History of Stand Up Paddle Boarding

The History of SUP… Maybe?

Tracing the ancestral lineage of most sports is relatively straightforward – not so with stand up paddle surfing. And that’s a little strange because, as sports go, its story is (probably) not so old. How old? Well, we really don’t know – the roots of traditional surfing are well documented – SUPs aren’t or, rather, they are well-documented but in so many different and sometimes directly conflicting forms that we are really none the wiser.

Talking about the beginnings well and truly divides the SUP community with each camp passionately championing their own theories. Depending on who you talk to the credit for the original roots and the modern re-emergence of SUP are not just spread among a number of individuals but also around the globe.

Ancient Roots

As SUP has derived from surfing there is of course the argument that SUP has the same roots and, although there’s no evidence, it is of course possible that the ancient Polynesians paddled their boards as well as their s – why not.

There’s no doubt that the concept of using some form of stick or paddle to propel watercraft while standing up has been around for thousands of years in many forms and for many purposes including fishing, war-making, working and maybe even for kicks.

For example, from the early 1900s the preferred rescue craft of Tel Aviv’s lifeguards is a wide board propelled by means of a double-bladed paddle while standing. Wave riding may prove a little tricky on these behemoth boards but we have it on good authority that waves are sometimes ridden in fun when the lifeguards are practicing drills. The whole idea comes from the local fishermen and dates so far back in time no-one is really sure of its origins. Other fishermen the world over might claim something similar – such as the Peruvians who for thousands of years have been standing up to paddle their reed-built craft with a bamboo paddle. Apparently it isn’t unknown for the home-coming fishermen to ride the waves into the beach not just through necessity but simply for thrills.

There’s even a biblical reference according to Ben Marcus, author of  the ‘Art of Stand Up Padddling: A Complete Guide to Sup on Lakes, Rivers, and Oceans’ published first in 2012. He tells us that the Egyptian Pharoah’s daughter, Bithi, who discovered Moses was only able to do it because of her elevated view as she stand-up paddled her small boat… really?

Fact or fiction – that’s three continents just there.

There are those who argue that linking the roots of SUP with the likes of the above is the same as claiming gymnastics began when some-one fell out of a tree for the first time and caught hold of a branch on the way down. Whatever the case, the seeds of SUP in its modern form definitely germinated in Hawaii… probably.

The Beach Boys and Other Stories

The main debate which rages around the next stage of the SUP story is that of the evolution versus creation issue. There are some definite facts in there and although some of the characters who feature are still very much alive there is still an element of mystery, vagueness and a whole basket-load of claims and counter-claims.

The creation theory and the John ‘Pops’ Ah Choy story

John Ah Choy surfed Waikiki in the 1940s and produced two sons from his first marriage – Bobby and Leroy  – both of whom became part of the famous Beach Boys set in the 1950s/60s. Pops was something of a character who took to wearing a hard hat when surfing where he kept his cigarettes to enjoy in between sets.

Pops, getting older, was reluctant to abandon the ocean and the sport he loved so he began kitting himself out with knee pads and a paddle and surfed a little differently. When his knees really gave up the ghost he adapted again and, in the late 1960s, started to surf standing up. According to son Michael – half-brother to both Bobby and Leroy – THIS was where SUP began. Sons Bobby and Leroy, seeing dad having so much fun, then had a go themselves. Oddly, the much respected ‘Stand Up Paddle World Magazine’ credits Bobby and not his dad with both the hard hat/knee pad get-up and with being the first to stand, with dad and brother copying him.

A picture taken by British surfer and travel photographer James Davis in 1980 shows Pops standing up on his board complete with hard hat etc. Although this would appear to support the story that Pops was indeed the head gear man it neither proves nor disproves who was standing up first.

The evolution theory – American tourists and the Beach Boys

The fun-loving group of Waikiki watermen known as the Beach Boys were getting somewhat more business-minded come the 1950s and 1960s as more and more mainland American tourists started to flood the  islands. Already accustomed to making money from providing out-rigger rides, a new way of earning came about because the new wave of tourists wanted to do what the Hawaiians were doing – surf. So, the adaptable boys turned surf instructors.

Now, what happens when you do something all seemingly daring/brave/glamorous on vacation? These days we might use our Go-Pro and then post our exploits on Facebook or such like. Back then, photographic evidence was still coveted for backing up boasts on returning home but the cameras were few and far between and very definitely not waterproof. And so the story goes that some unnamed surf instructor on some unknown date started standing up on his board, grabbed a canoe paddle and thus gave himself an elevated view of his pupils, the in-coming sets and the means to keep the camera dry when taking photographs.

Although this story as a stand-alone explanation has all kinds of holes in it we do know – again according to Michael Ah Choy – that Leroy and Bobby definitely did use this technique in their tourist photo-taking business but that wasn’t until the 1970s. Hmmmmm…

So, we do have one common denominator – Hawaii – but otherwise the skills of some historically inclined detective might be needed to unravel myth from fact.

