January 22, 2013
by Steve West

Steve West On The Roots Of Stand Up Paddling

Steve West Stand Up Paddle author
Boss Man’s Note: We’re stoked to have paddling writer extraordinaire Steve West join the SUPracer.com team. Steve has been writing about ocean paddling sports for more than 20 years and was a Stand Up Paddler before most of us even knew what SUP was. Steve is the author of the new Stand Up Paddle: A Paddler’s Guide, which I nicknamed the “Bible of SUP”, and will be delivering his unique insights into SUP racing each week here on SUPracer.com.

Take it away Steve…


“I was once informed, ‘Stephen’ had been stoned to death in the bible on account of his insistence for telling the truth, an odd fate to suffer for what should be a virtue not a vice. I informed them, being as I was a ‘Steven’ with a ‘V’ and lacked religious conviction, I was probably safe. That being said, it is with as much truth as I can find in subject matter, that I approach my writing and the manner in which I deliver it.

Over the course of however long you’ll have me, I will present some food for thought taken from Stand Up Paddle – A Paddlers Guide and I do so with the absolute best of intentions for the sport and for those of us involved. I’m not here to sell you a board, or a paddle or the latest leg leash, though naturally I believe a good book can be a very handy addition to anyone’s library, if not the mind.

My only agenda if you will, is concern for the sports betterment, nurtured through what I have come to know and recognise as a tribal dissemination of knowledge as experienced with over 20 years involvement with the Pacific wide sport of outrigger canoeing and 30 years of writing, knowledge often entrusted and past on by those I have met along the way and a lifetime of personal involvement with ocean sports. I hope you’ll enjoy at least some of what’s presented.”

– Steve


“Man is a tool-using animal.”

(quote Thomas Carlyle 1795-1881)

The evolution of a water sport is an interesting process. In a paper produced by Sonali K. Shah at the University of Illinois, she concluded end-users (that’s you and me) and their communities sphere of networking and interests (our mates) fuel the surge in development of most major innovations by as much as 57%, while manufacturers fuel somewhere in the region of 27% of these major innovations (development) with the balance of 16% being developed by professional athletes (in contrast to recreational users) and joint user-manufacturers.

The evolution of Stand Up PaddlingSonali’s study was made prior to the popularisation of stand up paddle boarding, studying such sports as surfing, windsurfing and kiteboarding. In contrast to this, stand up paddle boarding would have created an anomaly in her figures, being as it has been very much manufacturer and media driven, rather than by that of the end-user, to the point where there has been a surplus of everything; boards, paddles, information and the manifestation of many hundreds cashing in on the sport and many teaching newcomers barely knowing more than some of their customers. In many ways, this could be a worrying factor certainly for manufacturers and investors and all the while there is a sense of desperation pervading the air like a fine mist of salt spray.

On many levels, the sport seems to have bypassed the usual labour pains of birth and evolution itself. The internet has driven its popularity on a scale rarely experienced by any other water sport on account of the age we live-in, in stark contrast to say how surfing, windsurfing or outrigger canoeing experienced growth and evolution. In truth, stand up paddle boarding has a long way to go if it is to stand the test of time. It requires a healthy dose of self examination in order to survive, for if it’s driven predominantly by manufactures and the media with strategic agendas and alliances where cashing in is the primary driving force of growth, what will happen when the gene pool begins to thin out and the end-user begins to lose interest.

Traditional Indian Canoe RaceStand up paddle boarding is a morphing of sports and ideas which has sparked a catalyst of interest and aspiration amongst many thousands of ‘wanna-be part of the surfing thing’ regardless of where they live, from Colorado to St.Tropez it makes no difference, you can buy your board, paddle and hibiscus patterned board shorts and hey presto, you’re part of the surfing culture you always dreamed of. The obvious question has to be, ‘But are you really?’ or are you merely alluding now to being a part of all that is surfing, but are in fact, closer to all that is paddling? Worse still, are you just a victim of good marketing and aspirational bludgeoning?

Paddling is an ancient art and skill, specifically canoe paddling, as are the paddles designed for propulsion, though once also for warfare. All that is known of canoe sports and that of ocean dynamics and the interaction between board, blade, paddler and water, can be drawn upon from the homogenous blending of all that we have learned before. This is not a new sport per se, simply the melding of the ancient utilitarian skill of canoe paddling and aspects of the more contemporary skills associated with a variety of board sports.

Traditional outrigger canoeFrom this premise alone, it is important to give respect to an ancient lineage pre-dating naive notions that the sport is contemporary and ‘invented’ yesterday, when in fact, it is merely a functionally novel innovation, manifested by user-innovators which, by its origins and nature, cannot be patented, nor laid claim to by a singular individual. To do so, would be to ignore thousands of years of the evolutionary tree from which this sport has fallen and in this regard stand up paddle boarding has, beyond any reasonable doubt, an overwhelming association and lineage with the ‘Sport of Kings’ otherwise known by its Eurocentric name, outrigger canoeing. Regrettably, it is a sport not omnipresent or known much beyond many island shores of the Pacific or Pacific Rim. Consequently, surfing has become the medium by which many manufacturers, the media, the newbie or joe-public, have decided as being the closest, most easily understood summation of the sport with which they can associate its connection.

Waikiki Beach Boys canoe surfingIf we wish to credit the Waikiki Beach Boys as a point of source, know this. They and their Marquesan and Tahitian ancestors stand today on that beach as a result of their direct association with the outrigger canoe which brought them to these islands and all others in-between and beyond, as a manifestation of all that they knew of maritime architecture, navigation, sailing and canoe paddling. Any association or credit given them from times gone by, to that of stand up paddle boarding, can and must be attributed in part, if not the greater part, to their association with all that they knew and know of the art of paddling and yet it is surfing which is continuously and erroneously promoted as being the central root extension of stand up paddle boarding.


Boss Man’s note: Steve will be back again next week with another post that’ll be sure to get you thinking. In the meantime you can check out our review of Steve West’s SUP book or even better: go and grab a copy of your own.