Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is touted as an activity for anyone. Yet navigating the water with a long paddle while standing atop a nine-foot board sounds anything but easy.
With my near-sedentary lifestyle and deep fear of cold water, I doubted I could remain upright on the board. My instructor, Diana Turnbull, who has been teaching for five years, assured me I could.
"You really just have to have an open mind and a little bit of a sense of adventure," says Turnbull, a partner of FreshwaterSUPCo, one of several SUP companies in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto. "And not be afraid to fall in."
Except that's exactly what I was afraid of: falling in. It's July, but Lake Ontario is still frigid – especially first thing in the morning – and when I dipped my toes in, I recoiled.
Still, SUP has outlasted the average lifespan of a trend. (Rollerblading, anyone?) It was time to pull myself together and take the plunge (hopefully not literally).
"I thought there'd be a plateau several years ago because it seemed like everybody was jumping on the bandwagon," Turnbull says.
Instead, she watched its popularity grow.
"Because it's so accessible to everyone, like every age and sex and fitness ability, more and more people are gravitating toward it."
The Outdoor Foundation, an American non-profit, found that stand up paddleboarding was the outdoor activity with the most new participants in 2012. Last year, it was the outdoor activity with the biggest popularity boost – a 29-per-cent increase in participation.
Perhaps its pick-up-and-paddle quality is what draws people in – there isn't much in the way of preparation.
Show up in something that can get wet (just in case). Once in shallow water, stand in the middle of the board with your feet shoulder-width apart. Don't grip the board with your toes, and keep your knees and hips soft (like a hula dancer) to cushion any movement from the water.
"Just relax. You don't want to lock your knee and you don't want to bend over too much. Look at the horizon," Turnbull says. "The board is going to move with the wave; you want to move with the board."
Adjust your grip on the paddle, keeping a slight bend in your elbow when the paddle is in the upright position.
And with that, I was ready. Almost as soon as we set out, I loved it. There was so much to see – the skyline, the sun on the lake, the shore – and the repetitive motion of paddling was almost meditative.
It also felt deceptively effortless. We paddled for at least three kilometres, but it felt like nothing more than a jaunt to the corner store. The cold water was actually refreshing as it lapped over my feet.
And while manoeuvring against the current could be tricky (I stumbled twice while trying to steer because I was putting too much weight on one side of the board), I readjusted, took a breath and kept paddling.
I never fell in.
"If you just relax, you're going to subconsciously move with the movement of the board. It's mind over matter because you will stay afloat. You don't have to be a fitness buff to do it," she says.
Do it often enough, though, and you'll start to see a transformation.
"By engaging your core, stabilizing with your quads and using your arms, that's how it becomes a full-body workout," says Turnbull. "You use your secondary muscles to balance – that helps tone your whole body."