The Brief (or Long) History of Standup Paddle Boarding

It is difficult to pin down the origins of any activity that seems to simply have evolved. Standup paddle boarding has had a long or even brief history, depending on what you want to believe. So I thought I’d give you some of the new/old possibilities surrounding the origins of the quickly growing sport of standup paddle boarding.

It began with surfers, more specifically with surfers who adopted their board to a specific need. It may have begun in Hawaii in the late fifties as a need to photograph tourists attempting to ride the waves on the beaches of Diamond Head. Credit on the development of the sport might be accredited to intrepid beach dwelling entrepreneurs. These local “beach boys” had been hired by resorts to guide these new adventure seekers on the finer points of riding waves. From that, they saw a need to record the experience through photography.

In the absence of waterproof cameras, this required a bit of ingenuity. These beach boys devised a way to do this by stringing the camera around their necks and “paddling” into the surf to record the event. Riding the same wave as their tourist/students, these surfers were able to capture the moment and do so without getting their boxing photography equipment wet. This took a great deal of skill as you might imagine. Surfboards, by their design are not ideal paddleboards. The paddles they used were borrowed from local outriggers. This could be considered the beginning of the sport as we know it today.

But some students of the sport might suggest that the beginnings were much more primitive. Early explorers noted Polynesian natives using canoes in a standup fashion. And while these canoes have been dated back almost seven millenium, this was, by all accounts simply a canoe in which a person stood and paddled. It was far from recreational or competitive. Instead it was an adaptation of a low built vessel to allow better fishing opportunities.  While Captain Cook might have been impressed the first time he witnessed it in 1777, and later by Robert Louis Stevenson and still later by Jack London, what they first witnessed in their travels was not necessarily the beginning of the sport as we know it today.

One thing is certain, surfers were at the forefront of its development. But surfers being who they are, rarely take credit. How could they? Surfing, as explained by Matt Warsaw in his Encyclopedia of Surfing suggests was only a sketch and not clearly defined. William Finnegan, writing the foreward to the same book went even further when he wrote: “Surfing as subject really has no edges.”

standonliquidSurfing was considered an elitist sport. Attempting to break into the sport was often met with territorial derision from “locals” or those born within a five mile radius of of any given break.

Therein lies the difficulty of defining the exact moment some surfers crossed the line, stood on their boards with a paddle and distanced themselves from the waves they knew in search of breaks they did not.

Standup paddle boarding soon caught on with these surfers as a way to distance themselves from the “kooks”, a derogatory term for these inland beginners, in search of bigger and better waves beyond the best known impact zones.

By the early 2000’s, noted surfers were using paddle boarding as a way to train. The physical benefits were numerous. Once non-surfers realized that they could remove the “surf” from the activity, it didn’t take long for paddle boarding to become the fastest growing water sport for landlocked enthusiasts, replacing canoes and kayaks. And because of the far-ranging possibilities this activity allowed, the Coast Guard eventually classified the paddleboard as a vessel, requiring personal floatation devices to be used by 2008. That nod meant that the sport had finally arrived.

Even though the sport was developed to accommodate the growing tourist industries popping up along the coastlines of the most popular surfing venues, one thing was clear: you didn’t need waves. This one simple concept made standup paddle boarding different from surfing.

Ku Hoe He’e Nalu, the Hawaiian translation of which is “to stand, to paddle, to surf, a wave” may have its roots loosely credited to Polynesian, Peruvian and even African culture. But the sport as we know it today is a byproduct of necessity, born on the beaches of Hawaii, brought to the California coast and from there, to any body of water.


  1. I would like to use some of the things you post about on our fb page and web site. what is the best way for me to do that?

    Neil Newton
    Owner of Paddle Up Tn

Speak Your Mind