Pics: Enric Coromina. Portal Surf Designs, Erik Antonson, Maciej Piotrowski
If you follow progressive paddle surfing, and lap up related material from all areas, then you may have come across Erik Antonson and his Paddle Woo podcast. You may even be familiar with The Progression Project which aims to showcase just how dynamic and, er, progressive stand up paddle surfing can be. As a connoisseur of all things technique and wanting to see the surfing side of the sport push on Erik is a hive of knowledge and super passionate about this part of the sport and passing on this info – his Costa Rican Blue Zone SUP Camps are proving immensely popular. We thought it a good idea to catch up with EA and pick his brains about paddle surfing across the pond, how he sees things going forwards and what he reckons the sport needs elsewhere in the world.
Firstly tell us how you got in stand up? What was it that made you think adding a paddle to your surfing repertoire was a good idea?
As a shortboarder I hated paddle surfers. To this day a few friends don’t let me live it down. This was back five/six years and boards were more like boats than surfboards. Progressive surfing was going down the line. In 2013 I spent 2 weeks on Tavarua and that experience spoiled me for shortboarding. I came back to Costa Rica and was bored shortboarding, so I started taking risks. Pulling in to closeout barrels, and ended up getting hurt. Pulled muscles in my rib cage and separated the lining on the inside of my ribs. Super painful. I was out of the water for a while and about a month in a doctor friend told me if I didn’t start rehab I’d form scar tissue and that would limit range of motion. He recommended paddling. So, I started to paddle in flatwater.
I had surfed a few times on the paddle board but it didn’t inspire me. Then, a couple months later, was sitting on the beach and saw someone ripping on a standup. I mean, he was surfing. Figure eight cutbacks, smashing lips. Catching more waves than anyone, having more fun for sure. It turned out it was Colin McPhillips.
One of my core principles in life is that you can make new decisions with new information, never get stuck in a way of thinking because you’ll miss great opportunities. Seeing Colin surf that night changed my model for paddle surfing, and went from hater to interested.
As a surfer first were you bothered what your traditional wave riding buddies would think? Did you get any heckles? How did you deal with them if so?
Did I care? Not really. I was a decent surfer who had earned a spot in our lineup so I surfed better than a lot of the guys who were talking trash. Did I get hazed? Absolutely. There was a stretch of a year where I was aggressively dropping volume, which meant I was falling a lot. Every time I’d fall I’d hear my buddies laughing at me.
It takes a solid character to choose to do something different that folks don’t understand. There is a high correlation between paddle surfers and success, you have to have a lot of grit to deal with the learning curve and sentiment (see Angela Duckworth, and be ok going against the grain).
What was your first set up, and what frustrated you about that gear and its lack of performance (if any)?
I borrowed boards at the beginning, but the first board I bought was a Colin McPhillips 8.4. I ordered it from Colin and waited 2 months to get it. It came right when we had a macking SW swell hitting. I was so excited to surf it I decided to take it out and literally broke it in my first session, only caught one wave. It was brutal.
When did that eureka moment occur? As in when did you really first manage to lay a rail, drive through a fully laid turn and think: ‘this paddle surfing thing might actually have legs’?
I knew the sport had legs when I saw Colin surf. I didn’t realize how fun it could be until I was making waves I wouldn’t have made on a shortboard. Also, being on a standup is what I call a flow multiplier. There’s added complexity and consequence, so it requires deeper focus. I started standup in a time when the business I was running was stressful, surfing a shortboard didn’t bring me out of the daily stress. Being on a standup required 100% focus and gave me a mental break.
Talk to us about your paddle surfing haunts. As we understand it you have roots in Florida but have spent considerable time in California as well as living in Costa Rica? Have these locations been key to your own SUP surfing development?
I’ve enjoyed surfing in California, up the East Coast, Hawaii, and Costa Rica. I love that standup is still a small tribe and there’s a connection right away. As far as development goes, there’s no better place to progress than where I was living in Nosara, Costa Rica. You literally have surf 330 days per year, it’s warm and allows incredible training opportunities.
When did the idea for a paddle surfing podcast come about? Why did you think such a thing was needed? Was it hard to get off the ground?
