It’s generally assumed that as a SUP enthusiast and instructor, my favourite season is summer. And while I do love a warm weather paddle, fall is actually number one on my list. The crowds die down as the water cools and the brilliant leaves add beauty to flat water paddle excursions. But the top reason I love autumn is that it marks the beginning of the SUP surf season. Yes, you read that right; SUP surfing is a thing!
In its contemporary form, SUP surfing is relatively new and a lot younger than surfing. It goes by a few different names; paddlesurfing, SUP surfing, stand-up surfing. The basic concept is the same as surfing, namely riding the face of a wave while standing on a board, but with a few key differences. The most obvious is the equipment used: a SUP board and paddle. SUPs are typically wider, longer, thicker, and therefore more buoyant than a surfboard. And instead of generating speed and forward momentum with our arms, we use a paddle.
Nadia Baer SUP Surfer Toronto. Photo by Lucas Murnaghan.
Fall is the ultimate SUP surf season for a few reasons. The winds are strong and the air is cold, making the waves plentiful. Just this past September, I managed to get in five solid sessions (a freshwater miracle!) between work and life’s other responsibilities. Also, the water temperature is still warm enough to surf with just a wetsuit (at least in Lake Ontario). I was rocking the 3/2 in September and have just now leveled up to my 4/3 with booties. So the combination of plentiful waves and light neoprene make it super easy to see why I eagerly await September and October each year.
If you’re still scratching your head, wondering why I’d choose SUP surf over surf (full disclosure: I do both), there are a few reasons. First, I can generate much more power with my paddle than my arms. On smaller days when the surfers are scratching for a wave, I can easily catch them on my SUP and keep the ride going with a few extra paddle strokes. Also, because I am standing, I have a better vantage point from which to see the incoming sets and get into position. And finally, there is no need for a pop up! As I’m already standing, I only have to crouch down and switch my foot position to surf stance when I’ve caught a wave.
SUP Surfer in Georgian Bay. Photo by Jenna Albany.
Have I sold you on SUP surfing yet? Awesome! Here are a few suggestions to get you started. First, make sure you have the proper gear. Ideally, your board should be around 10’ or less with a rounded nose. Longer boards tend to be shaped for long-distance touring and cutting through the chop, not riding the waves. While downwinding is a variation of SUP done on long, narrow race boards, you do not want to be in the lineup with a pointy touring or race board that will be hard to balance on and impossible to control in a wipeout, making it dangerous to yourself and others. Stick with SUP boards that are all-arounders or made specifically for use in the surf.
Many people have asked if you can surf an inflatable SUP (or iSUP). The answer is a resounding yes! Inflatables are ideal for beginners; they are like the foamies of the SUP world as they are less susceptible to dings and damage, and will inflict a lot less pain if you get hit by one. I started out on a Red Paddle iSUP and loved it. I found it less intimidating than the hardboards, as I knew the stakes were lower if and when I’d wipe out.
Jordan-na Belle-isle SUP Surfer in Toronto. Photo by Nadia Baer.
Whether you choose a hardboard or an iSUP, a leash is a crucial part of your setup. It keeps you in control of your board. No one wants to end up on Kookslams with their SUP board knocking out another surfer. Make sure your leash is in good working condition and is a straight leash, not coil. Your leash should be the length of your board, or slightly longer.
For a wetsuit, I’d recommend starting out with a 4/3 which will keep you warm for the first few weeks of fall and will serve you well in the spring. Invest in a thicker, hooded winter suit if you decide to extend your season into the winter. Add some warm neoprene booties and mitts or lobster claws (at least 5 mm). Gloves are an option and are popular with surfers, but most SUP’ers find it easier to use mitts or lobster claws as it minimizes the awkward sausage finger effect.
Most importantly, take stock of yourself. Are your SUP skills up to par? You should be able to comfortably paddle both standing and kneeling, turn, fall off, and remount your board in flat water. Can you swim? If the answer is no, stay out of the water. I don’t like to discourage people, but this is a non-negotiable point. Swimming is an essential skill for anybody out on the water; it will give you confidence and could save your life. There are many swimming lessons geared towards adult learners.
SUP Surfer in Georgian Bay. Photo by Jenna Albany.
Finally, educate yourself. Take a few lessons if they are available in your area, ask an experienced friend to give you some tips, and watch a few online tutorials. Admittedly, there isn’t a ton of SUP surf content out there, but there are a few gems. SUPboarder has some great instructional YouTube videos and Nosara Paddlesurf shares clips on their Instagram of their instructors and students SUP surfing.
If you’ve checked all the boxes, it’s time to try it for yourself. Find a spot with fun, small waves (ankle to knee high) and take a few minutes to stretch on shore, check for hazards, watch the timing of the sets, and observe surfers in the lineup. Then, find a nice spot away from the crowds. It may be tempting to paddle out into the lineup, but as a newbie you are not ready. You can begin by kneeling on your board to paddle out and catch a wave. Starting out kneeling is the safest way to learn and will give you the chance to figure out your balance and get a feel for the waves. Once you’ve got that down, progress to paddling out and catching waves while standing. And don’t get discouraged if you don’t get it on your first try. It’s a challenging sport with a steep learning curve. Remember, we have a full fall season (and winter, for my fellow brave souls) to play in. May this time of the year become your favourite too!
Header photo Brennan Basnicki, SUP Surfer in Georgian Bay by Jenna Albany.
Jordan-na is a Montreal-born, Toronto-based SUP instructor and lake surfer. She has been paddleboarding for over seven years and is certified with the World Paddle Association. Her SUP and surf adventures have taken her to spots in Canada, Hawaii, the continental US, and the Philippines. She has been featured in the Toronto Star and the Welland Tribune, as well as the short documentary film “In Winter.” She is also an organizer for Lake Surfistas, a grassroots group that connects and empowers women who surf the Great Lakes. Find her on Instagram.