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Have you ever wondered how Stand Up Paddleboarding came about? Here’s an article by telling the history of how, when, where and why SUPing was invented!

Have you never tried it? Give us a call and this guy will teach you! or


A brief history of Stand Up Paddleboarding

Stand up paddling originated in Hawaii surely? Well, maybe or maybe not as Corran Addison looks at other alternatives…

In 1778, Captain James Cook sailed into the Hawaiian islands and became the first Europeans to witness the Hawaiian people surfing. He’e nalu as it is called in the native Hawaiian tongue was done either in canoes or on special, ritually carved boards from the Koa tree. The village chief got the biggest board, sometimes as big as 5m long, while lesser village personages were content with smaller 2-3m boards. Because of its sheer size, a paddle was often used to power out and onto the waves.


It’s hard to really know when modern stand up paddling really begun. To do so you’d have to define exactly what it is and even now we’re not really sure. Two things seem to be constant: that we stand while paddling and that we use a long paddle to propel the craft forwards.

So when Dave Kalama decided to grab a paddle to play with while shooting for Oxbow on huge longboards just a decade ago, one wonders whether he was thinking back to the days of fishermen, thousands of years ago, or just back to the beach boys of the Waikiki tourist trade in the 1960s. Whatever he was thinking, it worked and after making a longer paddle specifically for the standing position, the modern sport as its practiced today was born.

For 3,000 years Peruvian fishermen have used a craft called a ‘Caballitos de Totora’, a small craft made of reeds that is so called because of their instability resulting in it being like riding a horse. They used a long bamboo shaft somewhat like an elongated kayak paddle and after a days fishing they would surf the waves in just for fun. In fact, it’s quite possible that this is the true root of all surfing, let alone stand up surfing.


Likewise in many African countries, warriors would stand on a dugout type canoe called a Pirogues, using their spears as paddles to propel themselves silently into enemy positions.

Stand up paddle surfing (SUP), or in the Hawaiian language Hoe he’e nalu, definitely has its Polynesian roots. Surf instructors in Waikiki like Duke Kahanamoku, Leroy and Bobby AhChoy, would take a paddle and stand on their boards to get a better view of the surfers in the water and incoming swells, and from time to time would surf the waves in themselves using the paddle to steer the board – and so beach boy surfing was born.

Modern roots

However, the modern roots of stand up paddling dates well back before these inventive and playful surfers from Hawaii. In Tel Aviv, lifeguards have been using a stand up board called a ‘Hassakeh’ since the first decades of the 20th century, an idea they borrowed from fishermen that dates back hundreds of years. Almost five feet wide, and using a double bladed paddle, the lifeguard can paddle quickly out to a distressed person and haul them on board, while the standing position gave them a full view the entire time. While not designed for this, they were known for surfing the waves in while practicing rescue techniques.

Closer to home, photographer Peter Henry Emerson captured in 1886 a photo of a man stand up paddling through the marshes of East Anglia in the UK. The photo is called ‘Quanting the Marsh Hay.’ It is possible that this is the first photographic record of SUP.

But all through surfing’s post Gidgit boom of the 1960s and then again in the 1980s, surfing with a paddle was all but ignored, or for that matter, unknown. Dave’s first foray with a paddle that lazy afternoon was followed shortly by Brian Keaulana, Rick Thomas, Archie Kalepa and Laird Hamilton who started SUP as an alternative way to train while the surf was down. As the years went on they found themselves entering events such as the Moloka’i to O’ahu Paddleboard Race Mākaha’s Big Board Surfing Classic.


With its growing popularity at Makaha Beach, Brian Keaulana decided to add ‘beach boy surfing’ to the world-recognized ‘Buffalo Big Board Contest’ in 2003. The response was overwhelming, with over 49 participants entering the stand up division, which included many of Hawaii’s elite watermen and past world champion surfers, using Pohaku beach boy paddles. A photo of Laird Hamilton was snatched up by the surfing media and in a matter of months the first stand up boom had begun.

That being said, two Brazilian surfers Osmar Goncalves and Joao Roberto Hafers might well have been stand up surfing before the Hawaiian dynamic duo had their photos plastered in surfing magazines. Riding a board called a Tabua Havaiana (Hawaiian plank) shaped by Julio Putz, these two excitable surfers were definitely unwitting pioneers. They just were not in the right place at the right time to get photos of their exploits published where an eager population dying for something new to surfing would see them.

