It was a windy day on Lake Murray. Steve Fisher doesn’t care for the wind.
Wind makes balancing and steering more difficult on a stand-up paddleboard, which is why Fisher instructed his California Republic paddling campers to paddle directly facing the wind, to minimize the challenge of being blown sideways.
Nearly two dozen of them, ages 8-13, lined up with multi-colored boards and life jackets on the shore at the Lake Murray Sailing Club on Wednesday before pushing the boards into the water, hopping on with barely a wobble and shoving off for about a 3-mile paddle around the lake.
Paddling near the front of the neon-colored floating pack, 10-year-old Sarah Daniels had a focused look, alternating paddle strokes on either side of her bright green board.
“It’s fun, and you get better arm muscles,” said Sarah, who has been paddleboarding for about three years. “I think it’s pretty easy. Sometimes when you’re fighting against the wind, it gets hard.”
Stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, is easy. It’s social. It’s a workout. And it’s arguably among the fastest-growing water sports in the country, gliding inland from the coasts to gain popularity at places such as Lake Murray and Midlands rivers in just the past few years.
“I would say, now, virtually no one has never heard of it,” said Fisher, a U.S. history teacher at Dutch Fork High School who moved to the area from southern California 10 years ago.
SUP had the highest number of new participants among all outdoor recreational sports two years ago, with first-timers accounting for more than half of all SUP participants, according to the 2013 Outdoor Participation Report by the Outdoor Foundation.
“Stand-up paddleboarding has grown like crazy because it’s easy. It’s so easy,” said Chuck Hardin, owner of Augusta-based Whitecap Stand Up Paddleboarding, which also operates in the Midlands and the Upstate. “Anyone can learn to do it in 10 minutes ... and that’s what I think is the beauty of it.”
Originating in Hawaii, SUP appears to have floated onto the mainland about a decade ago, first taking hold in California, followed by other coastal areas. Only recently, since about the turn of the decade, have inland populations started to jump on board with the sport.
When Fisher opened his California Republic board business in 2010, his mission was to introduce the Midlands to SUP, he said, and every summer he has seen more customers renting and buying boards and signing up for camps.
But Fisher wasn’t the first to take on the task of baptizing the region. Hardin has been doing SUP for eight years now, and he’s seen his business shift from only windsurfing gear to, now, mainly catering to SUP customers.
“It started as a trickle that quickly became a torrent,” Hardin said of inland interest in SUP. “Once people started going on vacations, seeing it at the coast, they thought, ‘Maybe it’s not so weird. I’ll get one.’ Suddenly, it went from nobody would do that to where people wanted to have one.”
Jason Kerr started New Wave Paddleboarding last year, offering board rentals, sales and lessons on Lake Murray, in the Upstate and in Augusta. In a year, his business has grown from getting maybe six to 10 calls a week about renting or buying boards to now getting as many as a couple dozen calls a day, many of them from people wanting to try SUP for the first time, he said.
People are drawn to SUP because of its ease, its fitness component and the opportunity to socialize while on a board. And the largest portion of the customer base – two-thirds or more – are women, Fisher and Hardin said.
Niki Klasnic tried SUP for the first time earlier this summer, and now she’s helping guide Fisher’s paddling campers.
She said she enjoys SUP as a good core exercise and a fun activity that allows her to do something on the water rather than just sit on a boat or dock.
“I thought it was going to be a lot harder than it is,” Klasnic said. “But it’s a lot easier than people think to get up and balance on it. A lot of people are intimidated. ... It’s not as scary as it looks.”
Despite SUP’s steady growth, Fisher and some other SUPers say the sport is still “on the brink,” yet to fully break out as a mainstream activity.
“I don’t really know that many people who have done it yet. I think it’s still kind of really new here,” Klasnic said. “I think you just need a few people in (the younger) age group to catch on, and all of a sudden it’ll be big.”