Paddle boarding now bigger than ever
Colorful paddleboards and pictures of people practicing the sport in beautiful settings filled the exhibit halls at the world's largest outdoor retail trade show in Salt Lake City. It was the latest illustration of the sport's exploding popularity. The show was the week of Aug. 2.
They make long, skinny boards for racers. They make wide, sturdy ones for more casual users. Some of whom do yoga or fish off the boards. They even make inflatable boards. Those are for people who want the convenience of rolling them up and putting them in a bag.
Once viewed as a fringe activity or fad, paddle boarding is now carving out a growing place in the profitable outdoor recreation industry. A growing number of companies are doing a quick business. They sell boards, paddles and accessories.
Whether in oceans on the coasts or inland lakes and rivers, people are increasingly drawn to the sport. It can be done for robust exercise and racing. Or people can use them for casual paddling or yoga with friends. Even dogs can come aboard.
Participation in stand-up paddling in the United States has increased nearly three-fold from 2010 to 2014. That's according to a study from the Outdoor Foundation. That makes it one of the fastest-growing outdoor sports, the foundation says.
Last year, an estimated 2.7 million people participated in the sport. The numbers rose from about 1 million in 2010. It was the first year the foundation began including the sport in its annual survey. The participation numbers put it on par with surfing and BMX bicycling.
The sport is easy to learn and can be practiced all around the world, said Jimmy Blakeney. He is marketing manager at Bic SUP, one of the leading companies making boards.
And there's what Blakeney calls the "cool factor" that also draws people.
"You're standing up, you're in your bikini, you're being seen," Blakeney said. "Boards are cool. A lot of young people really like being on a board versus a boat."
The roots of modern paddle boarding are traced to Hawaii. Surfers used paddles to get out further or do exercise when there were no waves. The sport slowly spread from Hawaii and has been around in the United States for about 10 years, Blakeney said.
Growth really quickened about five years ago, he said. Companies not only sell to outdoor shops, but to rental companies. They rent the boards for those who want to try them for the first time.
The Stand Up Paddle Industry Association formed in 2012. It brings unity and support for manufacturers, retailers and people who teach, train and organize races.
Kristin Thomas, the industry association's executive director, said the flexibility of the boards is a huge draw.
"It's very easy to use on one level and yet can be as extreme as you want it to be. People are surfing huge waves. They are doing whitewater," Thomas said.
As an expanding sport, the industry is trying to establish best safety practices. And manage different rules being established. For instance, there is still debate taking place. Should paddle boarders wear life jackets or have the boards harnessed to their ankles, like surfers?
The U.S. Coast Guard recently designated paddleboards as a vessel, like a canoe or kayak. It means users must have a life jacket and sound-making device aboard unless they are within a swimming, surfing or bathing area.
A 21-year-old Utah man recently died while paddle boarding on a mountain lake. It happened when winds came up and he went missing, authorities said. He wasn't wearing a life jacket, they said.
Prices for boards range from $400 to $2,000-plus. Paddles cost from $75 to $100. As is the case with any sport's equipment, you have to pay more for lighter, higher-performing boards. Bic SUP's top seller is one that costs about $1,000, Blakeney said.
"We always say: light, durable, affordable. Pick two," Blakeney said.
The majority of the people are leisure users who use the boards about 10 times a year, he said. A smaller portion of people, often the types who are drawn to running and triathlons, use the boards for strong exercise and compete in a growing racing circuit, Blakeney said.
The World Paddle Association formed in 2010 to oversee the sport.