It’s a question we hear a lot. And the simple answer is: ‘yes of course you can!’ (We can hear moans from the gallery already – especially those who aren’t fans of inflatable stand up paddle boards. Not more kooks I hear you cry!). There are, however, a few caveats to this. It’s not simply a case of running for the biggest breakers you can find, armed with your trusty 11ft inflatable stand up paddle board – your hard SUP riding brethren won’t thank you for this. You’ll need to consider a few other points and be more calculated about your approach.
So you’ve purchased a bling and shiny inflatable stand up paddle board and have been stoked off your noggin paddling around on flatwater; exploring your local put in and developing those essential board handling and paddle skills. It’s been a super fun summer, with plenty of time of the brine, but you feel like another challenge and fancy stepping it up in waves. But you’re not sure of how the equipment you own will cope.
First the negatives: If you want ultimate wave performance, and like the idea of ripping like the pros, then an inflatable SUP simply won’t cut the mustard. The majority of these boards, filled with air, means no matter how much pressure (psi) you ram in there’ll always be a little bit of ‘play’ when you head out on the drink. (There are a few exceptions to this and technology is advancing rapidly in the world of inflatables. Red Paddle Co’s new Whip is a case in point).
Inflatable boards tend to bow slightly in the middle where less rigidity is located – especially as you first drop into swell. This can be an issue when travelling at speed along a wave as your sled’s stiffness can affect how the board interacts with its environment. Inflatables also tend to stick slightly as Dropstitch material causes more friction when in contact with water – you notice this more at speed. It can therefore feel like surfing in super glue.
Fin systems on some blow up SUPs are less than ideal when coping with swells. Moulded plastic skegs, which have a habit of changing shape – mainly when packed down in their bag – won’t do you any favours when SUP surfing. While great for simple ‘blow ‘n’ go’ flat water sessions they’re not ideal for swell sliding. Rounded rails filled with air also don’t engage well with a wave face. This can make it tricky to set your line, should you end up on a green, clean, groomed face. Vertical steep walls are therefore usually a no go – especially at the start of your paddle surfing journey. Slow and fat mellow surf spots are going to be your friend instead. Do some research prior to your induction into the wave riding world and pick softer breaking surf locations for your first forays.
The good news
The good news is no matter how badly configured for wave sliding your inflatable board is you can still get to grips with the fundamentals of this side of SUP. If you’re desperate to surf then it’s all about picking your spot and knowing where to head for.
‘Surfing’ is a term that can mean so many different things to riders. It’s a fact, however, that as soon as ocean energy moves you along on a wall of water – no matter how hardcore, extreme or mellow – you’re technically surfing. To use a better phrase, however, you’re actually wave riding and there are a plethora of spots across the UK that’ll help with your paddle surfing progress.
As a beginner paddle surfer, and an iSUP owning individual, you’ll want to pick the mellowest conditions possible. You don’t need gigantic surf to actually get sliding. SUPers are lucky to have a thing called a paddle in their hands. Add to this the increased volume, width and length of stand up paddle boards – when compared to surfboards – and stand ups are poised to make the most of even the tiniest of waves.
Ankle biters are perfect for your first forays into wave riding and over time, as you improve, there’s nothing to say you can’t increase the swell size you ride – to a degree. Obviously you’ll need to have developed all the necessary skills that come from time spent in the surf, but there’s nothing to say you couldn’t be riding moderate swells in time.
Before you go bolting off in search of surf stoke it’s wise to learn as much as you can about different wave environments. We hate to admit it but research and reading will give insight. Talking to experienced riders and getting their advice will also help. Although be aware, as everyone has an opinion and some info, while well meaning, will only serve to confuse. Stick to acknowledged/reputable sources for your surfing education.
And when you do eventually head out into the big blue make sure you’re prepared. There’s nothing worse than having a new paddler rock up and put themselves and others in danger. Inflatable SUPs may have less weight than their harder shell siblings, but a rampaging iSUP in the line up will still cause injury if connecting with flesh and bone.
Paddling with experienced wave riders is worthwhile. Experienced SUPers will be able to guide and show you the ropes and keep an eye on you while out in the surf. Mates who regularly wave slide will also be able to idiot check your gear and possibly identify any impending equipment malfunctions – such as dodgy leashes.
And on that note: WEAR A LEASH! To be honest riders should be leashed up whatever environment they’re paddling in. But in waves, especially, they’re a must.
And lastly, we can’t emphasise enough: choose your days and conditions wisely. There’s nothing wrong with taking your inflatable stand up paddle board into small waves and learning the art of paddle surfing. But leave the full on conditions to experts – or at least wait until you’ve developed your skills enough and are riding a hard shell board.
Pics: Fi Plavenieks