by David K. Gibson/Courtesy Caribbean Travel & Life
The first rule of boating, at least as it was taught to me, is sit down. In stand-up paddle boarding — better known as stand-up paddling, or SUP — sitting is what you’re supposed to stop doing. And I’m having a hard time with that. It’s a fine day on Providenciales, in the Turks and Caicos Islands, with a clear sky above and an equally clear and seemingly bottomless channel of the Leeward marina below. I’m floating — seated, my feet dangling in the calm, cool water — on a plank of foam that resembles an oversize surfboard. A wiry English gentleman is encouraging me to do otherwise.
“Get on your knees,” he says, “then into a crouch, and then just” — he flings himself up with the grace of a Flying Wallenda — “stand.” And that quickly, he’s standing on water. I shakily follow his lead, lifting feet onto board, then moving into an all-fours ready stance. In one less-than-smooth move, I’m up. Upon which my legs, accustomed to dutifully keeping me upright on more stable surfaces, begin overadjusting to every ripple in the water; the board starts to shake.
“Use your paddle,” the Englishman instructs. Ah, yes, I’m holding a paddle about as tall as I am. I dip it into the water, simultaneously propelling myself forward and finding my balance, and the shaking stops. I’m moving now — not straight, but moving — and have successfully added a new sport to my tropical repertoire.
Stand-up paddling is perhaps the most literal of sports. You stand (up, obviously) on a board and paddle around.
The boards are large but light, designed for easy tracking across still water, though experts take them into big surf. The paddles are like long canoe paddles, but with a bend where the shaft meets the blade. This allows for a longer reach on each stroke while engaging the whole upper half of the body.
“If your shoulders are hurting, you’re doing it wrong,” says Philip Shearer, the Englishman. “But your core gets a great workout from keeping you balanced.”
Philip is our instructor today. He’s also the co-founder of Big Blue Unlimited, the outfitter taking us out on our excursion. My wife and I are joined by another couple, who have the advantage of youth and natural athleticism. But even clumsy me is soon gliding across the surface of the water and handling the wake from a passing boat with only mild panic.
“Is there anyone who can’t do this?” asks the 30-something athletic female. It is, I assure myself, a self-selecting group; if this sport looks like something you think you can do, you can probably pull it off.
Once we’ve successfully navigated our way across the channel, we pause at the edge of the mangroves. We gather and sit (carefully) for a brief lesson on the role of these plants in the ecosystem. Philip tells us how the mangroves essentially hold the shoreline where it is and serve as protective breeding grounds for sea life.
He stands us up on our boards again, and we weave our way into the maze.
I’ve seen many a mangrove swamp from a kayak, but from a six-foot-up perspective, the view is entirely different. The enormity of the swamp is apparent — rather than feeling sheltered by walls of greenery, I feel like a giraffe surveying the savanna. We follow the winding paths between the plants, skimming easily in just a few inches of water. In open shallows, juvenile nurse sharks swim under our boards, and wading herons, unthreatened by our silent approach, keep a casual eye. Where the creeks deepen, swirling schools of silverside make great flashing shadows.
The going is smooth and easy, and forward progress seems almost effortless. More difficult are things like stopping and turning, maneuvers better employed without the aid of a mangrove root. A basic turn is easy: A simple twist of the paddle lets you use it as a rudder, but that method slows the forward momentum. I ask Philip if there’s a better way. There is, he says, but it’s an advanced move.
The Englishman begins to demonstrate, getting up a head of steam (which for him takes only a couple of strokes). He then lifts his paddle and, rather than switching hands with it after a stroke, passes it in front of him, dropping it in the water toward the nose of his board.
Instantly the tail lifts slightly and slides sideways through the water, turning a perfect 90 degrees. The move takes incredible balance and finesse, one of which Philip is lacking a bit of today, and he slips off his board, dipping one leg into the water. “Like I said,” he laughs. “Advanced.”
Two hours pass so quickly that we hardly notice until it becomes apparent that both the tide and the wind are coming at us from the marina — and our ride back to lunch at Grace Bay. We exit the mangroves and keep a steady pace across the channel as the Big Blue headquarters get incrementally — agonizingly — closer. Finally at the shore, I drop gracelessly into the water and push my board to Philip.
The experience has been so relaxing it’s a surprise when, boarding the shuttle bus, I find myself a little sore — especially in the shoulders, which tells me I was probably doing everything wrong. I feel no loss of achievement.
Two-hour guided SUP excursions, $75
649-946-5034 or 649-231-6455; Big Blue Unlimited