Words: Samantha Rutt
Photos: SUPjunkie, Jade Rogers http://www.jaderogersphotography.com & Geoff Mather http://suptog.sphericalvisions.co.uk
OK, before you roll your eyes and say, “Not this AGAIN!” please bear with me. This all started out quite innocently, and anyone who’s been a part of the SUP race community for some years will know that the debate has been fiercely argued around the world for years and still goes on in pockets here and there!
However, what if you’re new to SUP racing, and don’t know the intricacies of the board classes? We have seen an influx of new recreational paddlers, and that’s slowly starting to spill over into the racing scene (hurray!). Some of the questions new racers asked me last year, “Why two categories”, “do I have to have a 14’ board to be competitive”, and “who decides the classes?’ Just a few, so I set off to explore the answers and think the best place to start for new racers is with a brief history lesson.
So the ‘why’ we have two categories, courtesy of the awesome Chris Parker (aka Sup Racer). During his recent 10th anniversary podcast, I got a much deeper understanding of the origins of the debate. So let’s go back to 2008 and an iconic surf race in Californian called Battle of the Paddle (BOP). This was the first time any restriction over what board you could use to race on was brought in and was designed to stop people turning up on huge unlimited boards and kicking the butts of those on shorter boards. So why 12’6? The short answer is that at the time, the longest stock foam blanks you could get were 12’1 for prone paddling. So they rounded up board categories to 12’6 and under, and so the 12’6 category was born!
Meanwhile, over in Europe, people were starting to use 14′ boards, as the 12’6 wasn’t considered as fast on flat water, although it was easier to use in a surf race. The Euro Tour (a bucket list of sup races) took the step that anyone wanting to form part of this series would need to make the board class 14′ and under to simplify things (Checkout Sup Racer’s podcast…1hr 15mins in).
So what was going on in the UK at that time, and why are fewer people racing 12’6 these days? Looking at race numbers, more people were entering the 14′ category last year? What changed here?
I caught up with the fantastic Scott Warren; he’s been a racer of both 12’6 and 14’, worked in distribution and is now one of the Directors of our GB SUP National Series.
“I started paddling in 2009, and I first got on a race board in 2010. Back then, a race board was typically 12’6 by 28” and a big heavy shape at that. It was a slogfest and a real shoulder killer for a 70kg paddler as I was then with minimal skill. Compared to what we have now, these shapes were monstrous to paddle for lighter paddlers, that’s for sure! Interestingly, my first proper race season was on a 14’ back in 2012 on a 14’ x 25” Starboard Ace Pro. 25”, which was very narrow at the time. Still, the board was extremely light, so it was easy enough to handle until it got too choppy.
“2015 the 12’6 class was full of the lighter paddlers, so I jumped ship for two years, and we had some great racing. Some of the longer distances were a slog. Still, overall, it was competitive, and the boards were easy to handle in all conditions.
“2017 saw a shift to 14’ boards and the brands responded with lighter, lower volume options, with my race board being 21.5” wide at the time. It was a joy to paddle and is still the quickest board I’ve been on; it just worked everywhere despite being flat water-focused. For the most part, the other 14’ boards I tried at that time were easy enough to use as well. Sure the 12’6 was still an excellent option for tech and beach racing, but with some practice, I felt quicker everywhere on a 14’ at this point. I’ve been on 14’ boards ever since and would only really consider a 12’6 for fun paddling now, personally.”
Keen to investigate what distributors thought of the debate, I was fortunate enough to catch up with one of the UK’s early pioneers of the sport and UK SUP legend Paul Simmons who is also the Brand Manager for Starboard SUP UK. This was his take on the debate and an explanation as to why we might not see many second-hand 12’6 on the market!
“Distributors react to demand and invest in stock based on anticipated trends. Starboard in the UK has only had a solitary enquiry for a 12’6” raceboard in the last two years, justifying the brand’s decision not to continue developing within this sector and the distributor not holding stock.
“Recreationally we recognise that a 14’ board is more technical and challenging than a 12’6”, such as maintaining course in side-winds and ease of turning. Therefore the 12’6” touring board remains a very relevant model. However, where serious racing is concerned, the skills required to paddle a 14’ board effectively should not be an issue for riders of sufficient skill. There are plenty of petite paddlers racing in the 14’ divisions across the globe and even piloting massive unlimited 18ft+ downwind boards in events like the Molokai Challenge.
“It was an industry mistake to be running with both 12’6” and 14’0” raceboards for many years, making it challenging to stock the right numbers across different sizes. The width and, to some extent, the board’s volume are the main factors determining its suitability for a certain weight and racer’s ability. Of course, there are entry-level ‘weekend’ racers who like to be part of the scene and maybe aren’t at a skill level to extract the best performance out of a 14’ board. We welcome race organisers providing novice or ‘leisure’ categories that are less competitive and intimidating for those looking to have a go at racing, whether on the remnants of older second hand 12’6” boards still in circulation or inflatable 12’6” touring boards that offer a practical way into the scene.
