It’s the sport your more athletic friend keeps telling you to try. Stand-up paddleboarding has grown rapidly since the early 2000’s when pro-surfer Laird Hamilton started using the longer, wider boards during Hawaii’s summer months, when the surf is relatively tame.
Sonoma County’s own stand-up paddle culture is erupting as outfitters from Petaluma to the Russian River are offering lessons, gear rentals and hosting races along the county’s waterways. Would-be SUPers just need a 10-foot board, a paddle, and a slight proficiency in balancing.
The draw lies in the sport’s accessibility. It’s relatively easy to learn and offers flexibility and a vantage point you can’t quite get in a kayak. SUPers can see down beneath the river’s surface and further ahead to potential obstacles.
“You can do it on every waterway. You can do it on rivers, you can do it on lakes, and you can go out on the Bay,” said Bill Mashek, founder of Rubicon Adventures, a Santa Rosa watersports company that offers SUP lessons on the Russian River.
Mashek got his start as a surfer and whitewater rafting guide in the 1960s, and started Rubicon Adventures in 1972, when several California rivers first opened for recreation. In 2007 Mashek had knee surgery and thought his surfing days were over, but his friend and former surf- competitor John Hadley bought him a paddle board as a lower-impact alternative. He paddled to rehabilitate his knee and ended up trying to learn everything he could about the new sport.
Hadley and Mashek started up a SUP course with Rubicon, which is run out of Mashek’s Forestville home, in 2010, after they’d learned what they could about technique and safety and received certification from the American Canoeing Association, one of the few certifying authorities at the time.
Now Hadley, who is ranked 62nd in the Paddle League World Rankings for SUP, runs paddleboarding lessons and race training for Rubicon Adventures. He prioritizes teaching safety techniques and preps students to adapt quickly if conditions change while they’re on the water.
“I can get them on flatwater in five minutes and they’ll be fine, but to me success is that if they encounter wind that day and the next time they go they know what to do, then I’ve been successful,” Hadley said.
Mashek said safety hasn’t always been a priority in the sport, but after several reports of SUPers drowning because of poor preparation, things are starting to change. According to the American Canoeing Association, 11 paddleboarders drowned in the United States in 2017, and 43 have died overall since they began collecting data in 2012.
“Mostly when they advertise they’ll have this beautiful woman in a bikini on a board with no leash, no life jacket,” Mashek said. “The industry has got to get their act together too, showing people in lifejackets on their boards whether it’s flatwater or moving water.”
John Menth, owner of Russian River Paddleboards, is a lifeguard for Sonoma County Regional Parks and dives and patrols the river frequently when he’s not teaching novice paddle boarders how to stand up on their board.
Menth said he first came to the sport after a vacation to the Bahamas several years ago. He stood up on his kayak to watch the marine life swirling beneath him and hasn’t “sat down since.” He said many of his clients have some sort of water phobia that they try to overcome through paddle boarding, which keeps them out of the water but exposes them to the environment.
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Rubicon Adventures, Forestville
Russian River Paddleboards, Windsor
Rentals: $80 full-day, $55 half-day
SUP Odyssey, Forestville
Rentals: $100 full-day, $65 three hours
Petaluma Stand Up Paddle, Petaluma
Guided Tours: $89-$99
Rentals: $75-$89 full-day, $25 per hour
Clavey Paddlesports, Petaluma
Rentals: $75 full-day, $55 four hours