Chances are you've already seen stand-up paddleboarding: Celebrities like Matt Damon are often pictured balancing on a broad surfboard, laughing and holding an oar midstroke. Of course Jason Bourne makes it look easy. But what about an uncoordinated person like me?
It was time to find out. I had signed up for a lesson with Hulakai, a family business on Hawaii's Big Island that makes surfboards and their thicker, wider paddleboard counterparts. My instructor, George, explained that stand-up paddleboarding (also known as stand-up paddle surfing or the simpler and cooler SUP) started as a way for surf instructors to keep tabs on their students, allowing them to zip from wave to wave. Now a competitive sport, SUP is growing in popularity on the East and West coasts. Because it doesn't require waves, it's easier to do in most places than regular surfing; that's one reason SUP has been dubbed the fastest-growing water sport.
On shore, George demonstrated how to hold the paddle, which is similar to a canoe oar: one hand on top, the other halfway down. Moving through the ocean is simple enough: You dig deep into the water at the front of the board and pull the oar back to about your ankles a few times on one side, then switch. Paddling parallel to the board moves you forward, while sweeping your oar out and away from the board in a C shape helps you turn. (If you've been canoeing, this will all feel very familiar.)
We took to the water and mounted the boards, starting on our hands and knees and then "uprighting" ourselves, one foot at a time, on the rubbery nonslip area in the center of the board. Although I had assumed I'd spend more time in the Pacific than on top of it, I was surprised by how easy it was to stand up. Soon I was absorbed by the beauty of the ocean -- palm trees in the distance, fish under my feet. But when I hit some choppy water and had to adjust my balance, I realized that this was indeed a workout: My shoulders and arms ached from pulling the oar through the water, and my abs and the muscles in my legs and feet were tightly clenched.
After almost two hours, we called it a day. I'd fallen only twice -- once from pressing my luck by trying to stand on one foot. There are people who do stand-up paddle yoga, George told me. And more-experienced paddleboarders use their oars to propel the board into waves, which they ride to the shore. Uh, maybe next time.
My verdict? SUP was one of the most relaxing experiences I had during my Hawaiian vacation (and I was in tropical paradise), but I still felt the burn in my arms, legs and core the next day. Workout accomplished!