“OK, so these are basically training wheels.”
As patient and nice as he is about it, I have the distinct feeling that Matt Hite, the head stand-up paddleboarding instructor at Black Creek Outfitters, has never had quite this much trouble coaxing a student. It’s not that I’m horrifically out of shape or un-athletic — yeah, whatever, I could lose a few pounds, thanks — but rather the bad knees and high arches and complete and utter lack of balance that rendered me inept on a surfboard in my teens have made it nigh impossible for me to accomplish even the most basic SUP task in my 30s.
I can’t stand up.
I’ve tried. Several times now, in fact, each attempt plunging me from the thick, 10-foot-and-change board ass-first into the 60-degree drink. I’m cold. I’m wet. I’m frustrated. I’m embarrassed. (This is all being photographed for my staff to gawk at.)
And now he wants to give me training wheels.
They’re not wheels, of course. More like buoyant floats attached to the sides of the board, in essence making it wider and sturdier and klutz-proof, such that a man like me, dispossessed of any sort of grace, can slowly, clumsily make the herky-jerky move from his knees to his feet.
This really shouldn’t be hard. People race on these boards. They do yoga on these boards. They paddle for miles and miles on these boards. They surf shoulder-high waves in the ocean on these boards.
And I can’t stand up without training wheels.
People have been using boards like this, in cruder forms and fashions, for thousands of years. Timucua Indians, Hite tells me, used paddleboards to navigate Northeast Florida’s many rivers and lakes ages before Europeans settled here, as did ancient cultures in Africa and South America and truly anywhere in the world where there was water that needed traversing.
Paddling as sport — specifically paddle surfing — has also been around for centuries, especially in Polynesian cultures, but really caught steam in the last decade. And then the paddle surfers began taking their boards to calmer waters — a way to stay active when the waves weren’t cooperating (which, in Florida, happens frequently). And then the damn thing blew up, so much so that, by 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard classified SUP boards in the same category as kayaks and canoes (which means you’re supposed to wear a personal flotation device when you ride anywhere outside of a surf zone).
As with anything else, when demand emerges, supply follows, which is why Black Creek’s back room is filled with boards that start at more than $1,000. (You can find them cheaper online, Hite says, but you get what you pay for.) And that’s why, in the small lake behind the store, Hite holds SUP classes. They run about $20 a session and last about 75 minutes. You learn the basics — how to stand up, how to paddle, how to turn and change direction. If you stick with it, you learn how to walk up and down the board and pop the nose out of the water and other neat tricks. It’s a hell of a workout: core, arms, legs.
Because of the SUP’s growing popularity, these classes proved quite popular — Hite caps attendance at 20 people per class — so he added some more. This summer, he’ll have three a week. Even now, in February, the one he's running is booked solid.
This is the perfect place for SUP: warm water almost year-round, an endless supply of easily accessible lakes and rivers, a nearby ocean. But Jacksonville, Hite tells me, with its surfer culture that sometimes looks down on SUP, is behind other spots in Florida. A SUP club in Orlando, he says, has some 3,800 members. The Meetup group he founded, Stand Up Paddle Jacksonville, has about 500.
No matter. “The idea is to create a community for stand-up,” Hite says. “That’s what I’m psyched about. It’s growing.”
As the weather warms, the group will begin hosting more and more events — a paddleboarding trip on Crystal River, another on the Guana River in Ponte Vedra — as well as regular beginners’ get-togethers and certifications courses for SUP instructors.
Hite, the energy behind the group and perhaps Northeast Florida’s leading SUP evangelist, practically grew up in the water. The son of two lifeguards, he, like many SUP enthusiasts, is an avid surfer. This is another outlet for him, a way to both get some exercise and commune with the outdoors. He’s agile and flexible. He makes it look easy.
Which it’s not — at least not for me. Training wheels attached, I again paddle myself to the middle of the lake — I really shouldn’t try to stand up anywhere near the dock, lest head injuries ensue — and slowly, one foot at a time, giving myself as wide a stance as possible (apologies to Larry Craig), wobble to my unsteady, uneasy feet.
“Keep your eyes up,” Hite tells me, which is a nicer way of saying, “Don’t look down.” And so I do. After you stand up, the trick is to keep your paddling arm straight, sticking the paddle in the water and drawing yourself toward it. Every three or four strokes, you switch sides and hands, so as to keep yourself moving in a relatively straight line.
This isn’t rocket science, but it is, in fact, quite serene, quite tranquil.
When I got home later that night, I noticed that soreness of the legs and core indicative of a workout, but out here, in the middle of the water, I didn’t feel it. Instead, I felt a sense of calm, a feeling of communality with nature, even though we were in a small lake adjacent to an apartment complex within shouting distance of the St. Johns Town Center.
I got the charm.
That doesn’t mean I’ll ever be any good at it.