Sunday, August 30, 2009

2007 Seattle Times Article

This article originally appeared in The Seattle Times in November of 2007. Bellinghamster Mike McQuaide authored it....

No waves? No problem. When you can't surf, paddle surf

November. That time of year when the skies above Camano Island are simply resplendent, decked out as they are in the whole spectrum of colors...

Special to The Seattle Times

Investing in gear

So, how deep a pocket do you need? In general, stand-up paddle surfboards cost between $1,000 and $1,700 and can be rented for about $45 per day. If you just want to try it out, you can do what Bellingham firefighter Beau Whitehead did: He bought an old windsurfing board for $100 at a garage sale and then made his own paddle by affixing an old kayak blade to a long aluminum paint-roller extension. Once he was hooked and knew it was time to upgrade, he went the eBay route and scored a board for $650. Because of the board's size, shipping was more than $200.

If you go

SUP surfing

Getting started

Here are some Web sites with loads of great information on getting started and getting good at stand-up paddle surfing:


Finding gear

The following shops sell and rent surfboards, wetsuits and all kinds of surfing-related gear:

Urban Surf, 2100 N. Northlake Way, Seattle; 206-545-9463 or

Cheka-Looka Surf Shop, 3507 Evanston Ave. N., Seattle; 206-726-7878 or

Wave Hounds, 4033 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle; 206-632-7750 or

Perfect Wave Surf Shop, 8209 124th Ave. N.E., Kirkland; 425-827-5323 or

Get ski and boarding conditions all winter long with webcams, snow alerts and more

November. That time of year when the skies above Camano Island are simply resplendent, decked out as they are in the whole spectrum of colors. From gray to really gray to darkish gray to bluish gray to darkish gray that's almost bluish — it's all here.

It's a color palette that blends seamlessly into the waters of Puget Sound. Luckily though, the skies this time of year are oft crisscrossed by swans, eagles, herons, kingfishers and the like so that observers can distinguish where the sky ends and the water begins. (The sky is the one with the birds.) And on this mid-November weekday, the water is the one occupied by two neoprene-clad humans who appear to be walking across its surface. Even stranger, in their hands they hold long-handled implements with which they make motions as if sweeping out the garage or raking leaves.

In truth, they're stand-up paddle surfers who, as the name suggests, stand atop specially made surfboards while propelling themselves forward and steering with long-handled paddles. Kinda like sea kayaking but standing while doing it. And on a surfboard. At first glance, it looks like they're out on the water engaged in something they hadn't planned on.

"I've had people call the fire department when they see me out here," says one of the two, Steve Martin, a Camano Island firefighter who's been stand-up paddle surfing (or SUP surfing, as it's often called) for four years. "They think I'm a stranded windsurfer who's lost his sail."

Says today's other stand-up guy, Bellingham firefighter Beau Whitehead: "I get people taking pictures of me pretty much every time I'm out on the water."

Wave, goodbye!

Like most things surf-related, SUP surfing originated in Hawaii. A few years ago, some wave surfers started using a paddle to catch up to waves, or as a way to play around on days when the waves weren't particularly good. Earlier this decade, more and more folks began SUP surfing because of its own merits: Since you have a paddle and aren't reliant on waves, you can paddle surf in lakes, rivers and on relatively flat water such as Puget Sound; you can travel great distances; it's relatively easy to learn, and it's a great workout. Especially for your core.

"The morning after my first day on the board, I felt like I'd done a thousand sit-ups," said Whitehead. "My abs have never been stronger."

With just about the only place for any kind of reliable waves being Westport or some similar multihour-drive-requiring Washington Coast spot, many Puget Sound-area surfers and paddling enthusiasts are picking up SUP surfing. It's something they can do on Green Lake, Lake Union, Lake Washington and at countless bays and inlets up and down the Sound.

"I've been up at Edmonds and seen guys paddle surfing ferry wakes," says Aaron Clark, manager at Fremont's Cheka-Looka Surf Shop, which sells and rents SUP surfboards and equipment. "It gives people a little surf fix without having to drive all the way to the coast."

Stuff you need

On this gray November day, Martin and Whitehead met up for a paddle at Camano Island's Maple Grove Boat Launch on the north side of Camano. They'd stopped at a couple other put-in spots but deemed them "too lumpy" — the southerly wind was kicking up a fast-moving swell that would've made paddling out just about impossible. At Maple Grove, the wind was blocked and the water just right for some flatwater paddling.

Martin brought two boards: a 12 ½-foot, 30-inch-wide board that can be used for both distance paddling and catching waves (Whitehead's board was similar) and an orange 16-foot, slightly narrower board made specifically for distance paddling. Unlike a typical surfboard (or SUP board), the bottom of this board is almost triangular in shape, like the bottom of a boat.

"It's kind of like a kayak that you stand on," Martin says. "You can't really ride waves on it, but this thing just screams — it's unreal how fast it is."

SUP paddles, usually made of aluminum and wood, are long — about six to nine inches longer than the paddler is tall — and have blades about the size of a racquetball racquet. (As a sideline, Martin makes SUP paddles, Kai Koa Surf Paddles, and sells them at several local surf shops for $250.)

After Martin and Whitehead don wetsuits — Martin's is made for surfing; Whitehead's is a triathlon suit — and neoprene booties, they hit the water. Though the water is typical Puget Sound chilly 50-something degrees, they don't wear neoprene hoodies or swim caps because they likely won't fall in. Being wide and flat, the boards are pretty darn stable.

"I overheat in this thing," Whitehead says, tugging at the neck of his wetsuit, "so lots of times I'll jump in the water to cool off."

A sea sponge!

Putting in, there doesn't appear to be any of those must-quickly-swing-legs-around-or-I-will-tip-over maneuvers like one has with getting in a kayak. Both Martin and Whitehead, who started SUP surfing just this past summer, placed their boards in front of them in the water and just kind of hopped up onto them.

And then they're off. Paddling back and forth along the shoreline, under gray skies with darkish, greenish-gray Whidbey Island in the background.

"The view is great when you're out on one of those things," says SUP surfer Rick Ratcliff, who stops by mostly, it seems, to harass Martin, with whom he frequently paddles. "Standing up, you can see so much farther than when you're down low like in a kayak. You can see farther down into the water, too. It's really a trip."

Martin and Whitehead take turns on each other's boards with Whitehead the novice, but an extremely fit and athletic one, gathering tips and pointers from Martin.

"I'm like a sponge trying to learn all this new stuff," he says.

Overhead, an eagle and a few gulls make some noise, intent on raising a ruckus over something. They've probably never seen anything like this before, these two guys who appear to be walking on water.

Maybe the birds are concerned. Think the guys are in trouble. That they're windsurfers who've lost their sails.

And this is the birds' way of calling the fire department.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! Central Cascades" and "Day Hike! North Cascades" (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at mikemcquaide@

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company