Downwind SUP season is officially upon us here in the UK. Obviously there are those aficionados who’ve always been (and will continue to be) into this side of stand up, but more and more paddlers have been seen out in the brine when it’s blowin’ dogs off chains. This is great as breezy conditions have traditionally been perceived as no-go by the general SUP masses.
So what’s downwinding all about and do you need a specific sled or will a race/touring SUP work?
Pic: Great Glen Paddle
You may have heard the term downwind SUP before but not sure what it means. As a progressing intermediate, however, it’s worth learning about as this side of the sport is great for developing skills, confidence and heightened awareness of what’s happening on the water. All this knowledge is then transferable to other parts of stand up.
Essentially downwind stand up paddle boarding is using the breeze, and associated wind generated swell, to propel you forwards. This is, after all, the path of least resistance when it’s howling – who wants to slog upwind into a gale anyway?
At a basic level downwinding is gliding along with minimal effort while at the higher skill end it’s actually riding these wind generated bumps as a surfer would – sort of. You’re never going to be pulling full G redirects like you would on a wave SUP, but it’s possible to cut back and perform arcing carves – the art of downwind paddling is being able to stay in the energy pocket of the swell. Linking rollers and ‘connecting the dots’ can be great fun and a challenge worthy of all stand ups.
I need a specific board then, yeah?
The perception you need specific equipment for downinding – especially boards – isn’t necessarily true. For those looking at ultimate performance, as with any area of SUP, a dedicated downwind machine will reward no end. For most paddlers, however – especially those popping their downwind SUP cherry – your everyday race/touring sled will give a decent taste of what downwind paddling is about. In time, if you decide downwind SUP is the one, then a more specific craft can be purchased.
Pic: Cave Active
Race and touring SUPS, especially in 14ft+ sizes, can be good downwind tools and help paddlers develop the necessary skills to take things up a notch, get out in stronger winds and ride bigger bumps.
While any kind of stand up paddle board will accommodate downwind sweeping it’s important to realise non-specific kit’s limitations. For riding rolling swell a dedicated downwind sled has a high rocker nose to prevent pearling and burying – something that can happen often with displacement style noses usually found on race/touring SUPs.
If the rolling swell you encounter is particularly steep then you’ll need deft footwork and a pro-active approach to stop your race/touring SUP from nose diving. Hanging off the tail, once you’ve picked up a runner, can stop this. But the pointy nose of a race/touring board won’t ever compare to the efficiency of a true blood downwind stick. That said, it can be immense fun challenging yourself to not fall and will help individuals learn a lot about their kit and the general ocean environment.
Pic: Charlie Grey Designs
Safety and precautions
Heading miles offshore alone in a howling gale with limited downwind paddling experience isn’t a great idea. If you’re keen to give this side of SUP a go then choose a safer route, such as in sheltered water (preferably with incoming tide) and paddle in a group – this also makes logistics at the put in and get out easier. (Downwind paddling can also be done on inland waterways and while tidal movement isn’t in the mix there are still hazards to be aware of).
It’s probably wise to carry a spare paddle with you – such as three piece collapsible that can be lashed to your board’s deck. A float jacket would be a good idea as well as charged mobile phone (in a waterproof pouch), flares and possibly a VHF – if you’re aux fait with operating one.
Make sure you’re using a leash that’s not about to snap and tell someone of your plans – where you’ll put in, where you’re heading for and roughly how long it should take. In some cases it may also be worth informing the coastguard.
Vid: Charlie Grey Designs
Maybe an obvious one but having an understanding of tides, weather forecasts and how these factors affect your area is also wise – before you’ve even launched actually. Piling into something blindly will only lead to mishaps. If you’re not familiar with the route in question then paddle with someone who is and try and stay together. If you should become separated have a contingency plan in place.
Downwind stand up paddling can be immense fun and extremely rewarding. Take a few moments to consider the logistics of your route, consider the safety aspects, don’t rush into things and you’re sure to have a ball. Using a race/touring SUP is fine for those first forays but if the downwind bug bites then maybe consider a specific sled for your blowy sessions.