Another radical surfer turned wave ski surfer, Fletcher Burton from California, could also be credited as being an early pioneer in stand up surfing. Paddling onto waves back in the early 1990s with his kayak paddle seated on the wave ski, he would jump to his feet once on the wave and surf the wave the way advanced stand up surfers do today. However, the negative stigma attached to seated surfers (Goat Boater) meant that no surfer was likely to take note of his style and ability to ride different kinds of waves once up and going. Had he been taken seriously, stand up surfing might well be 10 years ahead of where it is now.

Bobby and Leroy AhChoy are possibly the first true original beach boy surfers. Injured in a car accident that restricted him from swimming, or even kneeling, Bobby would stand up, cigarettes lashed to his arm, camera about his neck and paddle into the surf zone shouting hints to others. His brother Leroy and father John would also stand up from time to time. They in turn introduced this quaint pastime to John Zapotocky.


In 1980 James Davis, a British surfer who made a living as a travel photographer, was in Hawaii taking some shots and caught this guy stand up paddle surfing, with a builders hat on his head, knee pads and all. The attire is a little strange, but he was definitely stand up surfing. With a photographic library of over 100,000 shots (and these are not digital, all film) James needed a bit of time to find the shots, but he has come up trumps. This is one of the only photos of John “Pops” AhChoy.

But the credit of father of modern stand up surfing has to go to John Zapotocky. John first went to Hawaii in 1940 and instantly fell in love with the ocean. He made his life there from that day on and started beach boy surfing in the 40s, after seeing Duke Kahanamoku and the other beach boys like the AhChoy brothers on stand-up boards, he took to it and has been surfing with a paddle ever since. All through those old days he was a regular athlete, including swimming, diving, paddleboard and canoe racing. He became such an icon amongst the beach boys that they gave him the nickname of ‘Pearl Diver’.

John is the oldest SUP surfer in the world, and the oldest regular surfer in Waikiki. John still goes out stand up surfing in Waikiki a few times a week and is an icon to the modern-day surfers and watermen. He keeps his board in one of the racks on the beach in Waikiki where he has for 60 years. With the help of younger surfers who carry his board down to the water, he paddles out today as he always has, quite at home in the waves.

But despite the traditional fishing roots of SUP in South America, and in various Arabian countries and their modern spin offs used for lifeguard rescue and surfing, the modern version of beach boy surfing remained a Hawaiian thing until Vietnam veteran, Rick Thomas brought one back to California in 2000. It caught on instantly. You could argue that from that, his SUP influence has spread all over the world. Bob Long from Mission Surf has suggested that there are six degrees of separation between anyone in California who has learned to SUP and Rick Thomas.

SUP was a much-needed breath of fresh air into an industry that was stuck in its glory days of the 1960s. Stolid, stale and elitist, surfing had become a highly commercialized multi million dollar machine, where everyone from Kansas to California were wearing surf clothing, speaking surf talk, but not welcome into the surf line-up. ‘Locals’ shun anyone not born within a five-mile radius of a given break from the surf, and beginners (being as beginners are in any sport) were branded ‘kooks’, and equally driven out from the beaches.


Stand Up Surfing had instant appeal to all kinds of surfers. It allowed you to paddle to far away and little known breaks that were uncrowded, increased the number of waves a surfer can have in a session and the range of conditions that can be surfed. In fact, very quickly Stand Up Paddlers realized that the ‘surf’ could be taken out of it, and recreational and racing SUP was discovered as a sport all unto itself. All across the USA, and now Europe and Australia, landlocked people started to use Stand Up Boards as a replacement option to the canoe or kayak.

Providing a great core workout, as well as increased visibility both above and into the water, stand up paddling as a recreational craft has now etched its place into surfing lore, and by 2009 was the single fastest growing area of paddlesports in North America.

As a true indication that stand up paddling has ‘arrived’, as of October 3, 2008, the US Coast Guard has classified SUPs as vessels like an canoe and kayak and as a result SUP riders are obliged to wear a personal floatation device when paddling in certain areas outside of the surf zone.