The most likely conclusion is that perhaps a little bit of everything is true and the hope of sorting out the chicken/egg conundrum at this distance in time is perhaps unlikely. Were the Beach Boys already using stand up paddle techniques which they utilized in their surf coaching later on and if so did they copy it from Pops Ah Choy (or Bobby Ah Choy?!) or did Pops think ‘ah, that’s a good idea for my bad knees’ after seeing some-one else doing it? Pops, Leroy and Bobby – without doubt some of, if not THE, principal players – are sadly now all gone and part of the story goes with them. Perhaps we’ll never know.

Hibernation, Re-emergence and a Little More Debate

Although it appears that a few individuals carried on paddling their surf boards standing up using canoe paddles nothing much really happened on the SUP front for a little while – maybe even decades depending on which version of the early days of SUP you subscribe to.

The re-emergence part of the SUP story continues the theme of who-knows-who-did-what-first. What is known is that at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s several big names from the surfing world started to be linked with standing up and surfing. The following are the most widely accepted candidates for ‘The Modern Father of SUP’ award:

Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton

You’ll read lots of different dates for this story and a few varying versions of events but the following is taken from an interview with Dave Kalama himself  published in the June 2008 edition of ‘Stand Up Paddle Surfing Magazine’.

During a photo shoot for Oxbow in 1995 in Maui, at which both Hamilton and Kalama – both monster-wave tow-in surfers, equipment innovators and designers – were present things had got a little dull as the surf was ‘real small’ (12 footers!!) Kalama ran off to grab some canoe paddles he had with him ‘just for something to fool around with’. Quite by accident finding themselves having a great time but also finding the paddles too short, Hamilton went the very next day to get some longer paddles made. Afterwards, according to Kalama, they just started doing it more and more – and there’s plenty of photographic and video evidence to prove it.

Fletcher Burton

No-one really took much notice of what surfer-turned-wave-ski-surfer Fletcher Burton was up to in the 1990s because anyone who rode a ‘canoe’ was simply branded a ‘goat boater’ and cursed for wrecking the rides of the traditional surfers in the water. But Fletcher was paddling into his waves and then standing himself up to surf in exactly the same way as a modern day SUP surfer. Pioneer undoubtedly but should he also be given the credit for the birth/rebirth of SUP?

Brian Keaulana

In 2003/4 Brian Keaulana included ‘Beach Boy surfing’ (SUP to you and I) in the ‘Buffalo Big Board Contest’ – held annually in Oahu  – to run alongside the old-school wooden board surfing, canoe surfing, tandem surfing and other styles featured. The big names came running, including Laird Hamilton, the surfing press plastered the photographs across double pages and the rest, as they say, is history.

SUP Leaves Hawaii and Creates a World-Wide Explosion: The Least Debate of the Whole Story

Although the history of SUP is a mire of twists, turns, differences and doubts there is one element on which almost everyone agrees. The 20th century story of SUP was a Hawaiian one; the 21st century is a global one because in 2004 native Hawaiian surfer Rick Thomas brought a SUP board back to California thereby giving the idea greater exposure. This, coupled with the ongoing media interest surrounding the surf world’s big guns started one of the most meteoric rises of sporting popularity in history.

The Development of SUP Equipment

Because the story in general regarding SUP is so vague and mysterious so too are exact dates and names connected with the development of SUP-specific equipment. The earliest riders – whoever they might have been – used longboard surf boards and wooden paddles intended for use with canoes and kayaks.

We know that Laird Hamilton got his own paddles for stand up surfing made in 1995 by Malama Chun but were these the first use-specific ones? We also know that Rick Thomas was experimenting with aluminum paddles back when, sometime prior to 2004, he was stand up surfing on his 11 ft Munoz board in Hawaii and asked his friend and out-rigger paddler Leleo Kinmaka to make him something more suitable for his activity. So maybe these were the first?

A further known cog in the SUP wheel is that Californians Deb and Warren Thomas brought the first SUP specific products to the market in 2006 and then in 2007 opened the doors of the first dedicated SUP store in North America.

As SUP grew up a little so too certain splits emerged which led SUP on paths away from solely wave-riding. Today, there are boards shaped and sold for very specific purposes – white-water river riding, racing, ocean wave riding, coastal flat water cruising and more. The same is true of paddles.

So there you have it – a history of SUP… kind of. Pick a side or a champion and go with it, at least until the next theory emerges.

Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

  • Chris Thomas

    On one end I find this article truly the most honest in at least acknowledging the elusiveness of SUP history and it definitely seems the author did some digging and research. What is surprising though is that it completely lacks of any mention of John Zapotocky or Duke Kahanamoku standing his Australian surfski in 1939. Not to mention that it was John Zapatocky clained first saw Duke stnad up paddling (likely he saw Duke standing on the surfski). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPnM4ymNj3o