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Massive growth in SUP

Coreban’s weekday morning SUP class for beginner women attract more than 40 participants, with newcomers joining almost on a weekly basis, renting boards from their Muizenberg store until they become converts and buy their own boards. Words & photo: TRUDI DU TOIT

From time-to-time various sports claim to be the fastest-growing in the world … but with 30-fold growth in board sales in only eight years, Stand Up Paddle (SUP) could be a strong contender for the South African title.

For a sport that didn’t exist competitively more than a decade ago, the growth has certainly been fast and furious.

In 2013 SUP was the outdoor activity with the highest number of first time participants in America, the Outdoor Recreation Participation Report of that year concluded.

The first SUP World Series Championship race was held five years ago (in 2012) with 49 participants. It was won by Kai Lenny, who is still dominating SUP racing.

Last year the International Surfing Association (ISA) SUP and Paddleboard World Championship in Fiji attracted SUP surfing and racing teams from 26 countries, including South Africa.

Canoe Federation taking over?

True, as World SUP Mag pointed out in a 2010 article by Corran Addison on the history of the sport, standing up while paddling are concepts that are centuries old — it is believed that Peruvian fisherman thousands of years ago surfed the waves on rafts propelled by bamboo poles, and that African warriors and Hawaiian fishermen centuries ago steered their rafts or flat boats with poles.

And actually, are the mokoro polers in the Delta and Venetian gondoliers not also doing stand up paddling?

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) will certainly agree, because they claimed to be the Olympic-level governing body for SUP when they challenged ISA’s right to campaign for the sport to be included in the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. Even though all the SUP events have so far been organised by ISA and usually include SUP racing as well as surfing disciplines.

ISA, on the other hand would trace the sport’s roots to the Hawaiian surf instructors of the 1940’s, dubbed the Beach Boys, who stood up on their surfboards, which they steered with paddles, to get a better view of their surfing charges and the swells.

The World SUP Mag article also records that the first Beach Boy Surfing contest was held as part of the Buffalo Big Board Contest in 2003. To the delight of many of the proper surfers, many who eagerly adopted this new format. Photographs taken of the event, created interest across the world.

The following year Rick Thomas introduced a SUP board into California … and the sport’s boom began. Ten years later 2.8-m Americans participated in SUP, according to the Outdoor Foundation's 2015 Special Report into Paddlesports. That was 800 000 more participants than the previous year — a whopping 40% growth between 2013 and 2014.

After Hawaii and the US, SUP found favour in Australia, New Zealand and Europe. South Africans adopted it towards the end of the 2000s.

“South Africa was slow out of the blocks compared to America and Australia,” says Gary van Rooyen, owner of the Coreban International SUP brand. When he bought the South African Coreban rights in 2009 and opened a small shop for his daughter in Muizenberg, they would sell about one board a month. The sport was new, the brand unknown and they had to set up gazebos close to rivers where they would test demo boards to try and interest people in the sport.

Nowadays, their XOTB store sells on average a SUP board a day and in the peak December season often as many as two boards per day. Most of the big international brands like Starboard, Naish, Coreban, Mistral, F1 are on sale locally, as well as numerous other brands.

Van Rooyen estimates that the big international SUP brands sell about 1 400 to 1 500 new boards a year in South Africa. The second-hand market is much bigger, but it is very difficult to judge the size, he says.

While South Africa is still a small market compared to some overseas countries, it nevertheless represents significant growth in a relatively short time.

Accessible to all

This growth is in part because the barrier to entry is so low: SUP as a recreational activity on a river or a calm bay, is safe and easy to master. It is also an activity enjoyed by whole families — from kids to mom and dad. SUP boards are, for example, popular purchases for holiday homes or as gifts for spouses.

Although they initially targeted surfers, triathletes and other watersport enthusiasts, most of their sales are now to Joe Public who has never surfed, but now wants to try a new sport, says Van Rooyen.

More recently, the prices of SUP boards have also come down — making the sport accessible to more people.

Initially, the top surf brands like Starboard, Naish, Coreban, Bic, Mistral, F1 and Red (inflatable) had their boards made in Thailand at the Cobra International factory, because it had the best technologies and know-how, Van Rooyen explains.

But, when the demand for top boards declined in Hawaii, Australia and the US, Cobra retrenched about 300 people. Many of them went to China, where they set up their own smaller SUP factories. These factories started making boards at a much lower price, many of them for retail stores.

“In the past a store would stock 25 top branded boards out of 30, and 5 no name cheaper boards,” says Van Rooyen. “Now it’s all reversed — a store will have five boards that are top class for people who want to spend money, and 25 for Joe Public. The dynamic has changed.”

Many of the top brands therefore also shifted production of some ranges to China, which would sell for R10–15 000, instead of the R17 000 to R35 000 a top range board would cost.

No-name brands, especially some inflatables, can retail for as low as R3 000.

While the prices are good, the quality could be suspect, warns Van Rooyen.

The cheaper boards can be sold in any retail store by assistants without any technical know-how, he adds, but you need someone with SUP credibility and know-how to sell a R35 000 board.

Women & kids on board

There are also various initiatives to get women and children on boards — like a class of about 45 women who meet on Thursday mornings to learn the basics of SUP from XOTB instructors on the calm Zandvlei estuary — many first-timers on rented boards.

Or the workshops conducted for mainly women and kids by Roxy Davis of Surf Emporium, seven-times South African Surfing champ and a strong international SUP competitor.

But, when it comes to competition, this calm and composed picture explodes with furious paddling in races, or skilful manoeuvring over waves. There are two legs to international competitions: SUP racing and SUP surfing.

South African competitive SUP racers face some unique challenges: the cost of participating in international events is beyond the reach of many, with the result that South Africans compete in fewer events, which affects their World Rankings.

Participating in the ISA SUP and Paddleboard World Championship in Denmark later this year will, for example, cost each team member R40 000. Last year it cost R60 000 to participate in the event in Fiji.

In addition, the fastest South African racers are isolated across the country: our top racer, Dylan Frick, for example, lives in Somerset West. His closest competition are in Gauteng and Durban. They are therefore all racing against people who are much slower than themselves.

Stronger competition

The growing popularity of SUP across the world has resulted in a strong competitive global field entering a growing number of competitions. Apart from the known top performers from Hawaii and Australia, competitors from countries like Tahiti and Japan are also making their mark in international events — the majority not attended by South Africans due to the distance and cost.

With the result that Frick, who used to be #10 in the world, is now down to #47, says Van Rooyen.

South African women, however, fare better. In 2014 (Roxy) Davis came fourth in the 2014 La Torche Pro Stand Up Paddle Board event in France, while the current SA women’s champion SUP racer as well as #1 long board surfer, Tarryn King, was fourth in Fiji last year.

Her husband, Thomas King, who is a triple South African champion in Open and Masters surfing, as well as SUP surfing, came fourth in the 2016 SUP surfing championship in Fiji.

An interesting development in SUP is that the average age of participants is dropping by a decade or two. “Initially all the top guys were in their thirties,” says Van Rooyen who twice accompanied the South African team to the World Championships as coach/manager — this year, at age 59, he will be participating!

“Now, the 13 and 15 year olds are coming in. They used to want to become top surfers … but they now realise that to be another Kelly Slater, they would have to be 1 out of 500-m. To be another Kai Lenny (SUP hero) you just have to 1 in 500 to get a chance to make it to the top.”

Social media has done a lot to popularise SUP, he believes. “One search on the internet and you get pummelled by surf or SUP videos.” People are now able to watch SUP events like Chris Bertish crossing the Atlantic or the World Championship from the comfort of their homes, even at 4am in the morning.

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