What to Expect From First-Time Paddleboarding

Mar 23, 2018

The protected cove of bay off Bayview Park in Brant Beach is home base to any number of watersport activities during the summer, but maybe none more in demand than stand-up paddleboarding. Part surfing, part kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding is as much about being on the water as it is about seeing what’s in the water and above it. Paddleboarders say the ecological experience is one of the unexpected elements that keep them coming back every year, and there is plenty to see off the coast of Long Beach Island.

Whether it’s Bayview Park, where kneeling and stand-up paddleboarders are as common a sight as traffic on the Causeway on a summer Saturday, or islands in the bay, such as Mordecai Island off the coast of Beach Haven, spotting piping plovers, ospreys and egrets is part of the overall experience, given the right conditions. A frequent paddleboarder can watch them grow from birth to taking flight, according to Ken Gallant, owner of South-End Surf ’N Paddle in Beach Haven.

The biggest attraction, though, is in the water, and it’s the turtles, Gallant said, adding he and his instructors try to bring awareness to the environmental issues, even teaching students how to dig for a clam, then return it to the bay since they don’t have a license to harvest it.

Stingrays, eels, crabs and carp are also frequently spotted in the waters off Long Beach Island.

“Every day is different,” Gallant said.

Ecological findings aside, stand-up paddleboarding has something for every member of the family, regardless of their level. Unlike other water sports, it doesn’t have a huge learning curve. In traditional paddleboarding, the rider kneels on a board and uses their hands as paddles. The movement resembles the butterfly stroke in swimming. An individual stand-up paddleboarder stands on the board and uses the paddle to push through the water. Its popularity is climbing as paddleboards are being used for other activities – yoga and fishing from a paddleboard are beginning to take hold, too.

“It’s a big surfboard,” said Jack Bushko, who is the watersports coordinator for Long Beach Township and works from Bayview Park, where you can rent boards and paddles directly or from Island Surf and Sail, about a mile north on Long Beach Boulevard. “You can sit, stand, kneel on the board. People do yoga on the boards.”

In just one session you can learn what you need to know about the sport, which migrated from California to the East Coast more than a decade ago. Still, there are some things you need to know before deciding today’s the day to hit the open waters for the first time.

“You don’t want to go out on a windy day,” said Bushko, who spends the offseason teaching paddleboarding in Florida. “You’re like a human sail trying to do it against windy conditions. But there’s no serious training; you do it at your own level.”

If there is one pre-requisite to paddleboarding, it’s knowing how to swim, Gallant said. In fact, if you don’t know how to swim, it’s a deal breaker for Gallant and his team of instructors, who can have up to 20 people in a given session.

“The biggest concern is safety,” Gallant said, noting the sport is ageless. Every student receives a lifejacket, as well as a leash that tethers them to the board in the event they get separated from the board.

“You have to be smart about it,” Bushko said, noting the sport has evolved a lot since 2004, when he took up traditional and stand-up paddleboarding. He now spends more time conducting paddleboard lessons than he does windsurfing. “You want to enjoy the experience.”

Every session begins with a lesson of how to use the equipment and what to expect. Some people take to the sport as quickly as a fish to water; others need a little more time to adjust to it.

“We stay with you until you’re fine on your own,” said Bushko, who spends more than 100 days a year on the water. “It’s pretty simple. There’s nothing to be afraid of; there’s not a lot of junk in the bay.”

At South-End Surf ’N Paddle, sessions run about two hours, and students generally complete a 2-mile tour of the bay side of Long Beach Island. However, there are some students who don’t complete the entire tour and are towed by the instructors back to shore.

“They still got the chance to do it,” Gallant said, noting those same students generally fare better after a second session.

A refresher course is always a good idea for infrequent paddleboarders because technology imported from other sports is changing and improving things, like the boards and paddles. The industry has learned to balance the advancements so the boards and paddles have become more user-friendly, making the sport more accessible to the overall public, Bushko said. Boards are doled out according to a person’s size and agility.

“Some boards are better than others. Don’t jump to buy one until you know more,” Gallant said, noting if paddleboarders are in the market to buy, it’s better to buy a gently used board than a cheap new board. “You’ll notice the difference right away.”

— Gina G. Scala

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