Where Did Paddle Boarding Come From!?

In recent years, paddle boarding has become increasingly popular. With options for surfing and racing, as well as more relaxing past times, it is a sport which everyone can enjoy. SUPs are now popular all over the World, but just where did paddle boarding start?

Most people believe it all started in Hawaii – but let’s take a proper look at its roots.

ancient paddle boarding

Ancient Fishermen

As long as 2- 3000 years ago, people were using a board and a paddle to propel themselves across water. In Peru, fishermen used a board called a caballitos de totora, which translates as ‘little reed horses’. As the name suggests, these were made from reeds which were bound tightly together, and they used to paddle these in to the ocean to fish. While some fisherman sat astride these like a horse, some chose to stand up to paddle and these may have been the first to use a paddle board.

Other cultures in China and Africa used a similar board and paddle for fishing and some African warriors used their spear to propel themselves silently across the water towards their foe.

These boats and boards were also used for relaxation and there are records to suggest that these early boarders used to ‘ride the waves’ as well.

Modern Cultures

For several centuries many countries have used poles and oars to moves boats, and some of these are still in existence today.

  • Tourists are used to seeing gondoliers on the canals of Venice. The gondolier stands up and uses an oar to move the gondola across the water. Gondolas have been used in Venice for centuries but they are still a familiar sight today.
    In the UK, too, people have been standing up for centuries to use a punt. This is a flat bottomed boat which is propelled across the water using a long pole. These were originally used as a method of transportation, but are now used mainly for tourists. Other countries such as Canada and Australia use a similar method.
  • The first photograph of someone standing up to paddle is believed to have been taken in the UK in 1886. Peter Henry Emerson took a photograph in East Anglia of a man standing to paddle through the marshes. This photograph is called ‘Quanting in the Marsh Hay’ and shows a stance very similar to modern paddle boarders. Quanting simply means to propel through the water using a pole.
  • A form of paddle boarding has also been used in Israel. In the early 20th century, lifeguards used a hassakeh, which was a flat bottomed boat, similar in look to a paddle board. They would stand on this with a paddle as it gave them good visibility of the water. If they saw someone in trouble in the water, they could move swiftly over to them and pull them on board.

There are many cultures the World over who have used a similar method for fishing, travelling and transporting goods and many exist today. These certainly give an insight in to where did paddle boarding start.

Modern Paddle Boarding

Like other cultures, Hawaiians have been using a form of paddle board for centuries, but using a paddle board for sport began in Hawaii back in the 1940s.

Hawaiian surf teachers used to stand on a board to teach. This practice didn’t last for long, but one man, John Zapotocky continued to teach using a paddle board through his 70 years of teaching. The earliest photographic evidence of someone using a paddle board on the surf was of Duke Kahanamoku. Taken approximately 60 years ago, it shows him using a paddle to move his board in the surf.

It was many years later that paddle boarding started to take off and become the sport it is today.

Dave Kamala and Laird Hamilton are credited with turning a traditional method of travel in to a worldwide past time. They were snapped using canoe paddles to propel their longboards during an Oxbow photo shoot. The two used to use this method to train on days when the surf was bad, and they then went on to design proper SUPs, and so the sport was born.

Early paddle boards were used mainly for surfing, and paddle board races were added to some surfing events in Hawaii, such as the Moloka’i to O’ahu Paddleboard Race. In 2003, the ‘Buffalo Big Board Contest’, one of the most renowned contests in the world, included a stand up race in the ‘Beach Boy Surfing’ contest. Even in those early days, 49 competitors entered the stand up division.

When trying to find out where did paddle boarding start you have to include Archie Kalepa. He competed in cross channel races between the Hawaiian islands on a paddle board, and made others realise that there was more to a SUP than surf. The first inland SUP race took place in 2007 on Lake Tahoe, California, and this race is still run today.

Current Paddle Boarding

  • Such was the popularity of these boards that people soon started to find other uses for them. Following the inland race, river running was developed, where kayakers would stand up paddle board to run rivers. Sup races now cover over 30 miles and over, with the Trent 100 in the UK covering a course of 62 miles (100km).
  • It was around the same time that SUPs were being used for racing that Nikki Gregg started using a paddle board to carry out her Pilates exercises. This soon led to yoga teachers developing classes they could teach on the water.
  • SUP fishing then started to gain in popularity, as it provided an easy and less cramped alternative to fishing in a boat. Fishing from a paddle board really began to get noticed when it hit Florida.
  • People then realised you could use paddle boards for touring, which goes back a little to its roots. While early paddle boarders toured for hunting or fishing, modern paddlers can tour for relaxation with family and pets.

pilates paddle board

Paddle boarding now has many events and races all over the World and it may even become an Olympic sport in 2024 or 2028. If this happens, it is bound to open the sport up to many new participants and a new chapter in the history of SUPs will begin.