It was selfish at first. When I dive into something new I go deep, but the well for standup was very shallow from a performance standpoint. I had devoured every video online and blog/article I could find. I wanted to explore performance boards but couldn’t find anything. At that point I thought Mo Freitas’ boards looked the best and the legend Pat Rawson was shaping them. I thought, how good would it be to pick Pat’s brain for an hour? So I reached out. I thought there was a better chance he’d talk to me if it was for a podcast, so I created the podcast to have access to information. It proved beneficial to others and was fun to do, so I kept on with it.
Any stand out memories from your time doing the podcasts to date?
So many. Over the years Josh Waitzkin (see Searching for Bobby Fisher, The Art of Learning…) has become a great friend. Recording with him in Nosara was a bucket-lister and I was happy I could share the way he approaches learning with the fans of the show because I’ve learned so much from him in the last few years. Also getting to speak with Anders Ericsson, the author of Peak. Peak is a favourite book of mine on mastery and we had an incredible conversation.
Then from the surf world I’ve really enjoyed stories from Colin, Justin Holland (his wipeout story is incredible), Kai Lenny, Kalama and my latest with Mo Freitas is one of the best from a technical surfing standpoint.
Probably the most fun episode was in Costa Rica with Colin, Boehne and Kalama when we were filming what turned into Conversessions.
Where did your interest for studying technique come from? Any particular key moments or epiphanies during your time progressing?
I’m a big nerd. I’ve made up for mediocre athletic ability with being able to break down technique and create best practices.
I’ll give you two breakthroughs. Understanding that stability is a misnomer, and that controlling falling on smaller boards is the goal. This changed my relationship to balance and allowed me to drop to smaller boards. And learning to be patient in rail surfing. Less is more, you set the rail and let the board do the work. That understanding changed my paddle surfing and surfing.
Which SUP surfer has inspired you personally the most and why?
I can’t just say one because it would leave out parts of the journey. Colin gets all the credit for initial spark. He’s a legend and great friend and I’m incredibly grateful. What’s funny is that answering this question I’m realizing that my other two surfers are Mo Freitas and Fisher Grant, and they would both give credit to Colin as well. Fisher has the best style in the game and helped me understand surfing on a deeper level. The idea for the Portal Barra, the board I’ve spent six months designing and have just released, is based in part on time I spent learning mid-length surfing from Fisher. On the progressive side Mo takes it. He’s the best blend of power and flow, he’s an amazing athlete who’s crushing the race scene and one of the most down to earth humble guys. He just recorded for the podcast and it’s a personal favourite episode.
These days you’re fully into helping others learn by passing on all this info you’ve soaked up. You also utilise the services of some pretty big hitters from the world of SUP surfing. Tell us about these coaching clinics you run as part of the Blue Zone SUP Camps.
Blue Zone SUP is a 7 day paddle surfing retreat in Costa Rica. The coaching program is based on my study of paddle surfing for the last five years, incorporating best practices derived from countless hours of video breakdown of the best in the sport. The by-product of doing the Progression Project and Conversessions is that we have an archive of 40+ hours of the best in the world surfing.
This year Chase Kosterlitz, a standout racer and great surfer, has come on board as head coach at Blue Zone. His racing background adds another incredible dynamic to the coaching.
You obviously see a lot of progressing paddle surfers coming through your doors. What’s the general standard of those hitting up waves in the States?
The guys and girls that are coming through Blue Zone range from beginner to advanced, maybe coming from racing or surfing or they want to get into the sport and like our deliberate practice approach and how much fun we have!
Do you see this general level improving in terms of performance riding? Or do you think most paddlers will simply be happy to glide along on swells without pulling turns and such?
From what we see folks want to push it, get better. I’m also seeing that now on a larger level with Portal Surf Designs. There are as many folks interested in boards as instruction, and I’m having great conversations about feel and flow of boards.
Outside of SUP many still consider the sport to be less than dynamic. Does this frustrate? How do you think we overcome this opinion? Does it even matter?
It seems less dynamic because the public’s visual of standup is standup at its lowest level. Everything I’ve tried to do, the films, podcasts… is to showcase the pinnacle of the sport. And paddle surfing, at its highest level, might be the most versatile and evolved surfing sport, but not many in the surfing would agree with that yet. We overcome that opinion by being better. Better watermen, surfers and by assimilating into the lineup, not taking every wave. It does matter, because it can limit the fun you have in certain lineups.
Here in the UK stand up is very much fledgling with the surfing side a niche within a niche so to speak. Also surfing conditions can be pretty inconsistent. While we get our fair share of good waves there can be struggles with other elements, such a big tidal ranges and wind. What advice would you give to any aspiring paddle surfer looking to progress in this environment?
