United we stand
When was the last time you tried something new?' Robert Sheriff asks as he effortlessly balances a long board on his head that dwarfs his almost 1.8-metre frame.
'I'm excited,' I lie, albeit enthusiastically. Although eager to experiment with the world's fastest-growing water sport, I realise I have no idea what I'm doing.
Invented in the 1960s by Waikiki surfing instructors as a way to take photos of their clients, stand-up paddle boarding - or SUPing in surfer speak - has attracted a global following in recent years.
In the United States alone, 1.24 million people SUPed last year, up 18 per cent year on year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Lately, some have combined the sport with another hip activity: SUP yoga.
American surfing star Laird Hamilton is credited with taking the sport mainstream 10 years ago, when he started catching waves standing on an oversized surfboard that he propelled with a long outrigger kayak paddle. In recent years, the sport's popularity has been boosted by a wave of celebrity SUPers including Jennifer Aniston, Pierce Brosnan, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Scherzinger and Sting.
In Hong Kong, signs of the sport's growth are clear: there are a handful of schools giving SUP lessons, with one, HK Aqua-bound Centre at Stanley Main Beach, recently offering a HK$149, two-hour SUP tour on deal website Groupon.
Sheriff, chief executive of a consumer goods company who turned 50 in June, says that in only six months he went from complete rookie to a three-day-a-week paddler and passionate advocate. A friend had suggested over a lunch in Stanley that they rent some boards; Sheriff fell in love with SUP after just 10 minutes. 'This is it, I thought to myself. It was the sport I'd been looking for.'
He has a personal goal to introduce friends each week to his new-found passion. Today, I am Sheriff's lucky subject.
SUP boards are like surfboards on steroids: three to 3.5 metres long and up to a metre wide, and flat and blunt - all the better for buoyancy and balance. Depending on price and purpose, they can be made in a range of materials - plastic, fibreglass, wood, carbon or even fabric (for inflatable boards) - and weigh up to 18kg. Paddles, resembling longer versions of canoe paddles at about two metres long, also vary in materials and weight. The cost of a board and paddle ranges upward from US$1,000.
The board is rocky at first but I soon find my balance by kneeling in its centre. Some last-minute instructions, a light push and I'm off and gliding over the water.
At first I focus on the paddling motion to overcome my nerves: stroke, breathe, stroke. Next, I'm on my feet, holding my core tight like in yoga while propelling myself over the water using short strokes, and bending my knees to take in waves and other bumps in the water.
I survive my first few waves without falling off. It's hard work, but it doesn't feel like it. It's said that the activity uses 90 per cent of the muscles in your body - which I can vouch for - even those in your fingers and little toes, as they grip the paddle and the board.
Propulsion comes not only from the arms but also the legs - pushing with the legs and using the full back muscles gives the upper body rotation and hence power.
Women are said to be better suited for SUP than men due to a lower centre of gravity. There must be truth in that, because I soon find myself chatting easily with my fellow paddlers. SUPing, indeed, is fun: what better way to soak up the scenery and catch the sun's rays with a low-impact activity that won't hurt your knees?
Sheriff says he's in almost as good a shape as he was in his 20s. But apart from the fitness benefits, he's attracted to SUP for its meditative qualities and the way it allows him to be close to water. 'Plus, it's so easy to learn. You take away the fear of water as you're above it. If you fall off, you can easily get back on.'
So easy, in fact, that Sheriff was a key support crew member for American SUP pioneer Kevin Horgan's 44-kilometre circumnavigation of Hong Kong island in May. 'What other sports could you teach yourself in six months and then go and paddle with a world-class paddler?' he marvels.
Horgan, 47, has built up a reputation as the 'Forrest Gump of paddling', having done many long-distance SUP adventures, including circumnavigating Manhattan three times non-stop - about 137 kilometres in total - in 20 hours. He took up SUP to counter the summer doldrums over lousy waves at his home in Kauai, Hawaii.
Unlike its surfing cousin, 'SUP doesn't need any wind, any waves or a speedboat', says Ken Choi, of X Game, who distributes SUP boards in Hong Kong. 'It also doesn't need expensive or complicated equipment, like kite surfing or windsurfing.' SUP can be done wherever there is water, and being surrounded by water, Hong Kong is a natural for the sport.
Nick Fung, a doctor, says he can go to places on his paddle board that he couldn't get to by boat or swimming. Fung, 35, who was taught the sport three years ago by his uncle in Hawaii, uses SUP as a way to relax after a busy day at the hospital. He launches straight from Deep Water Bay into the ocean, sometimes taking a nap on his board. 'I love being out in the water, having the option to jump in any time,' he says.
Sheriff has high hopes for the growth of SUP. 'With so many people enjoying the outdoors and endurance sports, I believe the move to low-impact SUP will be a healthy evolution. Your body can only take so much,' he says.
Allison Haworth-West agrees. A business owner, she was left with a bad back after years of skiing and endurance training. But with SUP, her back has improved. 'It's so good for your core strength,' she says. It has the added benefit of being social. She regularly catches up with girlfriends over SUP.
Alternatively, if you like speed, racing is an option. Together with Choi and other SUP supporters, Sheriff is spearheading SUP racing in Hong Kong through the Victoria Recreation Club race series, which are usually dominated by kayaks, canoes and surf skis. Sheriff predicts some excellent paddlers will emerge from the big dragon boat community.
While there is a world of possibilities for SUP, for now I'm content with my progress in just an hour. As we head back towards shore, Sheriff makes some final adjustments to my paddling. A few more expert strokes and I feel like I'm getting the hang of it. I guess you could call it a SUPer feeling.
Go with the flow
Get lessons and rent stand-up paddle boards at these places:
Blue Sky Sports Club, Sai Kung
bluesky-sc.com, tel: 2792 4938 or 3502 1823
HK Aqua-bound Centre, Stanley Main Beach
aquabound.com.hk, tel: 8211 3876
Kayak & Hike, Sai Kung
kayak-and-hike.com, tel: 9300 5197
Palm Beach Watersport Centre, Lantau
palmbeach.com.hk, tel: 2980 4822