Transitioning to a narrower board

In a recent post I shared a number of tips you can use to enhance stability on your SUP that are especially useful when paddling in rough water and on narrow boards.  Now that we’ve discussed them, let’s take a look at narrow boards and some things to consider when moving from a wider, more stable board to something narrower and faster.

Why go narrow?

I’ve become a huge fan of narrower boards though it hasn’t always been that way.  For years I was convinced that stability was so important that it wasn’t worth risking it by moving to a narrower board.   While there’s truth to that – stability is incredibly important – little did I realize that there’s no reason for it to be compromised just because you’re on a narrow board.  

What I’ve discovered through personal experience is if you’re willing to put the time into it, anyone can paddle a narrow board.  That said, the most important question you can ask yourself when considering a new board purchase is, “Am I willing to put the time in?”.  It’s a question that you better make sure you answer honestly, because if you don’t put the time in you’re not going to be successful and your narrow, supposedly faster board may very well end up being slower.

So, why do you want to go to a narrower board in the first place?   Well narrower boards, all other things being equal, are faster than wider ones.  Not only does a narrower board have less wetted surface but it presents a smaller head-on profile to the water, both of which mean less resistance to movement through the water.  Narrower boards should accelerate more quickly requiring less energy expended from the paddler in the process.  

How much faster is a narrower board?  Well, that is something that is going to depend on other characteristics in addition to board width as well as what wider board you’re comparing your narrower board to.  Things like shape and volume can play huge roles any board’s performance.  However, to give you some idea of what “going narrower” can do, I am about 10 to 15 seconds/km faster on my 14’ x 21.5” Starboard Sprint than I am on my 14’ x 23” Sprint.  Not only is that speed difference significant, but it is also easier to maintain a given speed on the narrower board than its wider cousin.  That said, a narrower board is only going to be faster if you can paddle it properly.

When narrower isn’t faster

Obviously if you have major stability issues on a narrow board it’s not going to be faster.  If you’re overly tense trying to maintain your balance or are flopping around every few strokes because you’ve lost it, you’re going to be slower.  But even if you feel relatively stable and can keep your board reasonably level, if you don’t feel comfortable enough to get your body weight off your board and effectively load your blade you’re still likely to be slower.  

Like any board, a narrow board is still going to be its fastest when you’ve got it up on top of the water and are able to keep it there between strokes.  When the board is up on plane like this there is greatly reduced wetted surface.  You’ll recall that one of the easiest ways to get a board to sit a little higher in the water as you paddle it is to get weight off the board and onto your paddle.  Since this is an important principle in paddling faster and results in more speed, it also helps the board sit higher in the water as boards tend to climb in the water the faster they go.  So, if you can load your paddle effectively, you’ll really be taking advantage of what a narrow board has to offer.  If you can’t, that narrow board is going to sit deeper in the water, perhaps even deeper than a wider board of identical design.  Sitting deeper in the water it may actually end up with more wetted surface when being paddled than the wider board, and that will actually make it slower.  

If you’re willing to spend the time on a narrow board that’s required to figure issues like this out, you’ll eventually make the narrower board faster.  If you aren’t, then there is a very high likelihood that you might actually be slower on the narrower board.  

How much narrower should I go?

This is an important question you should be asking when considering purchasing a narrower board.  We’re all different, with different balance skills.  Some of us are shorter with lower centers of mass.  Others are quite tall with higher centers of mass that end up outside their base of support more easily.  They’re going to have to work harder at developing their balance.  The reality is that some people are going to adapt to new, narrower, boards faster than others.  

In my case I dropped from a 14’ x 28” board at the 2015 Carolina Cup to a 14’ x 25” Starboard All Star and 14’ x 23” Sprint by the end of June that same year.  My transition to the 14’ x 25” All Star was nearly immediate in flat water.  It took me a little longer in rougher water, but it was a fairly smooth transition.  The 14’ x 23” Sprint was much more of a challenge.  For the first month or so I was slower on it than I was on the 14’ x 25” All Star.  

Over the next couple of seasons, I became increasing comfortable on narrower boards, going to first a 14’ x 24.5”and then a 14’ x 23.5” All Star.  I continued to use a 14’ x 23” Sprint but evolved from it being a flat-water board to one I could use in every condition imaginable.   Only recently have I been using a 14’ x 21.5” Sprint.  Last year I used it in flat water at Chattajack and since May 1st, 2019 have forced myself to use it in every condition I face.  

