By Shawn Robertson

Picture a custom-built surfboard for Shaquille
O’Neal. SUP (Stand Up Paddleboarding) boards have
similar shapes and
lengths as traditional
‘longboards’ but with
added thickness and
width for stability. SUP
allows adventurous
spirits to cruise and play
on their favorite rivers,
lakes and coastlines
while comfortably
standing on their own
two feet.
So far, SUP pioneers
have established three
styles. The first to
develop into a popular
sport was the surfing
style. Early surfers in
Hawaii used enormous
(by today’s standards)
Balsa wood boards that
they could stand up on
outside the break and
paddle back toward
shore catching waves
the whole way. For
years the progression in
surfing was all about making boards smaller and more
dynamic on the wave. As a result, this paddling style of
surfing was largely lost until board shapers learned to
make lighter boards that retained the stability needed
for the paddler to stay standing up, even in powerful
ocean currents.
Surfing phenomenon Laird Hamilton stumbled across
SUP’s potential while using a ‘tandem’ board to teach
his children and students how to catch their first
waves. He started making custom paddles to go with
his tandem boards and quickly showed thousands
the possibilities of new board designs and materials.
Hence, in the world’s most famous surfing paradise,
and under the feet the one of the most well known
surfers, modern SUP surfing was born.
Naturally, SUP surfers started taking their new fast
gliding, stable boards on extended tours to explore
coves, beaches and distant breaks. With just a few
tweaks in design and the addition of an extended paddle
shaft for standing,
early SUPers bridged
the gap between the
sport of surfing and
the more tranquil
realm of flat water
and fitness cruising. If
current trends are any
indication, this is the
style of SUP that will
inspire more people
than ever to add surfboards
to their list of
favorite toys.
Perhaps to prove
his favorite new
sport wasn’t just for
island-dwelling surf
addicts and cruisers,
Hamilton took the
sport in a different
direction when
he rode his board
through the mighty
rapids of the Grand
Canyon. It turned
out there were many other landlocked souls with a
yearning to stand with board and paddle.
Soon after news spread of Hamilton’s descent on the
Colorado River, a handful of experienced kayakers
and river-runners jumped on board. They were
thrilled to have a new way of interacting with the
rivers to which they were already connected.
Thrill seekers all over the globe are pushing the potential
of SUPs on rivers, and some of the sport’s most
progressive momentum is right here in the Northern
Rockies. Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have long
been recognized for the handful of world-class river
surf waves found on larger volume rivers like the
Clark Fork, the Snake and the Yellowstone. These
rivers are well suited for those exploring river SUP
potential, since their deeper water is more forgiving
of the inevitable wipeouts that happen while running
rapids and trying to surf.
Shawn Robertson writes from Big Sky. More of his work
is available at