About five years ago, surfing legend and Bend resident Gerry Lopez went into his shop in Maui and built his first stand-up paddle board, a one-off job for a special client. A week and a half later, big wave legend Laird Hamilton, walked into Lopez’s shop to claim the stand-up board that would launch a frenzy over the emergent sport.
Stand-up paddling is essentially surfing with a paddle and can be done on virtually any body of water. Participants balance on boards between 8 and 14 feet while paddling with a long-shaft canoe paddle. Some stand-up paddlers surf coastal waters with shorter boards and mimic traditional surfing. Others cruise along on 11-foot boards on the flat water of lakes or rivers.
Though stand-up paddling has become a sweeping recreational and commercial enterprise over the past five years, its origins are humble and essentially Hawaiian.
Lopez, now 61, recalls the birth of the sport. “We’d see this guy in the early 1960s, and he was the only guy doing it,” says Lopez. In 1940, or thereabouts, John Zapotokcky, a Pennsylvanian, landed in hawaii with the Navy. One day he saw a guy paddling a surfboard with an outrigger paddle, Lopez recalls. That guy was early surfing icon and U.S. Olympic gold medal swimmer, Duke Kahanamoku, who earned five Olympic medals between 1912 in Stockholm and 1924 in Paris.
Zapotocky liked what he saw and soon was paddling a surfboard with a wooden canoe paddle. The sport was born and lived on the fringe—with no manufacturing interest, no organized races, no poster-boy faces—until decades later when Laird Hamilton convinced Lopez to build him a stand-up paddle board.
“It was so big and heavy, he was the only one who could pick it up,” says Lopez, laughing. “When he came to get it and saw it, he said, ‘It’s perfect. I want ten more of them just like it for all of my friends.’”
At age 14 and growing up on the Oahu island, Lopez made a name for himself by winning the state surfing championship. He went on to win the hallowed Pipeline Masters competition, a triple crown event for top professional surfers, which was later renamed the Gerry Lopez Pipeline Masters. Over the years, Lopez moved to Bend to snowboard at Mt. Bachelor. Even from land-locked Central Oregon, Lopez’s impact on surfing and as a premier stand-up paddle board shaper is evident.
“In stand-up, unlike any other aspect of surfi ng, there’s almost instant success,” Lopez says. “It’s a terrific workout, and if you do it a lot, it’s an unbelievable workout.”
Oddly enough, not just one but two icons of the largely Hawaiian and Californian sport live and work in Central Oregon. Lopez, builds his signature stand-up paddle boards in Bend and Dave Chun, a stand-up paddlemaker and native Hawaiian, runs Kialoa from Bend, too.
With a custom board built by Lopez five years ago, Hamilton called Chun and asked him to make him a better paddle. “The sport was so new, it didn’t even have a name yet,” Chun says. A bit baffled, Chun asked Hamilton why he didn’t just buy a paddle from the guy who made his last paddles. “Well, I broke all of them,” Chun recalls Hamilton saying.
Chun brought aluminum and carbon to the manufacturing process and Kialoa, already known as a top outrigger paddle-maker, instantly became one of the most respected—and durable—paddles in the stand-up discipline. “The sport’s accessibility is good and the learning curve is short,” Chun says. “People are looking for a fun activity that’s relatively inexpensive. Once you buy a paddle and a board, you’re set. You don’t have to buy a season pass every year thereafter.”
Naturally flat-water races have sprung up as a competitive outlet, and a new era of athletes are finding these competitions wide open for the taking.
Karen Wrenn, a Portlander, began paddling just three years ago. She is now considered one of the top athletes in elite stand-up paddle races in such settings as Hawaii, North Carolina, California and in the Columbia River Gorge.
“Originally, I got started because of the fitness aspect and being able to have a blast when there is no wind,” says Wrenn. “Now I like to go into all kinds of conditions. When it’s windy, I go on down-winders, or I can go to the coast to ride waves and in calm conditions. It’s fun to just go explore.”
Once a windsurfer and kiteboarder who spent many summer days in the Gorge, Wrenn took quickly to the new sport. A recent race from Catalina Island to the shores of Dana Point, California offered a great challenge and a rare perk of the sport.
“At one point, a Minke whale joined me for two hours,” says an awe-struck Wrenn. “I can’t really explain what it is like to have this kind of eye-to-eye encounter. I will never look at the ocean and its inhabitants in the same way.”
Bob Rueter, the owner of the Gorge Performance surf shop in Portland, has seen a lot of women in their 30s seeking the next thing in water sports in the five years he’s been selling stand-up paddle boards.
“It is one of the bright parts of surf business,” Rueter says. “Stand-up paddling is bringing people to the water who may not have thought about getting on the water before.”
With the surge in the popularity of stand-up paddling, Gorge Performance hosted a three-part stand-up paddling competition series in the Willamette River this spring. Nearly thirty paddlers came out for the first race in the series on May 8. Reuter expected a larger turnout for the next two races as word spreads through the stand-up paddle community.
Lopez sees a bigger wave of stand-up paddlers heading for the mainland, the Oregon Coast and farther inland along rivers and lakes. “Oregon has a lot of water, a lot of lakes, coastline and waves that aren’t good for regular surfers that stand-up paddlers can ride,” he observes. “Stand-up paddling will go all the places that surfing has gone and all those places that surfing hasn’t gone.”
Beginner: Slow-moving sections of rivers and lazy lakes. Try the Cascade Lakes (Todd, Sparks, Elk, Cultus, Paulina), Crescent Lake, Wallowa Lake, Warner Lakes, Dorena Lake and the Willamette River.
Intermediate: Rivers with gentle flows and no grave obstacles. Find the slow-moving stretches of the following rivers: Tualatin, Deschutes, Columbia Gorge, Rogue River, John Day and Umpqua.
Advanced: Waves on the Oregon Coast. Talk with surf shops about: Pacific City, Cannon Beach, Seaside Cove, Indian Beach, Oceanside, Otter Rock, Agate Beach and Brookings south jetty.
A hydration pack (Camelback, etc.). Stay hydrated, especially over longer hauls when disorientation is possible. A personal flotation device (now mandatory for stand-up paddlers).
Surfers and windsurfers may already have a board suitable for stand-up paddling. But for those who are new to the sport, here are a couple of points of interest and costs to keep in mind. Before buying the equipment, try renting it from outfitters and gear shops for the first few times.
Inflatables cost $600. A good recreational board bought new costs $1,000 to $1,500. Performance boards made from epoxy resin with a foam core can reach $2,000. Boards generally range from 9 feet to 14 feet for flat-water racers. The longer the board, the straighter it tracks. Many recreational flat-water riders find the length of 11 feet to 11 feet 6 inches, to be the right balance between stability and speed. Boards weigh 26 to 32 lbs. Shorter boards for wave surfing are around 8 feet long and weigh as little as 19 pounds.
$120 to $330 The right paddle should be about 8 inches to 10 inches taller than the paddler. Women and children typically use blades with less surface area, about 7 ¼ inches wide. Men typically use wider blades of up to 9 inches. The majority of paddles have a shaft that is bent 10 degrees at the blade for more paddling leverage.
Beginner’s tip: When holding your paddle while standing on your board, the blade should not bend toward you as if you were paddling with a spoon, but away from you.