The point of all this is I didn’t drop from a 14’ x 28” wide board to a 14’ x 21.5” board all at once.  It was a process that took a few seasons of year-round paddling.  While it’s clearly possible for most people to drop an inch or two in width fairly easily, dropping 5 or 6 inches from one board to the next is, for most people, far too big a drop.  

My advice to everyone is to set yourself up to be successful.  Make going a narrower board a process that might take a full season or more.  Drop a little in width and then take some time to get really good paddling on that width board.  Only when you’re really able to paddle that board well in some fairly messy water should you be considering dropping another inch or two.  

Boards are expensive.  While you don’t necessarily want to be buying a new board every year, it makes much more sense to buy a 24” board and get really good on it over a season or two and then drop down to a 22” board and repeat the process, than it does to jump right to a 22” board and not really be able to ever paddle it properly.  

There is a limit to how narrow you’re going to be able to go in one drop and still be able to pull good strokes.  If you go past that limit it is going to be extremely difficult to take any good strokes, and if you can’t take any good strokes how on earth are you going to learn to paddle that board well?  You’ll end up confined to flat water, bracing and flopping around in every little ripple.  And you’ll miss all the fun that goes with paddling in rough water and catching bumps.  That board which is clearly too narrow is going to limit your ability to paddle well and expand your skills doing things like drafting, paddling in chop and downwinding.  You’ll be left with two options: continue to paddle poorly or get another board to which you’re better suited.  Think about it. You’d have been better off going to a board that is only a little narrower in the first place, even if you eventually need to sell it to move to something even narrower still.

Tips for transitioning to a narrower board

  1. Don’t drop more than 2 inches width at a time.  I’ve just covered this above. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you can drop more.  Maybe some of the top pros can pull it off, but you very likely can’t.  Remember, you want to transition to something that you have of hope of being able to paddle very well when you put the requisite time into it.  
  1. Consider the type of water you want to paddle in.  If you’re a person that likes to occasionally paddle in messy conditions, or perhaps don’t have access to any reliably calm water, you’re likely going to have to be more conservative in your transition to narrower boards.  Buying a super narrow flat-water rocket if you’re not prepared to at least start out with it in flat water is going to be an exercise in frustration in big or messy conditions.  While it is possible to paddle the newest flat-water boards in virtually anything, you don’t want to start with that.  You generally have to pay your dues in the flats first, gain some confidence there, then by degree challenge yourself over time to paddle in conditions that are increasingly rough.
  1. Be prepared to work more dynamically against the water you gather on your blade.  Since narrower boards accelerate faster you’re going to have to work more quickly against the water you’ve got gathered on your blade than you used to on your wider board.  If you pull against the water at the same speed that you did on your wide board you won’t be using the narrower board to its potential.  You may even end up being slower on the narrower board (see “When narrower isn’t faster” above).  

On any paddle craft if you want it to accelerate you’ve got to work just a little more quickly against the water gathered on your paddle blade than the craft is moving.  If you work against the water at the same speed as the craft, the craft will maintain speed.  If you work more slowly against the water than the craft is moving, the craft will slow down.  To accelerate your narrower board and make use of its capacity for higher speed you’re going to have to learn to work consistently faster against the water you gather on your blade than you did on your wider board.  This is going to take a period of adjustment, during which you’ll find it quite fatiguing to paddle the narrower board.  This is because your nervous system (which controls the speed of muscle contractions) has to work harder than it is used to in order to help you pull more dynamically.  When it’s working harder than it is used to it fatigues quickly.  Once it becomes used to this new normal, it won’t fatigue any faster than it did on your old board, but you’ll be paddling more dynamically and, ultimately, faster.  

  1. Be prepared to paddle with a faster stroke rate.  Not only is it important to work more quickly against the water on a narrower board, but it is also important to slightly reduce the air time between strokes.  

Boards always climb in the water as they accelerate and settle back down into the water as they decelerate.  The narrower the board, the less surface it has to plane on.  So once a board is up on plane, a slightly wider (within reason) board with a larger planing surface tends to stay up on plane a little longer.  In contrast, a narrower board with a smaller planing surface tends to settle back into the water a little more quickly.  To adjust for this, it is useful to reduce your air time slightly so that you are starting your next stroke before the board has had a chance to settle.  