“12’6” is less efficient and simply slower than 14’, which is why many recreational paddlers of all sizes, shapes and abilities are choosing to paddle the faster, more efficient 14’ boards, both recreationally and in racing.”
Finally, you can’t write an article on the debate without speaking to someone loyal to 12’6, and there is no one more so than Emily King winning the 12’6 National Champ title a few times; here’s what she had to say…
“I never felt the need to migrate across to 14’ race board classes as it felt very much like the brands were pushing us to buy higher-priced boards (incidentally, it only cost a few extra hundred pounds to produce a 14’, but the profit margin is thousands higher).
“Smaller or youth paddlers who are still growing and developing can paddle them without causing less strain or injury. That being said, my 6’5” husband loves paddling my 12’6 and does so without any problems, as do the sick guys on the racing circuit… so they’re still great boards for the bigger riders as we saw in the early days of sup comps.”
So what is the future for 12’6 in the UK? Funnily enough, when researching this topic, I stumbled across an insightful article by Dr Bryce Dyer from 2015. Bryce is someone who’s been a part of the sport since 2014 and is an Associate Profession at Bournemouth University in product development, more specifically technology in sport (it’s his day job!). He puts forward some valid arguments about where the sport may go in the future with board class.
The most viable one was the phasing out of one category, which appears to be what has happened; after speaking to racers in Italy, France, Spain, Canada and Australia. Their National Series are 14’ and under one class, one group all racing together with individuals choosing what board they want to race on… he was way ahead of the game!
So really the final word on this topic needs to go to the people influencing the development of the sport here in the UK, the directors of the GBSUP National Series, and for us as racers, to understand how difficult it can be from their point of view to negotiate the categories and keep as many racers happy and doing what we all love most – racing no matter what board!
“When the directors discuss the paddler categories, we have to consider all options, including market trends, paddler feedback, our own experiences and other options coming from outside the sport. It’s certainly not an easy task to find compromises, and our job would be much easier if we had one class, that’s for sure.
“The 12’6 and 14’ debate is always an interesting and tricky one, especially now as more paddlers take up the sport and get into competitive paddling. While it might be a personal goal for many, we have to consider options to promote longevity in the sport. The last thing we want is to scare newcomers away with an intimidating startline and category list. We also have to find a balance for our competitive paddlers pushing for podiums and top placings; so much goes into every category discussion.
“One significant headache recently has been the explosion of SUP, which is truly impressive on the one hand, but from a race organiser’s POV, it’s an absolute nightmare. How can you accommodate the variety of boards in quite open historical categories of surf shapes under 12’6, 12’6 and 14’? Now, of course, if paddlers want to be competitive at the sharper end, then the simple answer is to buy a narrow 14’ board, and away you go. But for many, it is not a viable option with many factors included and too many to start listing here.
“So how do you convince paddlers on the range of boards now to stick with it? “Suppose you just think about the variety of boards on a startline in today’s events. In that case, you see the challenge of accommodating and supporting everyone. You could have 12’6 touring boards, 13’2” touring boards, 12’6 Hybrids, 11’ hybrids, 11’ touring shapes, 11’6, 11’2, 12’2, and 10’6 lengths. iSUPs, hardboards, race boards, and that’s just style and lengths, never mind the considerable differences in widths you see now.
“It’s just not feasible to expect paddlers on such a variety of boards to feel they are achieving something (as a whole speaking here) and stick with racing. In some cases, you can have the leading paddlers finished, changed and fully packed away up to an hour ahead before the newcomers have even finished.
“We are fully behind and support one possible answer: moving to a divisional system where the board length and style are removed from the equation. In divisions, the paddlers are categorised against their time over a given distance regardless of what board they paddle. This means that whilst competitive paddlers at the front of the fleet are always there, the remaining 95% of paddlers on the startline have something achievable to aim for. No longer are they finishing an hour behind the leader; they are now competing for a podium in their division.
“Suppose they change boards and perhaps upgrade to a faster or even a race board. In that case, they change divisions if they fit that time bracket, are again competitive with similar level paddlers, and have realistic and achievable aims. Back to the 12’6 v 14’ debate and division structure puts these paddlers on the same startline, whereas today’s board categories keep them separate. If we want to see competitive paddling develop at a regional and national level, pushing all our paddlers to improve, then perhaps Divisions is the way to go. After all, 99% of the market comprises recreational and enthusiast paddlers.”