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Duke Kahanamoku
The father of modern surfing.

A Brief History Of Stand Up Paddleboard (or Wassup with SUP?)

Stand up paddle boarding is the fastest growing watersport in the world currently but it didn’t just come out of no where. I feel that newcomers to the sport don’t really know how this sport evolved. I was introduced to stand up paddle boarding (SUP) just as it was being discovered by more and more locals in Hawaii about 10 years ago. Even though aspects of this sport are new; it is really just an extension or blending of 3 different Hawaiian water sports; some dating back to before the Polynesions came to Hawaii in their large sailing canoes. Here’s a brief history of the new Hawaiian tradition of stand up paddle boarding.


Stand up paddle boarding has existed as a form of surfing since surfing was invented by the Polynesians thousands of years ago and refined by the Hawaiians. Duke Kahanamoku is known as the father of modern surfing (pictured above). Hawaiians were known as being accomplished watermen and waterwomen which means that they were profient at a number of water sports including swimming, surfing, outrigger canoeing, etc. As a young man; Duke won 3 gold medals and 2 silver medals at the 1912 Olympics for swimming. Using the noteriety of being an Olympian, he traveled the world and introduced his favorite sport of surfing to people around the world. Duke was also known to use a paddle at times when surfing. Other Hawaiians and locals used paddles when surfing but the tradition of surfing with a paddle had almost died out by the 1970s and early 1980s after the old-time paddlesurfers were beyond their surfing days (pictured below)


Outrigger Canoeing

One of the other Hawaiian watersports that helped create the sport of SUP is outrigger canoeing. Outrigger canoeing existed in the Polynesian islands such as Tahiti before the Polynesians arrived in Hawaii. In fact, the Polynesians originally journeyed to Hawaii using large sailing outrigger canoes approximately 800 years ago. Some of the best stand up paddleboarders come from a background of racing outrigger canoes. In Hawaii, outrigger canoeing is a cherished tradition with many competitive teams from each of the major islands (see pictures below). Each year, the biggest race is a 42 mile open ocean race from the island of Molokai to Oahu with separate races for men and women. The paddling aspect of stand up paddle boarding comes from outrigger canoeing. Both sports use the same basic paddle strokes.

Prone Paddleboarding

Prone paddleboarding is the least known of the Hawaiian watersports that came together to create SUP. Prone paddleboarders paddle as they lay down on their chest or sit on their knees on paddleboards made specifically for this sport. They use only their arms to paddle, much like a surfer paddles on the ocean except prone paddleboarders paddle for distance, not waves. Prone paddleboarders paddle on flat water and paddle in the currents that run along beaches in the ocean (called down wind runs). It is a recognized watersport whose participants are just as passionate as those of us who stand up and paddle. Surfers use it as a way to exercise when the waves were too small to surf. The flat water and distance aspect of stand up paddleboarding came from prone paddleboarding (see pictures below).

The birth (or rebirth) of Modern Stand Up Paddle Boarding

How did these 3 sports come together to become the new Hawaiian tradition of stand up paddle boarding? As I mentioned, Hawaiians (both modern and ancient) considered themselves watermen and waterwomen by practicing many of the Hawaiian watersports such as surfing, outrigger canoeing, prone paddling, body surfing, wind surfing, etc.). In the early 1990s, Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton were world class windsurfers. Dave and Laird also surfed big, big waves. In late 1990s, these guys along with their big wave surfing buds were the first to ride huge waves by being propelled into the wave by their partners on jet skis. In 2003, Laird Hamilton was the first person to ride a 60 foot plus wave. That wave is called 'Peahi' in Hawaiian, also known as ‘Jaws’ in Maui, Hawaii. On days when the waves were small, Laird and Dave (see pictures of Dave and Laird below) were riding big boards on small waves for practice and starting playing around with paddles as they surfed.. One day, it all kind of clicked and they realized they had developed a unique new sport quite by accident. Using their backgrounds as accomplished watermen, they used the upright standing position from surfing, the paddle stroke from outrigger caneoing, and the flatwater/distance aspect of prone paddleboarding to create the new Hawaiian tradition of stand up paddle boarding or SUP. So whether it’s your first time out paddleboarding or you’ve been doing it for years, you are on your way to becoming a waterman or waterwoman using the best of Hawaiian watersport traditions.



Beginning of an outrigger canoe race

Coed outrigger canoe team

John Zapatocky stand up paddling in the 60s

Dave Kalama stand up paddling

Big wave surf legend-Greg Noll

Prone paddler in Hawaii

Prone paddler in Hawaii

Prone paddler in Hawaii

Pops Ah Choy stand up paddling in the 70s

Outrigger Canoe Team in Hawaii

Hawaiian priests traveling between islands

A beautiful, lone Pelican