Paddleboarders' goals: Stand tall, stay dry

St. Louis Post-DispatchJuly 17, 2014 

The first time Shane Perrin decided to try stand-up paddleboarding, he didn't have a paddleboard.

So, he stood in a canoe. And propelled himself with a homemade wooden paddle.

Three years later - and after plenty of bemused looks from floaters, boaters and swimmers - he finally bought a dedicated board. That year, 2011, he was the only stand-up boarder in a kayak race that took him across the Missouri River, from Kansas City to St. Charles, Missouri.

Perrin, now 38, was hooked. He decided to invest in a few more boards and start teaching others.

He launched SUP St. Louis, ran a Groupon offering discounted lessons and found a few other paddleboard enthusiasts to help him teach. The fledgling company made its home base at Simpson Lake in Valley Park.

On a recent Wednesday, a dozen would-be floaters are gathered at the edge of the lake for their second paddleboarding lesson. They have already learned how to hold the paddles, transition on the boards from their knees to their feet and navigate a turn.

Next, they will be refining their strokes and working on endurance.

But it doesn't hurt to be reminded how to get back on the board after a fall. Just in case.

"Put your paddle across the front and shimmy back on from the back," said Daren Wolf, who is teaching the class. "Or throw your arm across and pull yourself up from the side."

Wolf, an elementary school teacher, started working for SUP St. Louis last summer. He has been paddleboarding for about six years. It is how he scratches his itch for surfing when he is not near the ocean.

Stand-up paddleboarding is more egalitarian than surfing. "Most people can do it, once they learn to relax and trust the boards are stable and capable," said Wolf, 38.

Gathered on the shore, the class reviews how to hold the paddles, which extend about eight to 12 inches above their heads. One hand goes on top � at the "T" � and the other reaches straight out at shoulder height.

"Bend at the waist, dip the paddle blade in the water and pull back. Keep your top arm straight," Wolf said.

Thirteen boards line the edge of the lake. Most are yellow; all are 10 to 12 feet long and almost three feet across. They resemble surfboards, with a slightly raised nose that helps cut through the water.

The 10 women and two men choose their boards and start floating, kneeling over a small hole in the center of the board. Some wear life jackets; others allow the vests to lie on the front of the board.

It is quiet as they get their bearings. A few pop up to a squatting position, regain their balance, then stand tall. Soon, almost everyone is up.

One man momentarily gets up, then sits back down. After a few minutes, he tries again. This time, he stays on his feet.

"Making the initial transition from knees to standing is the hardest part," paddleboarder Christy Jaeger, 57, said. "It's a leap of faith."

The paddlers practice their turns around two orange buoys floating about 20 feet from each other. They push their paddles through the water from the tail to the nose, forming a C. And they turn.

They practice "feathering," rotating the blade when it comes out of the water between strokes to cut wind resistance.

"You look like you have sturdy feet," Wolf told one woman as she floated by him.

That's a compliment in stand-up paddleboarding. Staying upright on the board engages most muscles, including those in the feet.

Your legs stabilize you as the board wobbles; you maintain your balance through your core. The chest, shoulder and back are taxed as you paddle.

"I was sore" after the first class, said Laura Owens, 44. "My feet were screaming."

The floaters look as though they are bowing to each other as they drop their paddles into the water near the front of their boards. The strokes range from short and choppy to long and smooth.

Most take a seat as the group pauses near a dock. Bill Ericson, 55, signed up for the class at the suggestion of his wife. "I wanted to try something different, get a little exercise in," he said.

After the break, the group continues across the 72-acre lake. Most of the paddlers seem more confident, their strokes coming more easily.

Near the end of the two-hour session, as they close in on the bank, they are downright relaxed.

Perhaps too relaxed.

"Whoops!" Jaeger called out as she lost her footing. She emerged from the water laughing. "I guess I can't listen to another conversation while I'm doing this," she joked.

But most of the paddleboarders return to solid ground relatively dry.

"I'm impressed with myself," Owens said. "The object of the game is not to get wet."

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