’re expensive. But a lot of what I can do on a boat I can do so much easier on a paddleboard, like cruise around the Casco Bay islands or go for a picnic on a beach,” he says. Adams agrees. “Paddleboarding can be a really casual sport,” he says. “You can have the spark of an idea, and just go.” Since the boards weigh less than 30 pounds, they are also easy to carry and transport. “That’s opened the sport up to a lot of women, which is a good thing in my opinion,” says Adams.
For the better part of a decade, Adams has promoted the sport through his South Portland store (now closed) and the racing series. In addition, Adams provides paddleboarding lessons and rentals. He organizes informal clinics, where paddleboarders can get together to observe and critique each other’s form. Brett says this was particularly helpful when he was starting out. “I learned that my stroke was a little wide—that I was bringing my paddle too far back,” he explains. “It’s amazing what you can learn from other people in the paddling community, especially because you can’t see yourself when you’re paddling.” Although the races do have an element of competition, SUP enthusiasts tend to be an open, welcoming group. “I love working with beginners,” Adams says. “I really just want people to get into the sport that I love.”
Adams became enamored with the sport seven years ago. “For me, the appeal of paddleboarding boils down to being on the water, intimately connected with the ocean,” he says. In the summer, he likes to paddle around islands, like House, Richmond, Cushing, and Peaks, examining the shore from his watery perch. “You see things differently when you’re on the water—not sitting down in a kayak or sailing on a boat,” he says. “But truly standing on the water. That feeling is so absurd. It doesn’t feel normal, but at the same time, it feels absolutely normal.” In the winter, he rides the larger swells, using his paddleboard like a surfboard. After paddleboarders learn the basics of their sport, he explains, they go in a few different directions. Some use the boards to race, while others use them to surf, and some even treat them as floating platforms for yoga and other activities.
“While you can go out on a paddleboard on a lake and experience some wind chop, that isn’t as satisfying for me,” Adams says. “Personally, I find riding the swells, those big waves that come maybe halfway around the world—I find that much more captivating.” Feeling the swell under the board, his feet rooted to the textured grip, is like “riding on the chest of a giant, and just feeling it breathe beneath you,” he says. “The ocean is like something alive. The whole experience becomes almost magical.”
As his racing series shows, SUP need not be a solo affair. This is one of the great perks of the sport—SUP lends itself equally well to social meet-ups as it does to quiet, personal workouts. “One of the nice things about SUP is that you can make it suit you and your body. Sometimes you can have a calm, leisurely paddle. But other times you can ramp up your cadence and muscle through each stroke,” says Brett. As a doctor, he often deals with elderly patients— people who have bad knees or painful joints or other ailments—and he frequently suggests they try SUP. “Paddling forces you to use your balance mechanisms, even in calm water,” he explains. “That means it is a great activity for people whose joints can’t withstand running. It can be an aerobic activity, and a great core workout.”
SUP is also adaptable to various weather conditions. In the winter, when many of the tour boats have left Casco Bay, Adams and his group paddle around the Portland city shoreline, enjoying the relative calm and delighting diners at DiMillo’s and other waterfront eateries. In the fall, writer Kate Miles enjoys paddling on the Saco River and soaking in the colors of the season. “In a way, that’s the best time to be on the water,” Miles says. “The water is warm, and it is just the prettiest time in Maine.” While Miles paddles for exercise and as a social activity, she too emphasizes the importance of gaining new perspectives of the Maine landscape.
“There’s something about being on the board that gives you an incredible vantage,” she says. “You can go into these complex ecotones, where shore meets water, where all these rich things are happening in the natural world. You can see the jellyfish arrive, or have a seal follow you around.” Last summer, she spent a day on the water surrounded by a pod of porpoises. “The physical side is important, but there’s
also this intentional, peaceful side to paddling, where you get close to the landscape.” That, she adds, “is such an incredible gift.”