Three or four times a week, Todd Strand will climb through his bedroom window carrying an odd-looking watercraft over a dozen feet long.
The cumbersome vessel, a 12’6″ paddleboard designed to carry the rider upright as he rows on the open ocean with a paddle the length of Yao Ming, occupies the majority of Strand’s bedroom when he’s not using it.
Strand, who says his unwieldy carbon and fiberglass creation doesn’t even begin to fit through his Trigo Road apartment’s front door, is part of a new sport slowly taking hold in Southern California: competitive stand-up paddle racing.
Strand, a fourth-year mechanical engineering major from Santa Barbara City College in the process of transferring to UCSB, joined a local competitive stand-up paddle race board team several months ago.
Warren Thomas, who owns the surf shop that sponsors Strand’s team, is confident that the new sport will soon bloom in popularity.
On a competitive level, Thomas predicts, stand-up will eventually become a highly respected sport. “It’s my opinion that it’ll end up being an Olympic sport sometime,” Thomas said.
Although the sport has not even been accredited with its own formal league, Strand said he has witnessed the budding sport grow to new heights in a very brief time span.
“This sport is exploding,” Strand said. “It’s fucking ridiculous, dude. Last year, there were maybe five people in Southern California who consistently showed up to every race. This year, it’s like 100 people, some times more.”
The Santa Barbara coastline in particular, Thomas said, has served as a magnet for the burgeoning water sport.
“A couple of really popular spots are Goleta Beach, Campus Point and Isla Vista Devereux,” Thomas said. “You can’t help but see stand-up paddle boards out there…. over time, once the competition gets going, UCSB could conceivably have a stand-up paddle racing team.”
Warren and his wife Debbie Thomas opened Stand-up Paddle Sports in Santa Barbara four years ago, and have been leading proponents of the rise of stand-up paddling ever since. Their shop, which offers a selection of over 150 different boards — dubbed “SUPs” — sponsors a team of stand-up paddlers who compete in Southern California about every two weeks, Warren Thomas said.
To practice for a SUP race, which can range anywhere from four to 45 miles, Strand will wade out from the Goleta coastline with his paddleboard, stand straddling the board and proceed to tear his way through the kelp beds that litter the coastline.
The difficult sport, which Warren Thomas said is attractive to athletes because of its effectiveness as a cross training exercise, draws dedicated watermen.
“The people on the team are amazing,” Strand said. “We’ve got Olympic Gold medalists and world champion outrigger racers right next to people like me…. I’m just a college kid studying engineering, who has a job. … I’ve got a lot on my plate — I don’t expect to win a lot of these races.”
According to Thomas, the sport’s popularity will continue to grow because of its versatility. Anyone can enjoy a paddle session, he said, the sport is not reserved for competitive racers.
“On a stand-up board you can go far and you can go fast,” Thomas said. “From a surfing standpoint, it’s really nothing more than a standing longboard. You can ride waves on a stand-up board because you have the paddle to assist you for balance, and if it’s totally flat, you can just paddle.”
With calm winds and clear water, Thomas said, the view from atop a SUP is scenic and calming.
“It blows your mind,” Thomas said. “[You can see] leopard sharks, bat rays, a ton of marine life.People have even seen turtles here. … If I had a clear day paddling up the Gaviota Coast, if I said I saw a million fish I wouldn’t be exaggerating — I’ve coined the term ‘yoga on water’ because there is a really Zen quality to the paddling.”