I started surfing when I was 13. Nearing 30, one would hope I'd know how to do it by now. That's up for debate.
If a statistician charted the number of hours I've spent in the water floating on a surfboard against the number of hours I've spent standing on one, well, the graph would be notably skewed.
It's easy to blame my futile surfing career on my build — what with my mountain-climbing legs and ramen-noodle arms. On trips to Nicaragua and Peru, not to mention hurricane-powered days on the Gulf Coast and Folly Beach, I'm usually spent and flustered by the time I make it out to the lineup.
Fortunately, I found a way to redeem myself: stand-up paddleboarding. After all, I can paddle all day on a canoe or kayak, so standing on a paddleboard should be cake, right?
Out on Folly Beach, my friend Big Jon Ory recently opened a tour and lesson company, Charleston SUP Safaris. Until this assignment came, I'd yet to take him up on his offer to get me on the water.
In the creek behind my house, I practiced for our lesson by standing up on my kayak. I got wet a lot, but I wasn't discouraged. Big Jon explained to me how to shift my body weight to maintain a forward trajectory while paddling and offered safety tips, the primary being, "There's a big fin on this board. Don't be in front of it when a wave comes."
It wasn't long before I was ready for the real thing, just as Lake Folly showed the first signs of a swell in over a month. We carried our mammoth boards over the boardwalk and onto the beach. Unlike today's surfboard, which is anywhere from six- to 10-feet long, a paddleboard is 11 or 12 feet.
My first time out was a success. I stood up, bent my knees, and felt the motion of the ocean. I was on my way out to sea. My first impression was how easy it was to move quickly up and down the beach; it's far easier to build up speed with a paddle than with just a pair of hands. I also discovered another advantage of paddleboarding: paddleboarders can scout a wave long before it's visible from water level. It's a perfect vessel for Folly's rolling, hesitant-to-break mush. Suddenly, every wave is a prospect.
"This is the evolution of surfing, right here," says Ory, as we paddle by a group of surfers. "It's like sex in a Cadillac — all the comfort, without sacrificing the excitement and adventure."
After plenty of falling off, standing back up, and falling off again, I finally caught a wave. I turned right, which is rarely the best option on Folly, and rode almost all the way to shore.
Later, just as high tide was beginning to slack and the waves started to pick up, I dropped into another wave, but found myself uncontrollably stepping backward and into the water. At six inches thick and 12-feet long, these things are like boats. You don't want to fall forward into a crashing wave with the board behind you.
I then got up on my knees. It's easier to glide into a wave and then stand. A few of these helped build my confidence back up, so, by the end of the session, I was spotting waves, paddling to them on foot, and riding them to shore.
It was almost too easy. In fact, it's a wonder that some surfers express disdain for their new neighbors. Heck, you could teach a monkey to do this.
A monkey? That's exactly what I looked like. After the day was over with, Ory showed me a video of me paddleboarding and I saw for myself the "monkey stance" I've always assumed I do — elbows at right angles, hands dangling — when I'm riding a wave. Fortunately, with all the extra time on my feet to practice, maybe I will finally be able to master a stance that doesn't give away my permanent rookie surfing status.
Charleston SUP Safaris,
83 Center St., Folly Beach,
1255 Ben Sawyer Blvd., Mt. Pleasant,
1313 Long Grove Drive, Mt. Pleasant,