There is a lot of training you can do outside of the surf. Training stability on smaller shapes, exercises for stability and flexibility.
I’ll give you a couple concrete examples.
I recommend having a smaller board that you can paddle on in flat water to push your stability training. If you’re comfortable at 130L, have a 115. Work to increase stability, first in the flat water and then pushing it in more dynamic situations. For drills you can reference progressionproject.com. Eventually that board will become your stable board and you’ll buy another stretch board.
For exercises, look into the kettlebell goblet squat. Focus on the bottom range of the movement and hip flexibility. Stability is most difficult in transition and being able to relax in a full squat and have balance and strength going from squat to standing is a core movement in paddle surfing.
How much does equipment play its part when talking about improvement?
Equipment becomes exponentially important as skill increases. Your first time out it really doesn’t matter as long as you have enough volume. As you start surfing, shape plays a larger part. As you approach higher levels it becomes very important because how volume is distributed massively changes the feel of a board. I think we’re just at the beginning of this exploration.
And what about technique – paddling and board riding?
Focusing on proper technique will increase your growth curve. I’ve journaled my progress on the progressionproject.com and it is a free resource for anyone wanting to hack their learning curve.
Most of your riding and coaching revolves around short boarding. What about longboarding? Is this on your radar?
Absolutely. After my move to Florida I took on longboarding as an art. I had been into riding mid-length boards for the last year and longboarding was the natural extension. It has influenced my surfing so much that a lot of the Portal Barra design comes from feelings of longboard and mid-length surfing.
Do you think at some point SUP surfing will have the variety of wave riding shapes that surfing has? And will these different boards require different approaches to getting the best from in terms of technique?
I’m not sure. There is abundant room for growth and we’re just now getting into the fun part. I think design will change a great deal over the next few years as folks start to separate the idea of volume into surfing and paddling.
What about kids and SUP surfing? Here in the UK there aren’t many youths wave riding with paddles (yet). Is this the same in the States? How do you think the sport can attract younger riders?
It’s the same in the States. There are some massive barriers to entry to SUP surfing – perception and cost being at the top of the list. Surfing grows through generations. But with surfing frowning on paddle surfing, parents won’t support kids in a sport the parents don’t like. It’s the chicken and the egg in a way. Kids would be into it, but parents (in surfing) don’t like it. And, if they’re on the fence, the price tag for a board doesn’t help. That’s one problem I’m trying to tackle with Portal. I’m actively working to bring down pricing. And kid’s boards are the same price as surfboards.
And what about ladies?
It seems that ladies are more open minded than guys. I’m about to write an article, it will probably be out by the time this is published, about identity and growth. It seems to me that the stronger you identify with something the less you’re able to explore outside of that identity and your general growth is limited. So the identity of shortboarder limits fun in other areas, which in turn limits progression.
Back to your podcast work and you’re now working with Chase Kosterlitz to deliver more rounded material and cover other aspects of stand up such as racing. Did you see a gap in the market that needed to be filled?
It was Chase’s idea. I’m focused on surfing and learning and design. Chase currently hosts a podcast with his wife on relationships, he’s an incredibly smart guy and wanted to start doing content on racing. I was all for it. About half of our guests at Blue Zone SUP come from the racing background and Chase is the perfect coach for them. It’s going to be fun to listen to his episodes.
Any other projects on the go in 2018?
Portal Surf Designs. I’ve always been infatuated with surfboards, and have worked with a lot of great shapers and tested amazing boards in the last 4 years. I have an ideal in my mind of what paddle surfing can be and I’m trying to build a board that is based on those ideals. Ease of speed, limited necessary foot movement, and the ability to still get radical. The boards are working and feedback has been unreal.
What about final thoughts on SUP surfing and paddling in general?
We’re still just at the beginning of this sport. If you love it, like I do, help it grow by being better and more conscientious in the lineup, by supporting people who are helping the sport grow and by sharing it.
Thanks, shouts and praise?
Thank you for reaching out! Thanks to everyone that listens and reads the work. Much praise to all the surfers and shapers pushing the sport. Our family had a tough year, but it only reinforced how lucky we surfers are… spending our time thinking about waves, it’s the ultimate privilege. Check yourself if you ever start getting mad about surfing because it probably means the rest of your life is going ok.
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