Back in the resort-town boom years of the 1930s and 1940s, Santa Monica was the center of a popular craze known as paddleboarding, a sport that had found its way over to the mainland from Hawaii. The concept was simple: All you had to do was lie on the board and use your hands to propel yourself through the water. Men and women alike gravitated to the activity, and the Santa Monica Pier, which housed boarding clubs for each, became ground zero for aficionados.
Flash forward nearly a century and the Santa Monica Bay is once again dotted with paddleboarders, only now the sport has been modified. Stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, has become all the rage, and with good reason.
“You don’t feel like you’re running a marathon, but you’re firing your core,” says Sara Luke, co-owner of Venice’s Koha Yoga, which also offers paddleboarding classes. “There is no other sport like it.”
It’s this core strengthening that has made paddleboarding so popular among fitness buffs and celebrities looking to maintain a camera-ready body. The balance required to stay on the board works all the core muscles, with the added benefit that you work even harder than during land-based activities since there’s an incentive: If you don’t balance, into the drink you go.
Even better: Stand-up paddleboarding is super-easy to learn. Unlike with surfing or kiteboarding, most people will be up and paddling in under an hour. And even those with larger builds will find the sport accessible.
For those still leery of their paddling prowess, Whakacaingia Luke, Koha Yoga’s other owner, recommends starting out in Marina del Rey, where the ocean water is as flat as can be found in Southern California. His own personal favorite haunts include the break at Topanga and paddling from the marina to the Venice Pier, but for beginners, dragging a board through the breakwater of a beach can be daunting. “Mother’s Beach is the best,” says Whaka, referring to the beach in the marina officially named Basin D.
Joel Brand, founder of the Santa Monica Pier Paddleboard Race and Ocean Festival, concurs with Whaka, and also recommends the Pro SUP Shop, located right on Mother’s, although there are a slew of other qualified shops in the area.
“SUP history had gotten lost,” said Brand when asked why he started the festival, “and we wanted to shine a light on it for its true place in our community’s history.” The event, which also includes a pop-up museum devoted to boarding and lifeguarding, has attracted many veterans who remember the sport’s earlier days. Esther Maire, who won the Pacific Coast Paddle Board Championship at the Pier in 1947, has made several appearances, even bringing the board she won on.
But it’s one of boarding’s biggest names that most people credit with the resurgence in paddleboarding’s popularity. “Laird Hamilton brought it back,” says Brand, speaking of the world-famous big-wave surfer who resides in Malibu when not catching monster swells in Maui. “Laird had the prominence to make it famous.”
And famous it is. Paddleboarders can now be found on lakes and rivers across the country. “When a fad makes it to the Midwest, you know it’s gotten big,” says Whaka, who often journeys to Wisconsin and beyond to teach lessons.
The Lukes cite the outdoor experience as one of their favorite aspects of the sport. “There’s a connection to nature when you’re paddleboarding,” says Sara, who has often encountered dolphins and sea lions on her ocean-going excursions.
Plus, it’s a great group activity. “It’s very social,” says Brand, “unlike surfing, where people are competing for waves.”
For those interested in supping, as enthusiasts often refer to their sport, there are some tips and etiquette to keep in mind. Since Whaka often paddles off the coast, he makes it a pointing of yielding the right of way to surfers, which he says is custom. Sara reminds beginners to brush up on their self-confidence. “If you can walk on the sidewalk, you have a connection to our core,” she says. Translate that to a board by saying, “I have a connection to my core. I have balance.”
But, most importantly, have a sense of humor. “Because,” says Sara, “you’re going to fall down. At least once.”