Paddleboarding is the fastest growing water sport in the world and if you haven’t heard of it, read on, because the Puget Sound is one of the best places on earth to enjoy it.
Chris Fry, owner of West Bay Paddleboard, may just be Olympia’s de facto paddleboard guru. After years of outrigger racing and kayaking, he discovered the sport five years ago. He’s now been leading classes and renting and selling boards for two and a half years.
“I looked online and saw Laird Hamilton – the god of surfing – doing some stand up paddling, and I said, ‘That’s for me!’ says Fry. “And I’ve never looked back.”
Fry is also a personal trainer and woodworker. “I wish this could be my full-time gig, but the seasons are so short,” he says. Puget Sound paddleboarding season usually runs from April through October.
The history of paddleboarding
Paddleboarding is an ancient form of surfing that originated in Hawaii and resurfaced there in the early 1960s when surfers stood on their surfboards and used outrigger paddles to move through the water to better see incoming waves.
The modern paddleboard – similar to a surfboard, but larger and more stable – ranges from roughly 11 to 14 feet long and 30 inches wide or so. The paddle is about 10 inches longer than the rider.
A decade ago, famous Hawaiian surfers, including Laird Hamilton, began to use stand up paddleboarding, or SUP, as a training alternative when the surf slowed. The idea grew into a sport, and races began to pop up across Hawaii.
It didn’t take long for the activity to blossom and spread. “Now it’s in Europe, Florida, the Northeast, the Great Lakes, Alaska,” says Fry. “It’s all over.”
Puget Sound’s protected waters are ideal for smooth paddling, with the added bonus of jaw-droppingly gorgeous natural surroundings.
“People do fall in, it’s not unheard of, but I’ve had a pretty good success rate,” says Fry, who takes people out for lessons almost daily. “I’d say maybe two go in a week.”
Those who do succumb to the water are usually afraid that they’ll fall to begin with. “And if you’ve got that mindset, you’re going to go in,” Fry says, laughing.
Races take place on any given weekend during Puget Sound’s paddleboarding season. The largest event in our area is Seattle’s Round the Rock race in September, a 13-mile chase around Mercer Island on Lake Washington.
“I used to race,” says Fry, “but now – it’s kind of a corny adage – it’s all about the journey for me. I just like to be out there.”
Fry describes paddle boarding as very Zen-like. “It’s just you, the board, the paddle, and the water. It’s very simplistic.”
Paddleboarding with others can also be therapeutic. “You go out there and you talk about things you never thought you’d be talking about, because it’s so clearing. It just clears your mind. I can’t say enough good things about it,” Fry says.
It’s also a great workout. “You’re out there for an hour, hour and a half, and you don’t even feel like you’re getting a workout, but it really works your core.”
Fry now does everything from basic short routes to 19-miles paddles, as well as leading stand up paddling fitness classes, where he takes workout moves normally done in a gym and puts them on a paddleboard. Incorporating balance into the workouts makes for an even meaner core workout.
SUP fitness classes involve a variety of paddling sprints and getting down on the board to do abdominal crunches and cycles, leg lifts and planks. Plans are also in the works to start up SUP yoga classes later this summer.
Christe Smith is the owner of Rock Bottom Personal Training and has been out with Fry a few times.
“It’s great. It’s like you’re in a kayak, but you have more freedom, you’re not as confined,” Smith says. “And depending on the tides, you’ll see fish, sea stars, seals – tons of wildlife. It’s a lot of fun.”
Smith says paddleboarding is a great way to break out of an exercise rut.
“People get so bored with their exercise programs. This is a really great way of changing up your workouts,” she says.
Fry agrees, and points out another benefit paddleboarding in local waters has over the gym. “Sometimes you’ll be working out and a seal will pop up ten feet from you, checking you out, like, ‘What’s going on?’” he says with a laugh. “You won’t see that in a gym.”
“It’s also one of the best cross-training sports out there, because it’s no impact at all — except for your pocketbook, initially,” says Fry.
With the sport’s skyrocketing popularity, boards can now be found for around $400 at some big box stores. But Fry cautions against it. “You’ll be taking it back the next week, because you won’t be able stand up on it.”
According to Fry, anything under $800 isn’t likely to offer adequate performance.
“If you want a good board, you’re looking at $800, $900 on up,” he says, comparing the purchase to that of a serious cyclist who wouldn’t think of buying a Huffy just to save a few bucks.
He recommends a board that’s at least 11 feet long, 30 inches wide, and 4 ½ inches thick. “You need a board that’s long enough and the right width, so you have stability. But if you get a board that’s too wide, you compromise performance, and feel like a slug who can’t keep up with your buds.”
Once you’ve made the initial investment of the board and paddle, you’re good to go. “Just throw it on top of your car and you can go anywhere – to alpine lakes, rivers, the bay,” says Fry.
“My favorite spot to drop in is at Boston Harbor,” says Fry. “There are so many possible routes from there.” If the wind is right, Fry goes down to Olympia; if the tide is right, he heads out and around Hope Island or north to Anderson Island or Harstine Island.
Fry’s preferred inland lake is Lake Sinclair, “because it has so many little inlets to paddle.”
Another favorite aspect of paddleboarding for Fry? Other local paddleboarders.
“One of the great things is the camaraderie we have as a stand up paddling community here,” says Fry. “We started a meet-up group last September and get together Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for after-work social paddles.” Throughout the season, the ever-expanding group does fun, goofy things like jousting or hula hooping on the boards, and little races.
Fry paddles year-round, with the help of a wet suit in colder months, and he isn’t alone. “If they see me going out, a lot of locals will go out too. They say, ‘This guy’s nuts, I’ll go too!’” Fry says, laughing.
“A lot of us paddleboarders, in the winter, we just wait for that ultimate day, and then we call each other and we’re out doing a downwinder,” says Fry. “The surfers are looking for the perfect wave – we’re looking for the sun.”
West Bay Paddleboards