Anyone can learn to standup paddle (SUP) in calm conditions. First-timers going out on flat, calm water need just a handful of skills and a half-day of practice to grasp the sport's basics. Todd Bradley, founder of board manufacturer C4 Waterman, and instructors John Denney of East Coast Paddle Surfing in Jupiter, Fla., and Izzy Tihanyi of Surf Diva's What'SUP Surf School in La Jolla, Calif., help shed light on establishing the right skill foundation.
Board to Water
Make sure you have an instructor or shop fit you to the right board based on your height, weight and ability. Pick a spot with flatwater and as little wind as possible. Carry the board cradled under your forearm, on your hip, or by the handle with the nose facing forward. "If you carry the board on your head, you can tweak your neck," Denney says.
This sport requires serious balance, so first find the "sweet spot" of the board. "It's usually just south of the middle of the board," Tihanyi says. If you are too far forward, you will sink the nose; too far back, and you will sink the tail. Start on your knees and when you're ready to stand, slowly get to your feet, placing your feet parallel at shoulder-width. Keep your knees bent, hips forward, back straight and head up, looking at the horizon. "In yoga, this is called the neutral power stance," Bradley says. "The minute you get unstable, bend your knees and straighten your back." If conditions become choppy or you get tired, drop to your knees to paddle.
Mastering the Paddle
Most paddles have their logo facing forward for a quick reference on how to hold them. One hand should be on the top T-grip and the other should hold the paddle shaft just wider than shoulder-distance apart. When taking a stroke, your bottom hand should be on the same side you're paddling on. If you lose it—and you will—try to fall away from your paddle and board. If separated from your equipment, swim to your board first then paddle prone (as you would on a surfboard) to retrieve the paddle. Use a board leash when you're ready to enter the surf zone.
Walk on Water
Stand in neutral, looking at the horizon. Using maximum reach, extend your arms to fully submerge the paddle into the water alongside your board. Keep your top arm relatively straight with a slight bend at the elbow. Twist your torso back to center and use your top arm to drive the paddle through the water to propel the board forward. Pull the paddle out of the water when the blade is at your feet. Paddle for a few strokes on one side and then switch. "Your strokes should be short and up front," Bradley reminds.
Bradley says the easiest way to turn the board is to use slow, sweeping paddling motions on the opposite side you want to go. Turn left by using slow strokes on your right and do the opposite to turn right. "You can lose your balance when you turn so just remember to balance by bending at your hips and knees—like doing the hula—not at your shoulders."