Sunday, January 6, 2008

Stand-Up Paddle Surfing

The following article recently appeared on Alex Wade's blog for The Times entitled Surf Nation. It was written following a recent trip to Portugal with Tiki in which I got the change to interview big wave legends Dave Kalama and Keone Downing.

“Waterman is a term which is over-used and even abused.” So says Dave Kalama who, along with his friend and tow-in partner Laird Hamilton, is probably the greatest all-round waterman of the modern world. He explains his thinking: "The term waterman starts with a philosophy. It starts with ‘anything goes’. You’ve got to have your mind open to discover things….taking everything the ocean has to offer and recognising that if I take this piece of equipment all of a sudden these things are cross-referencing and advancing.”

Kalama certainly has the pedigree to make such sweeping statements. His grandfather was one of the best bodysurfers of the forties and fifties in Hawaii and took canoe-surfing to California, while his father Ilima was the U.S. surfing champion in 1962. As for the man himself, Kalama was a world champion windsurfer before becoming one of the pioneers of tow-in surfing at Jaws on his home island of Maui.

Given so illustrious, and grounded, a backstory, it is no doubt appropriate that the latest phase of Kalama's career is taking him right back to the roots of surfing itself with stand-up paddle surfing - or, to its converts, SUP. Modest and always aware of the long tradition that precedes him, Kalama is keen to correct a misapprehension by some that he and Laird invented the sport. He is at pains to point out that it goes back to the ancient Polynesian paddlers who used the term ‘Ku Hoe He’e Nalu' which, translated literally, means ‘to stand - to paddle - to surf wave’.
The modern sport was revived by another great surfing pioneer, Duke Kahanomoku, and it popularised at Waikiki Beach in the 1960s when photographers would surf standing backwards in order that they could take photographs for the tourists. It then pretty much disappeared until the mid-nineties when Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton rediscovered it - by accident. “We were on a photoshoot and were getting bored. The waves were 1’ to 2’ and we had a couple of paddles. When we get bored is usually when stuff gets invented. It made it fun.”

Since then paddle surfing, for Kalama, has become much more than a mere distraction. “Stand up paddle surfing represents the majority of my surfing now," he says. "Maybe up to eighty per cent, so it’s a very significant part of my daily fix of surfing.” He adds, tough, that “It’s not meant to replace surfing. It’s just something which is really fun. I like that there are so many different levels and facets that you discover along the way. You can do all the maneuvers that you do in longboarding and then you throw the paddle in and it creates a whole different element.” For Kalama, indeed, the journey towards mastery of a particular activity is more important than its destination: there’s a sense that once he’s completely mastered something, he almost immediately wants to move onto something new. As he says, “I really like the fact that I’m learning and there’s still a lot to learn about it. It makes mediocre surf really fun again and it gives you that excitement and that enthusiasm to keep you driven to go out and play in the surf every day which keeps you healthy and keeps your attitude right and keeps life good.”

Kalama is in Portugal promoting his South Point SUP board along with a range of his favourite surf boards which are distributed in the UK by Tiki International. Meeting him, what is at once apparent is his modesty. That and his sense of fun - a word he used a lot. He gets into the water, even in the most dangerous conditions, to have fun with his friends and to push the limits. It is this spirit of enjoyment and creativity which also encapsulates the sport of stand-up paddle surfing. As for the boards which bear his name, typically he lets actions speak louder than words. This includes riding a 9’2” South Point longboard on a 16’ to 18’ wave at Jaws. He mentions the authenticity of the designs and the philosophy behind South Point which has gathered together a very tight knit team of world class surfers including Bonga Perkins and George and Keone Downing, not to mention some top shapers including Carl Shaper, Kym Thompson and Jeff Timpone. As he puts it, with characteristic simplicity: “I believe in it and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t put my name to it.”
As for stand-up paddle-surfing in the UK, it may be in its infancy but with the arrival of the BSUPA as well as the country's first national championships (held just a couple of months ago) the future looks bright. Not least, if domestic practitioners of this ancient art can harness just a little of Dave Kalama's admirable, and inveterate, enthusiasm.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your article. I am a lawyer by profession. I say profession because it sucks and pales in comparison to my main interest, which is riding my Southpoint Kalama Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP). Dave Kalama is absolutely right in the article when he says that SUP surfing adds a whole new excitement to enjoying the facets of the ocean. It performs equally well as a longboard or as an SUP. It handles steep drops and glides on waves. It seems to rise to the ocassion as the waves get bigger. It is definitely is the fastest board I have ever used. I recommend it to anyone seeking a new ocean experience. A typical SUP surfing experience involves catching 45 very long rides per day. That is simply not possible with conventional shortboards or Mals.

Jeff said...

When I was out in the water a couple of weekends ago I saw one of these stand-up paddle surfers. I was surprised to see how easily he was able to catch waves, however I did notice a few flaws. To start the addition of a 6 foot paddle can be dangerous, especially if you have to ditch your board in a hurry. Also, when their are other surfers out, the paddle seems like it would be hazzardous to them as well. Lastly, the etiquette for this is still unaddressed. Does the surfer or the standing surfer go first? Anyway I enjoyed reading this post very much and I am glad to see the sport of surfing is growing by the day. Congrats on retiring, and the book. Feel free to check out my surf blog on blogger as well. Good luck and keep surfing.

Ventura, CA, USA

andy martin said...

I am a convert. One word of warning for wannabees. Beware the core muscles! You have to get used to all that twisting and turning and shoving with the paddle. I am now sitting under a palm tree near Waimea Bay recovering, but I expect the 'fun' kalama speaks of to return one of these fine days.