Escapes: Stand-up paddling, a different way to see Annapolis

stand-up paddling
Ben Butterwei leads a stand-up paddling tour around Annapolis, where the calm waters are perfect for people who are new to the sport. (Melanie D.G. Kaplan)
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By Melanie D.G. Kaplan
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 1, 2010

From the first stroke, I was stoked.

Since I first saw one, I've admired stand-up paddlers from afar -- their grace, their strength, their seemingly unflappable balance -- and after 15 years of ballet and five of Pilates, I figured I might have the balance to keep myself upright on a board that's a longer, wider, thicker surfboard. So when I heard about a stand-up paddle clinic on the Potomac River in Washington a few months ago, I decided my time had come.

I knelt on the board, pushed off the dock, rose to my feet and confidently put my paddle in the water. I immediately understood the appeal of stand-up paddling: It feels like walking on water. My first thought was that I wanted to do this every day for the rest of my life. My second thought, as I noticed people on the waterfront staring and pointing, was whether to let on how easy it was.

Stand-up paddling, or SUP, was popularized by surfing legends such as Laird Hamilton, who do crazy things like paddle between Hawaiian islands. But in the past year, the sport has captured the attention of mainstream surfers, kayakers and pretty much anyone who likes playing in the water. It's peaceful, yet it's a good workout (core, legs), and it rates as one of the easiest water sports to pursue. All you need is a board, a paddle, a life jacket or other flotation device and a body of water -- ocean, lake, river, creek or canal.

"It's something you can do on a board when the wind isn't big enough for windsurfing, and when the waves aren't big enough to surf," said Mark Bandy, co-owner of East of Maui, a board shop in Annapolis that has been around since the 1970s. Bandy was one of the first in the region to carry paddleboards, and he said that this year, there has been a tremendous increase in interest.

Once SUP was on my radar, I found it everywhere: There's a racing circuit, including a paddle around Manhattan (28 miles); an SUP magazine; and a forthcoming SUP movie ("The Endless Glide"). You can buy standard fiberglass boards with foam cores, inflatable boards, pull-apart boards (easier to throw in the trunk when it's two pieces) and build-your-own wooden board kits. Even Costco sells boards.

I ventured out to Annapolis several times this summer, testing out various rentals. I learned that shorter boards are more maneuverable and better for surfing; longer boards, better gliders, are good for flatwater touring. The lighter and faster a board, the more expensive it is. Most boards are 10 1/2 to 12 1/2 feet long and range in price from $900 to $1,700. Rentals tend to be the longer, wider boards -- more stable for beginners.

Annapolis, with many easy access points and generally calm waters, is ideal for beginners, not to mention that it offers endless visual stimulation, from wildlife to the Naval Academy. Plus, I was feeling smug about my new skills. So what better place to paddle than downtown Annapolis's City Dock, otherwise known as "Ego Alley," because it tends to be a parade of yachts on summer weekends.

I joined Bandy for a few Tuesday night group paddles, which left from Horn Point Park in Eastport, just across the Spa Creek Bridge from downtown. We paddled around the point and toward the Naval Academy, once catching the start of a Navy band concert.

On a Saturday morning, I took a two-hour tour with Ben Butterwei, who started SUP Annapolis last year. He sells boards out of his garage and offers lessons and weeknight fitness classes (imagine calisthenics on a floating yoga mat). We put in at Amos Garrett Park on Spa Creek, in the Murray Hill section of Annapolis.

Butterwei said fall is the perfect time to paddle around town because many of the pleasure boats are out of the water for the season, so there are fewer wakes to throw paddlers off balance. While the water stays warm for a few months into the fall, the air gets chilly, so SUPers wear a rash guard or a wetsuit (and even neoprene booties) as temperatures dip. Die-hards (and some outfitters) paddle year-round, but I'll pack it up by Halloween.

We paddled past a patio-full of ogling diners at the Marriott's waterfront restaurant and into Ego Alley. A few times I had to stop and stretch my feet -- cramping is an occasional problem for beginners. But mostly, I was torn between wanting to show off my skills and wanting to tell everyone that, despite its appearance, SUP is really a cinch.

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