Paddleboarding event supports HopeWell Cancer

Bliss on the Bay is May 31

  • Students begin to test their abilities during a stand-up paddleboard lesson offered by Ultimate Watersports at Gunpowder Falls State Park on June 9, 2012.
Students begin to test their abilities during a stand-up paddleboard… (Brian Krista / Patuxent…)
May 14, 2014|By Kit Waskom Pollard, For The Baltimore Sun

Stand-up paddleboarding might have a clunky name, but the sport has a passionate following that's growing in the Baltimore area.

In September, more than 100 people gathered at Gunpowder State Park's Hammerman Beach in Middle River to participate in one of the region's first stand-up paddleboard races and, in doing so, to raise money for Baltimore County's HopeWell Cancer Support, which provides nonmedical services for people with cancer and their families. The event, dubbed Bliss on the Bay, returns May 31 — and this time, the organizers expect to see even more people on the water.

Stand-up paddleboarding — or SUPing, as it's known — has a long history, though its popularity as a recreational sport on the East Coast is relatively new. SUPing involves standing on a paddleboard, which is similar to a surfboard, and using a paddle to move through the water. It has roots in ancient fishing communities, from Peru to Venice, and has been a recreational sport since at least the 1940s, when Hawaiians began SUPing for fun.

The first Bliss on the Bay event was a "test of sorts," says Hal Ashman, owner of Ultimate Watersports in Middle River and one of the organizers of Bliss on the Bay. Ashman, a SUP enthusiast, says, "We knew SUP was pretty big out west and in other parts of the world. We wanted to gauge how hot the SUP race world was on the East Coast."

According to a 2013 report published by the Outdoor Foundation and funded by the Coleman Co., 1.5 million Americans participated in stand-up paddleboarding in 2012 — a slight increase over the 1.2 million participants in 2011. People paddled on a regular basis, too, getting out on the water an average of six times during the year.

Ashman was thrilled to discover that in Baltimore, Bliss on the Bay attracted elite SUP racers from all over the East Coast as well as a large number of local residents interested in SUP racing on a recreational level. Bliss on the Bay includes several levels of races, including a children's race, a 5-mile race for elite racers and a 2.5-mile recreational race.

Dundalk resident Bryan Barton has been SUPing for four years; he participated in Bliss on the Bay last September and will race again this month.

"Once I did my first race, I was addicted," he says. "I loved the competition, yet everyone is there just to have fun."

Even though it looks challenging, Ashman and Barton insist SUP is a sport for everyone.

"The average person looks at it and thinks, 'I can't do that,' " says Ashman. "It's similar to surfing — the visual of standing up on the board." But the addition of the paddle makes SUPing easier, he says. Plus, unlike surfing, which requires waves, SUPing can be done on flat water.

Ashman says he has seen everyone from young children to people in their 70s try out the board.

"We have yet to find that age is a problem," he says. "We are promoting heath and wellness for everyone at every age."

Even on flat water, SUPing is good exercise. "It's a complete body workout," says Ashman. "Like swimming, there's no part of you that doesn't get a good workout. It's an incredible core workout."

"It's the best core workout you can get," agrees Barton. But for many SUP enthusiasts, the sport offers more than just physical benefits. It's also about the mind.

"The freedom you get from SUP is hard to describe," says Barton, explaining that the feeling of the open water, where there is much to explore, had him instantly hooked.

Jessie Benson, a local SUP fitness instructor and the founder of FloYo SUP yoga, agrees that it fosters a mind-body connection. "The second you step onto a board, you encounter a whole new sense of focus. Your body has to be perfectly aligned for even weight distribution, and the moment your mind begins to wander, you will be off the board and into the water. It is one of the few activities where I am completely in the moment and 100 percent connected to my body."

SUP's role as an exercise for the mind and body makes Bliss on the Bay an especially good fit as a fundraiser for HopeWell Cancer Support, says Ashman. "We were looking for the right local beneficiary," he says. At HopeWell, "we found incredibly good people doing incredibly good work."

"We offer support programs, exercise, meditation, expressive art and social events — all at no charge," says HopeWell's development director, Lily Burke. "We believe that Baltimore offers the finest medical institutions in the country. What HopeWell offers is everything those medical institutions don't specifically address."

HopeWell serves about 1,000 people each year, says Burke, and many take advantage of multiple programs. All of the organization's activities and resources are funded by philanthropy, and events like Bliss on the Bay are crucial to HopeWell's work.

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