SUP Paddling in the Ocean for the First Time
When I teach beginning SUP classes, I am often asked how difficult it is to paddle in the ocean. Or what the difference is between standup paddling on a big lake v. The Big Blue. SUP paddling on the ocean for the first time can be an eye-opener if you’re not prepared for it. And it can be considerably more difficult.
Think of paddling on a lake as two-dimensional, with wind and some water movement (usually from boats) to contend with. Then consider the ocean as four-dimensional, with wind, tide, current and swell to manage. If you don’t have your skills dialed in, it can be unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst.
You may have no desire to ever paddle in the ocean, but if you do, hone your sup chops on flatwater first before paddling out in the salt water.
Here are some tips for making the transition from fresh to salt water.
Before You Go Coastal
- Master the basics on flatwater: have a solid forward stroke, burying the blade completely underwater consistently. Do not be afraid to “load” or put weight on your paddle as you lean forward and plant it in the water.
- Similarly, know how to turn confidently and strongly with a sweep stroke.
- Make sure your balance is dialed in. Be comfortable on your board. Know how it reacts to choppy water and know how you react. Be confident.
- Don’t be afraid of falling. Have a solid remount.
- Know how to brace with the paddle. Bracing is a key kayak stroke that prevents capsizing and it works on the SUP, too. Learn how to slap the paddle on top of the water, or extend it out and move it across the water to help you keep your balance and stay upright in rough conditions.
- At the very least, make sure you always keep your blade in the water in tricky conditions. Our first inclination when we lose our balance is to pull the paddle out of the water and into the air. Learn NOT to do that before you paddle in the ocean. The paddle in the water is that “third point of contact” that keeps us steady.
- Have experience in paddling in various types of wind – upwind (into the wind) downwind (when the wind is behind you) and cross wind (when the wind is coming at you from the side.) Different board shapes and designs react differently to each of these conditions.
- Before you paddle in the ocean, learn about wind, tide, current and swell and how these four things affect the area(s) where you plan to paddle. Paddling off the coast of San Diego will be different than paddling in Florida. (This book is a great place to start!)
Progressing to the Ocean
Once you have your balance on point and you are confident with your basic skills, move up to the next level during your flatwater sessions. If you can, do the following with a friend or group of friends.
- Paddle in areas where you will encounter boat wake. Use the boat wake to hone your bracing technique and learn how your board deals with rougher water. You don’t have to get unsafely close to power boats to get this kind of practice. And remember, you can always sit down if you feel unsteady or unsafe.
- Practice your board handling skills when it’s windier than when you usually paddle. Now, I am not suggesting you go out in a Force 10 gale, but try paddling when it is just a tad bit windier or choppier than what you are used to. If you feel unsafe, sit down and paddle on your knees if necessary. Wear your leash and PFD for sure!
- Have “play sessions” where you walk up and down on your board. Practice moving your feet from a neutral or side by side stance into surf stance. Learn to do pivot (buoy) turns s and practice those. This will give you confidence and it will help you learn “board feel.”
- Take a lesson or two if you haven’t already.
- If you can, paddle first in a back bay, sound or canal like the Intercoastal Waterway where you will experience tidal flow, current and wind, but in a more protected environment. Again, go with other paddlers, or an instructor or local who can help you learn to read the water.
Your First Ocean Paddle
Try to do this with an instructor or local who can help you learn to identify hazardous conditions and who can offer advice on the best places to launch and land. That might be through an inlet on a calmer day, or it might be off the beach and through the surf. The calmer the conditions for that first time, the better.
Be mindful of which way the wind is blowing and how that might hamper your return to shore, and whether you will be fighting a tide that could push you one way or another.
Make sure your board is appropriate for the conditions. An inflatable sup under 12’6″ might be fine in light winds and current in a protected sound or back bay, but it may not be appropriate for the ocean.
Notes on Inlets and Beaches
In very general terms, an inlet is an opening through a barrier island or land mass into the ocean.
- They may occur naturally or they may be man-made.
- Some may be primary navigational routes for boats of a variety of sizes.
- They can be narrow and shallow, or wide with a deep channel.
- In some places, they may be protected by jetties or sea walls.
- Under certain conditions, inlets can make getting out into the ocean easy and in others, inlets can be pure chaos and madness.
- Don’t just assume you will be able to paddle out through an inlet and into the ocean without issue. And don’t do it until you are a confident and strong paddler, and even then, have an experienced buddy or instructor with you.
Likewise, launching off the beach and out through the waves might be easy on a calm day when waves are small and coming in at slow intervals. Or, it could be a recipe for disaster on a day with big, dumping, pounding shore break.
- If you don’t have any kind of surfing experience, don’t go out when the waves are large, dumping and/or coming in one right after another.
- If you’re on a a rigid board, remember, it is heavy and big. It can hurt you and others. So always have control of it.
- ALWAYS wear a leash at the beach. In most areas, a local ordinance requires the use of leashes in the surf zone. And those ordinances can carry heavy fines.
- Do not put yourself between your board and the beach. Remember, stay on the outside or ocean side of your board, otherwise a wave could hit it and knock it into you, knocking you down.
- Likewise, when carrying your board in and out of the water, stay on upwind of the board so the wind does not push the board into you. That makes it hard to carry and control.
Before you try to surf your sup, or before you try a beach launch, consider taking a sup surf class or clinic. Or getting some help from a seasoned friend. It will make your first experience that much more fun and successful. And you will learn extremely useful techniques like reading wave sets, how to control your board, how to handle going out and over waves and how to safely exit the water, among other things.
You might not have thought at all about paddling in anything but freshwater. But, you might want to try ocean paddling on vacation. Perhaps you live close enough to the beach and you’ve thought about exploring SUP touring, downwinding or sup surfing. Ocean paddling can be extremely rewarding and fun, as long as you know your skill level and limitations, are properly prepared and have reasonable expectations.