Riding the wave of stand-up paddleboarding

Hottest (or coolest) of water sports has spread to East Coast

August 20, 2011|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

FENWICK ISLAND, Del. — — They were called "beach boys", the natives who would teach the tourists how and where to surf in Hawaii. They would paddle out into the Pacific Ocean standing up, reading the next big wave for the surfers to ride the way as a caddie would a double-breaking 50-foot putt.

In those grainy black-and-white surfing movies of the 1960s, they were clearly not the stars.

Stand-up paddleboarding needed its own identity, its own star, to be considered a sport.

It took decades, but Laird Hamilton helped achieve both.

When the world's most celebrated surfer declared three years ago that he preferred stand-up paddleboarding over any other water sport, the movement began, headed from places like Maui and Honolulu to mainland destinations east.

Laird "became the face of the sport, and it helped initiate a lot of its growth," said Tony Kandol, who distributes surfboards, paddleboards and wind-surfing equipment in North America for RRD, a high-end Italian company.

Hamilton now has thousands of disciples, including Janis and George Markopoulis.

A few months after Janis Markopoulis was laid off from an information technology job in College Park in 2009, she and her husband sold their house in Savage and moved into what had been a vacation home in Milford, Del. George Markopoulis, who had worked as the chief financial officer for a company in Gaithersburg, tried commuting to a job near Annapolis, but he would leave at 4 a.m. and not get home until 9 p.m.

That's where Kandol — and stand-up paddleboarding — intervened. Kandol gave George Markopoulis, an accomplished windsurfer, a couple of paddleboards to use. Trying to figure out what to do with their lives, the couple had what Janis Markopoulis jokingly called "a board meeting" on the waters off Broadkill Beach in nearby Milton.

Delmarva Board Sports Adventures was born.

"We've never looked back," Janis Markopoulis said.

Operating last summer out of a couple of the local state parks and now renting space from another board sports company on Fenwick Island, Delmarva Board Sports is playing its part in the boom of stand-up paddleboarding, considered by many to be the fastest-growing water sport in the country.

"Everybody can do it, from West Virginia to Pennsylvania to Delaware to Florida to California," George Markopoulis said as he lugged the 9- to 11-foot, 29- to 33-pound boards from a trailer to the beach at Henlopen State Park in Lewes, Del., for a sunset ride for about a dozen mostly first-time stand-up paddleboarders. "Lakes and ponds, rivers, canals, not just for big bodies of water like the ocean. It's great for anybody."

According to Kandol, the number of boards sold (retailing from $800 to $1,200 each) will go from a few handfuls four years ago to between 60,000 and 100,000 this year.

Said George Markopoulis, "We're selling boards like hot cakes. … It's become a rage."

The attraction is a sport that is easy to learn at its most basic level and can be attempted on just about any body of water — even white-water rapids. It's also a sport for the ages, as evidenced by paddleboarders approaching 80 and as young as 5.

Jason Shapiro, a Howard County attorney, said he had tried surfing and windsurfing "but stand-up paddleboarding is about 10 times easier to learn." Shapiro became so hooked this summer that he brought his staff out to Fenwick Island for a retreat.

As she walked with her 9-year-old daughter and a friend after the sunset ride last week in Lewes, a smile spread on Wendy Sharp's face.

"It was spectacular," said Sharp, a social worker from Silver Spring. "It was very similar to kayaking, but it felt a little more adventurous."

Celia Monte-Sharp had an even bigger smile than her mother.

"Way cooler," the girl said.

Catherine Eiff, Sharp's friend and a Washington, D.C., schoolteacher, said she has never tried snowboarding or any other X-generation sport — "it's not my generation of sports," she said — but was looking forward to taking another step in stand-up paddleboarding.

"I want to try all the water sports," she said.

Kandol has scoured the country looking for new territories to sell his boards and his sport. He believes that after the East Coast, states like Minnesota and Wisconsin will become hotbeds for stand-up paddleboarding.

"The great thing about paddleboarding is that it can be whatever you want it to be," Kandol said. "If you want a great core workout, it can give you that. If you want it to be more of a social thing, like taking a walk in the park, it can be that, too."

Or even a yoga class. The Markopoulises offer that also. Where else can you do a downward dog while admiring a school of dolphins bobbing nearby at sunset?

"It's like a lifetime experience; it's taking people's breath away," George Markopoulis said.


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