Riding the Cape’s Paddleboard WAVE
Bob Babock stood up on a stand-up paddleboard because sometimes it was tough to stand up anywhere else.
In late 2003, Babcock was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. The subsequent treatment literally left him out of balance. “I was having a hard time even walking sometimes, or driving a car,” says the Carver resident, now 54. “Normal things became very difficult for a while.” Years of doctor-prescribed exercises produced little improvement. Then one autumn day in 2007, Babcock’s older brother, a former windsurfer, arrived with a gift: a stand-up paddleboard. Babcock was a “typical suburban dad,” he says. He had never surfed, but he had a lifelong love of the ocean. And the ocean seemed a better place for rehabilitation than a doctor’s office.
Day after day, Babcock went into the water, rose to his feet, dug his paddle in, and glided across the surface. He fell here and there, but mostly he didn’t. With time, he retrained his equilibrium to rely on his field of vision and he restored his balance. And with time, he was able to join his closest friends in steering their boards 36 miles across Cape Cod Bay.
Even if you didn’t know what it was called, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a stand-up paddleboard lashed to a car’s roof rack or floating in a kettle pond. It’s a fast-growing sport that is deceptively simple—you can learn enough in one lesson to spend the afternoon on the water—and friendly for all ages, from middle schoolers to septuagenarians. “If you can put one foot in front of the other on land, you should be able to stand-up paddle,” says Christian del Rosario, owner of a stand-up paddleboarding retail shop on the north shore of Massachusetts and instructor at Nantucket Surfari during the summers. “I think it’s easier than riding a bicycle.” And in a region surrounded and permeated by water, it’s a sport built for the Cape and Islands.
Here’s how it works in a nutshell: The paddler enters a body of water and works his way up from his knees to standing, spreading his feet and pulling a single-blade paddle beneath the surface in broad strokes. In a lot of ways, it’s like kayaking without all that sitting around. Measuring around 32 inches wide and 10 feet long or more, stand-up paddleboards—SUPs for short—are usually bulkier than their surfboard relatives.
While the sport has the same Polynesian roots that bred traditional surfing across the Pacific, the modern incarnation of stand-up paddleboarding began with the Waikiki Beach Boys in the 1950s and 1960s. These Hawaiian watermen gave surf lessons to tourists, and in order to snap photos of their students without soaking their Brownie cameras, they stood atop longboards and paddled with canoe oars. After a long absence, the SUP reappeared as a plaything for big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton and his contemporaries in the early 2000s.
As photos of SUP-riding celebrities on Hawaiian sojourns were splashed across the pages of US Weekly, outdoor equipment retailers added paddleboards to their inventories and the sport exploded. A 2011 report from the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association measured SUP sales for the first time, tallying $14.5 million, or nine percent of total surfboard sales in domestic surf shops. “Over a decade, [stand-up paddleboarding] literally turned into a huge mass market, and I honestly don’t see any bit of it slowing down,” says Shawn Vecchione, a surfboard shaper based in Orleans. “I have hundreds of orders for paddleboards right now.”
Laird Hamilton actually had a hand in introducing stand-up paddleboarding to the region. Del Rosario recalls watching Hamilton and Surfer magazine editor Sam George, who came to Nantucket for a film premiere in summer 2004, paddle into glassy, thigh-high waves off of Cisco Beach with a crowd of a 100-plus onlookers. In a retail sense, Vecchione helped bring stand-up paddleboards to New England. A Cape native, he spent the better part of a decade in Hawaii learning his craft from Bill Hamilton—Laird’s stepfather—and experimented alongside fellow surfboard shapers like Terry Chung to get the dimensions of those early commercial paddleboards just right. When Vecchione returned to Cape Cod in 2005, he brought one paddleboard to tide himself over during the flat summers and another 40 to sell. Surf shops rejected his sales pitch, yet he sold that first batch on his own within a week. “Within two years, I probably sold 250 paddleboards in New England,” Vecchione says. Now SUPs are a surf-shop staple.
Paddleboards come with a hefty price tag: expect to pay about $1,000 for an entry-level vessel, and even more for a custom-fitted board. But while the start-up price is fairly steep, the learning curve isn’t. “It’s literally that initial time you get up,” says Amy Hotchkiss, who instructs beginners through Osterville’s Stand Up and Paddle Cape Cod. “It’s that fear of falling in and of not being able to do it.” After 10 minutes on the water, perspectives change. “A lot of people will tell me, ‘This is so easy,’” she says. “Well, yeah, it is.”
Del Rosario began incorporating SUPs in part to get his students on the water during flat spells. “Some people have no desire to surf because they’re scared of the waves, but they’ll give stand-up paddling a try because it’s something different,” he says. More than just a flat-water substitute for surfing, paddling through choppy waters is great stand-alone exercise for the shoulders, back, legs, and stabilizer muscles in the body’s midsection. It’s not uncommon to find classes full of yoga practitioners on the water, contorting their figures atop SUPs.
The bodies of water around the Cape and Islands are inexhaustible. If you want to paddle in flat water, hop in your nearest kettle pond, marsh, or harbor. To catch waves, head to the south side of Nantucket or the eastern-facing beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore. This August, if you’re up for a test of endurance, you can join the Cape Cod Bay Challenge, a 10-hour, 36-mile journey organized—and paddled three out of four times so far—by Babcock and co-founder Mike Brown. It’s not as rigorous as a marathon, Babcock says, but it requires preparation. “For someone who hasn’t been paddling a lot,” he says, “it’s going to be a struggle.”
Here and elsewhere, stand-up paddlers looking to catch waves sometimes face the derision of many surfing purists. SUPs allow easier maneuverability to get into position to spot and catch incoming swells. This gives older, less mobile surfers a second career in wave riding, but it allows greedy paddlers to steal all the waves they want by moving more quickly than traditional surfers. There is a fear of the water being swamped by kooks—inexperienced riders oblivious to the social hierarchy in the line-up who make boneheaded, sometimes dangerous decisions. There’s a simple solution: stand-up paddleboarders looking to catch waves should cluster away from surfers looking to do the same. “We can certainly all learn to get along,” Babcock says. “It’s just a question of educating the new stand-up paddlers—and some of the more aggressive surfers—that everybody has a place out there.”
Five years ago, when Babcock first began paddling, he says he rarely ever saw another SUP on the water. Now they’re everywhere, and he doesn’t begrudge the phenomenon. Now, he’s evangelical: about paddleboarding beyond improving his balance, stand-up paddling helped him lose 50 pounds, meet some of his best friends, and find a new purpose in life—now he just needs a house without a lawn so he can spend his weekends paddling instead of landscaping, he says. Still, he knows the unabated growth of interest in the sport will probably taper off the same way as any other new pastime. “But it’s never going to just go away,” he says. “There will still be at least one person out there paddling, even if it’s just me.”
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