Obviously, the narrow board is faster and takes less energy to accelerate and lift back to plane, but lifting a board back to plane still takes energy.  It’s actually a little easier and more sustainable to keep a slightly wider board on plane than to continually be lifting a slightly narrower board back up to plane.  Anything you can do to keep the narrower board on plane is going to not only make you faster but make your speed more sustainable.

  1. Use all of your stability tools.  In the post, “SUP Stability Tips” I shared a number of things you can do when paddling that enhance stability, whether in rough water or on a narrow board.  You’ll want to employ all of these tips when you transition to a narrower board so that you can learn to paddle it as effectively as your wider one.  Remember, if you can’t paddle the narrow board as effectively it may not be faster.  

Other considerations: volume, shape and paddler size

Not all narrow boards are going to be equal.  If possible, you’ll want to demo one or try a friend’s before pulling the trigger on a purchase yourself.  

Once things get below 23” I prefer dugout designs.  Dugouts get you standing lower and closer to the surface of the water.  This enhances stability a lot by lowering your center of mass.  You may need to end up cutting your paddle down an inch or so, but you’ll be much more stable as a result of standing so much lower.

Board volume is also important.  Clearly, the narrower a board gets the more difficult it is to build volume into it that will float a heavier paddler.  One of the things you’ll notice is that most of the 21” and narrower race boards are very thick and chunky looking.  This is an attempt to add volume that not only helps them perform in rougher water but also allows heavier paddlers to use them effectively.

Obviously, heavier paddlers are going to be somewhat limited as to how narrow they can practically go compared to lighter paddlers.  I think it is unrealistic for a 225-pound man to try to ride as narrow a board as Michael Booth.  The 225 pounder is just too big to ride a 21.5” board in the same way that Michael Booth is just too short to play in the NBA.  At some point we’re all limited by our body shape and size.  However, that doesn’t mean that a larger man can’t paddle effectively on a 24” or 23” board.  Narrow should be looked at in relative terms as “what is narrow for you?”.  We’re all going to go faster if we can drag less board around and still paddle properly.  It’s just a question of finding exactly how narrow you can realistically go.  

Going to a narrower board should be a ton of fun.  It takes even your normal, flat water paddle and turns it into a challenge which makes everything more interesting.  Because the things you need to do to enhance stability when paddling actually make you a better, faster, paddler transitioning to a narrower board actually pushes you to become a better, more accomplished paddler.  It’s not just the narrower board that ends up making you faster, it’s how you’re required to paddle it.  Lastly, as you progress on a narrow board and begin relearning the whole array of SUP skills like downwinding, surfing, pivot turns, beach starts you’ll realize that your skill level in general is taking a huge leap forward.  If you’re feeling like your paddling has become a little stagnant, moving to a narrower board is a great way to rejuvenate things and stimulate skill development.  

As with anything skill related, the main factor in determining the success you’ll have on a narrow board is time.  There are no shortcuts to mastering a narrower board, but if you’re willing to put the time in you can be successful and the rewards make it well worth the trouble.  

Happy paddling!


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  1. I enjoyed your article. I went from a 14 x 26 2017 Starboard to a 14 x 24 404 2018 model and it is fantastic. I am 6’2″ and weigh between 185 and 190. The board is extremely stable and much easier to paddle. I have shoulder problems which have almost disappeared. The board is extremely stable which surprised me. I paddle on flat water since I live in Utah but go to Dana Point every year for about a month. I am looking forward to a new learning experience at the beach.

Coach Cain
Larry Cain began his career in 1974 at the Oakville Racing Canoe Club, now the Burloak Canoe Club, in Oakville, Ontario. Cain competed in three Summer Olympics, winning a gold medal in the C-1 500 m, and a silver medal in the C1 1000 m events. He also won a silver medal in the C-1 1000 m event at the 1989 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships in Plovdiv. In 1984, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. In 1997, he was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame. A trail in Oakville has been named in his honour running along the town's waterfront where Cain trained. He worked as a coach, preparing paddlers for the Olympic Games in Rio. In 2016 Cain co-founded Paddle Monster.



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