I need to be clear: The best in the world were ‘invited’ to come to this event and I had never stepped foot on a race board. I had two days before racing began to ‘figure’ it out, but I knew I was fit from all the running and commuting in London. I knew how to race. That weekend, I walked away with second overall to Jenny Kalmbach from the Big Island of Hawaii. The fire was lit and I’ll forever be grateful for that opportunity.
It was hard not to be gripped by the magnitude and prestige of the Hamburg event. 10,000 beer swilling Germans lining the docks of the inner harbor of Hamburg on a Sunday afternoon in late August. In reality, I’d accidentally been the nobody who had turned up and beaten the ‘somebodies’ of the burgeoning world of Stand Up Paddling. These were people with stickers on their paddles and boards who seemingly knew ‘wassup’ and I was the rank outsider with a mega dose of imposter syndrome.
I returned to London well and truly hooked and wanting more. Not necessarily more competition, I just wanted to keep doing this new thing that I had fallen in love with and was slowly attempting to master. A while ago, I looked back on some early videos from that era and quite frankly, we sucked. But like most others that would follow, we were smitten by the feeling of pulling a blade through the water and that was all that really mattered. We’d felt ‘that first glide’ and we were hungry for more.
So, as I reminisce, the following rings true:
- It had so much promise. (And it still very much holds true).
- It had so much hype. (Most likely due to the boom and subsequent bust).
- It was so much fun. (And it still is)
I’d go on to experience the cities of the world for the first time from the water (London, Hamburg, Paris, New York, Sydney, Bilbao, Panama City, Rio de Janeiro, Bangkok, Copenhagan, Auckland, Perth, Vancouver to rattle off a few), explore the waterways of globe and live a life that can only be described as a never ending tornado. Often unsure where it would take me next, but full of a powerful energy and while caught up in a global hysteria of hype, passion and enthusiasm. To say the least, it was a surreal and un-scriptable adventure full of twists and turns at a moment’s notice.
As the decade rolls over and the sport of Stand Up Paddling enters the 2020s what is the current state of play, what does it mean and what is the pathway forward? The present and sky-gazing into the future if you like.
With the hype came the greed.
With the hype came the greed and all of a sudden, I found myself of it at the epicenter of it, in the US of A in Dana Point, Orange County to be exact.
For those of us who experienced the heydays of Stand Up Paddling in good ol’ ‘Merica when every Tom, Dick & Harry was starting a stand up brand it was a hedonistic place to be. Brands were placing exorbitant bets on kids with ‘potential’, parents were putting their future prodigies into training squads on the hopes of producing the next Kai Lenny and throwing margarita fueled parties at the likes of Outdoor Retailer, Battle of the Paddle, Surf Expo while shipping athletes to events in all and every corner of the globe that seemed to be spawning faster than a salmon up an Alaskan river being chased by a bear.
Those, my friends, are the days that we will always compare to the current state of play.
The “unofficial” World Championship event (aka the only one that truly had bragging rights) was the Battle of the Paddle (BOP) and unless you made the podium of the “Super Bowl of SUP”, you really hadn’t “made it” until you had.
Likewise, if you didn’t show up in Hawaii and take on the downwind runs of Maliko or the Ka’iwi Channel you could hardly consider yourself a paddler of any sort.
Maui SUP CUP 2017
If it remained as simple as the BOP, Maliko, Molokai 2 Oahu (M2O) and the odd headline event throughout the US, Europe, Japan, Australia and Brazil and the traditional business models we would likely be in OK shape, but it all went a little pear shaped…..thanks to new ways of doing business and a becoming passion driven industry that put stoke before numbers and forecasting.
Social media made stars out of kid prodigies and floating yogis. Red Bull jumped on the band wagon. People tuned into Facebook and then Instagram for their dose of specialty news and inspiration while print magazines popped up in a multitude of formats and languages to satisfy the want for content, adoration, stories of glory and to simply geek out on this new found guilty pleasure they liked to spend their time and money indulging in.
Direct to customer brands emerged completely shutting off the distributors/retailer network.
Direct to customer brands emerged completely shutting off the distributors/retailer network of the traditional model doing business in the outdoor industry and let’s not forget the impact of transitioning every race to 14’ board lengths have had on a sport, participants, manufacturers and events.
It’s true, 14’ goes faster and glides more….but, there is the simple fact that they are impossible to travel internationally with (some exceptions apply here). This is fine, if you are a pro, sponsored by a board brand with a distributor network and/or logistic capabilities but if you aren’t then sorry, you don’t get to play. Yep, just like that and most likely without realizing we shut off the ability to allow people to compete for the simple fact of once-upon-a-time a few older guys didn’t like being beat up on by the likes of Kai Lenny, Connor Baxter and Riggs Napoleon so they built a longer board. I may be simplifying this, but once those little whipper snappers stepped on 14’ boards they left those same guys on the dust.
Many paddlers who had to travel know just how stressful the game of Russian Roulette at an airport check in counter can be. To this day, I can say hand on heart, that if I turned up with a 12’6 board there was a 99% chance of it getting on the plane. That chance decreased to 10-20% (depending on the airline) if it was a 14’ board.
What few people realized was, that we stopped people who couldn’t drive, beg, borrow or steal a 14’ board from competing. And yes, I’m talking about the weekend warriors who single handedly fund an industry by buying boards, attending clinics, lusting over magazines and wanting to travel to bucket list events. This last statement is the entire reason why Europe will be the epicenter for the sport for the future due to the simple fact that boards can travel overland and not need to go through airport check ins to get to events. People can forward plan logistics by shipping boards via freight forwarding companies and know it will show up at a certain place and time.
The irony of this board length debacle is that most of the crew that so heavily wanted longer boards because they were ‘bigger’ guys are also the ones that are now wanting 4’ foil boards…..oh the irony.
Meanwhile event promoters promised the earth (yes, here’s looking at you Boyd Jeffery of the Ultimate SUP Showdown and Tristan Boxford of the Stand Up World Tour) with varying degrees of philanthropy (remember the $50,000 Payette River Games???).
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