Stand-up paddleboarding, the country’s fastest growing water sport, is expanding from lakes and harbors to whitewater rapids near you. To the uninitiated, upright paddlers running whitewater might look strange or even reckless. But enthusiasts say whitewater stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) makes small rapids exciting and requires only practice and a sound understanding of river safety.
A Rising Wave
Traditional SUP—including surfing, racing, and yoga varieties—has been growing for years. In a 2013 report, the Outdoor Foundation (OF) listed paddleboarding as the most popular activity among first-time participants. According to OF’s 2015 report, SUP saw a 30.5 percent participant increase from 2012 to 2015. While whitewater is still a relatively niche community, 10 percent of SUP instructors certified by the American Canoe Association are now certified in whitewater.
Even so, many adopters come not from traditional SUP but from whitewater kayaking. Jim Sullivan, an instructor for Zoar Outdoor in Charlemont, Mass., says whitewater SUP offers paddlers a new thrill.
“Standing in whitewater has been around for longer than most people think,” Sullivan says. “Striding,” or standing on an inflatable canoe, dates back to the 1990s. In 2002, the surfer Laird Hamilton drew attention to SUP when he paddleboarded the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
Whitewater SUP has seen the most growth out west, where new parks have made it more accessible. By diverting rivers and installing underwater pumps and platforms, these human-built rapids are able to provide consistent whitewater for year-round recreation.
This artificial-whitewater trend has spread throughout the western United States. Colorado alone has more than a dozen venues. In the eastern United States, with fewer waterparks, whitewater SUP is more dependent on seasonal whitewater conditions.
While SUP paddlers have explored rapids on flatwater paddleboards for years, the gear industry is catching up. Whitewater-specific products now include plastic or inflatable boards, often with flexible fins for improved maneuverability.
Mark Zakutansky, AMC’s director of conservation policy engagement and a whitewater SUP enthusiast, believes technology will enable SUPers to attack even more difficult rapids. “But there are inherent caps,” he says. “It will always be a niche of the larger paddleboarding community.”
Sullivan says he’s asked about safety often, and whitewater SUPers are the first to admit they spend a lot of time in, rather than on, the water. As with any whitewater vessel, safety equipment is essential. Personal flotation devices (PFDs), helmets, and wetsuits are universal. Some paddlers also wear knee and elbow pads.
The use of leashes, or a strap connecting the SUPer’s ankle to the board, is more hotly debated. Whitewater has far more obstacles than flatwater, and leashes can tangle on rocks and branches. Many paddlers forego a leash, while others opt for quick-release versions.
Although whitewater SUP might look dangerous, Zakutansky offers another perspective: “It actually eliminates some of the perceived risks associated with paddling, like being submerged in a kayak while wearing a spray skirt.” Zakutansky sees challenges as an added bonus: “I can surf a little 6-inch wave and have the time of my life. Most kayakers would find that boring, but on a board you’re going to love it!”