SUP: UK stand up paddle surfing – the domestic conundrum

Words: Tez Plavenieks

Pics: Bob Berry, Steve Pye, Tim Rowe, The SUP Hut

In the UK we have the frustration of distinctively average surf (when compared to overseas nations), mainly because of our changeable weather. Sure, we get great days, but these are punctuated with howling onshore winds and flat spells. Choosing to wield a paddle and ride a sled much thicker than your average surf weapon (surfboard) gives advantages. Being able to move around the break quickly, position yourself better, take off early, avoid breaking sections and perform moves that require years to perfect on a surfboard are all attractive traits stand up paddle surfing offers – benefits already widely promoted.

Much to the dismay of some diehard surfers, the fact you’re already standing tall eliminates the initial frustrating hurdle of learning to pop up. With stand up you’re already on your feet, and poised for the take off – something that can be both a blessing and curse. (There’s been much criticism of stand up paddlers hitting surf spots with no understanding and appreciation of surf etiquette – a situation which has led to increased agro in busy line ups).


Not a surf sport

Back when modern SUP landed in the UK the surfing industry jumped all over it. Here was a vehicle that could offer something different and would arguably be a faster route to swell sliding. Surf shapes, once beginners had progressed from foamies, were stuck in high performance land during this time – think pointy arrow like boards that require skill and a deft hand to pilot.

There were a few alternative shapes kicking about – fish, eggs and such – but the surfing industry had yet to cotton on to the idea that volume, thickness and width can actually be good things – certainly for UK waves anyhow. Accessibility is, after all, everything.

Aaron Rowe hacking

As the SUP bug started to bite a number of paddle sport luminaries, who could see the bigger picture, decided to act – and rightly so. Educating and informing stand up paddling was re-positioned as a paddle sport and NOT a surf sport (first and foremost). Mr and Mrs Centre of the Country, floating about on a duck pond, is still part of this same diverse activity after all. And so ensued a fairly aggressive distancing of stand up paddle boarding from surfing.

Fast forward to today and we’ve got a fully rounded discipline that fits many varied niches. All stretches of water and conditions are primed for SUP attack with stand up possessing an identity all of its own, which is great.


Unfortunately during the exercise of establishing stand up paddling in the UK SUP surfing has fallen behind a tad. Sometimes there’s almost a conscious effort to not speak, promote and market the wavier end of the stand up spectrum for fear of backlash. Recent SUP negativity during a pumping bout of autumnal swell only fans those flames. And yet, it’s a completely viable division of SUP and one we should be shouting about – both in terms of educating newbies to the ways of the wave and general promotion. (Some would argue it’s the surf side of SUP that is most marketable).


Sliding along a liquid wall can be the most fun you’ll have on a stand up. With correct knowledge and education it’s possible to ride in harmony with other water users and enjoy Mother Ocean. In fact, if you hit up any break on an offshore day you’ll almost certainly come across other SUPers in the line up without any ‘biff’ vibes – such is the general acceptance now from a wider audience. (We have to work hard to maintain this relationship though).

Upping the ante

This isn’t knocking anyone – it really isn’t. But there’s still more work to be done with regard to SUP surfing skills – particularly if we want to step things up. Team GB did a sterling job out in Fiji representing (as did all other nations), but these guys are a minority. And of course we have BSUPA UK paddle surfing champ Aaron Rowe, from Jersey, who’s smashing it. There are a few more but by and large overall standards of stand up paddle surfing in the UK is at the lower end of the spectrum.

Aaron Rowe Watergate

Many paddlers still can’t actually turn their boards efficiently – for various reasons. We’re all for having fun. And the sheer act of gliding (whether on a rolling bump or wave) should be encouraged. Not everyone wants to rip ‘n’ shred, and many may not want to take their skills further than their local put in, but SUP surfing fundamentals should be in place. A rider needs to ‘make’ a proper bottom turn at least. After all this is bread and butter and a safety thing. Being able to manoeuvre and avoid collision is of high importance in any wave environment.

Board design

Low volume surf SUPs are all the rage at the moment. Any time you hit up social media streams, blogs or websites you’re confronted by skinny, tanned youngsters buzzing around on boards that mere mortals just won’t be able to pilot. Industry trends suggest this continuing – as well as refinement of shapes for rip, shred ‘n’ tear riders. And why not. It’s important to broadcast the aspirational/inspirational end of SUP to invite people in – we do need high performance after all…

Some brands produce gear that’s not so technical/impossible to paddle in straight lines but still offers top drawer levels of performance once on a wave. After all, paddlers are different sizes, the UK’s surf fickle and changeable therefore promoting equipment able to cope with this is surely the best course of action?

And let’s not forget about paddles and paddle technique. As much as riders need the correct SUP for making the most of swells an understanding and idea of what he/she should be doing with their paddle is also vital.

What to do?

Pushing paddle surfing on our own shores is a good thing. And opening up other areas of competition – such as longboard SUP surfing – could also entice paddlers along and show the surfing side of things as more rounded. Of course education will need to be constant as we don’t want accidents or agro in line ups. With SUP there’s no need to be packing out the best spots. Stand up gives the opportunity to access lesser quality waves and still have fun – something we have in abundance in the UK.

But riders need knowledge about and guided towards the right equipment. It’s no good trying to ride a gutless mush burger on a current high performance SUP as an average weight individual. Likewise it’s no good dropping in with a log that won’t turn. Both larger and smaller performance SUP surfing sleds need promo (something SUPM continues to do) – we’re getting there but haven’t fully arrived yet.

Matt Barker-Smith The SUP Hut

For now if you’re keen to get stuck into some wave action then take the time to learn what you can about wave environments. Understand surfing etiquette and rights of way and know your personal limitations and those of your kit. Try different gear when you get the chance and don’t be afraid to learn new skills. Above all have fun!

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