Friday, May 31, 2019

Ready to spread my wings

   Any objective evaluation of windsurfing would leave someone itching to try it: cruising across a body of water on wind power, leaning to increase speed, carving turns to change direction, getting air, easily launching and returning to the same beach … It was an astounding innovation back in the late 1900s that captured the imagination of a majority of surf and ski bums.

   Windsurfing was my summer passion as an East Coast skier (well, that and rollerblading). I acquired some second-hand gear — all ensnarled in ropes, battens, footstraps and skegs — and, armed with a copy of “Zen and the Art of Windsurfing,” set out to set sail.

"Zen and the Art of Windsurfing"

   Windsuring is tricky to learn, but the payoff is huge. Gliding out and back to the center of lakes, getting faster, learning to carve — it was super addicting. I was rigged up and ready whenever the conditions were right.

   But it takes commitment. You are constantly checking the wind forecast and busting through a pretty lengthy rigging process to get yourself in position to participate. Sometimes you’ve loaded up the car and roof rack with all the requisite gear, and the wind dies on your drive to the beach. Sometimes you’ve unpacked the gear on the beach and are rigging your sail, and it dies. And unlike skiing, where you can always take some runs even if the conditions are not as good as hoped, if the wind dies, there is no windsurfing.

   I was living in Colorado when my windsurf gear and I became separated. The Rocky Mountains are no windsurfing haven, and my interest in the sport had deteriorated to the point where, as I was moving from one home to another, I just left the gear in a crawl space and didn’t even realize it until there was essentially no way to go back and get it.

   When I arrived in Vermont in 2007, I knew Lake Champlain to be a prime windsurfing spot. But I also had become pretty committed to simplicity in my outdoor pursuits. That’s when Stand Up Paddleboarding made its march eastward from the Pacific, and I began plying Vermont and Lake Champlain by SUP.

   The simplicity of Stand Up is one of its biggest draws. Just a board and a paddle, and you are out exploring shoreline, popping over waves and getting ensconced in an extraordinary environment that is so different from the landscape of our daily lives.

   That’s why, when Robby Naish — a Hawaiian windsurfing legend with an authentic, eponymous water sports brand — announced the launch this spring of the new  Naish Wing Sufer, it totally captured my imagination. This is windsurfing, but, as Naish puts it, with “no strings attached” — sweet simplicity.

No strings attached! 

   There are a few great things going on here: One, there are no ropes or rigging, just a few minute pump to inflate the lead edge of the sail. Two, it's super-light. And three, YOU CAN USE IT WITH A STAND UP BOARD!

   This will be easiest way for people to taste the thrill of water-wind sports. Paddleboards are wide and stable and can float almost anyone, whether moving or not. If there’s a breeze, and you add the wing, step back into the sweet spot on the board and lean back, you take off! Using a paddleboard means you can wing surf in light winds, then step it up into bigger winds as you progress.

   Here’s the video Naish put out in May.

   For paddleboarders, this is going to spice things up quite a bit, yet keep us in our comfort zone in a way that windsurfing and kiteboarding can’t. Now, excuse me while I check the wind forecast.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Downwind Dreams for 2018

Do you ever feel like it’s getting windier?

Wind can kind of fly under the radar in weather discussions. Forecasters rarely talk about it in any context other than windchill. And unless you fly planes or harvest wind energy professionally, it’s probably the last element you think about when checking on the next day's weather.

But wind has a huge effect on our outdoor experiences. And with global warming whipping up stronger storms, it stands to reason that worldwide wind speeds are on the rise. This means the guilty pleasure of a more radical playground for people who ride boards on water.

Paddleboarders sometimes overlook wind when dreaming up ways to enjoy the sport. But “downwinders” are an essential SUP genre — a challenging yet accessible opportunity to sample the surfing glide on lakes and rivers.

Lake Champlain’s wind comes primarily from the South. This means excellent downwind runs from places like Shelburne and Charlotte into Burlington, or simply across the downtown waterfront from Oakledge Park to North Beach.

There are two ways to accomplish a downwinder: 1) Do a two-car shuttle, driving paddlers in one car to an upwind put-in while leaving the other car at your starting point, paddling with the wind back to the starting point, then driving back to get the second car. Or 2), hug the shoreline as you huff it on an upwind paddle as far as you can make it, then turn back downwind and enjoy the return trip.

The sensation of paddling along a conveyer belt of windswept waves — as high as 5 feet on the windiest days on Lake Champlain — is second to none. It requires focus, balance, footwork and timing. You take a couple quick strokes, then glide … over and over, each wave propelling you dozens of feet as you step back on your board, then leaving you behind to catch the next one. There’s always a next one when a strong wind is at your back.

So get your car shuttle partners lined up, keep your antennae up for windy conditions and add downwinders to your paddleboarding plans for 2018!

Monday, May 15, 2017

6 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Buying a Paddleboard

     If you’ve ever had a good time on a stand up paddleboard, odds are the thought of having one of your own has crossed your mind. And since it's paddleboard-buying season here in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, this is my advice, after nearly a decade of riding every style of stand up board there is, about what to ask yourself before buying a board. 

     SUP began as a way to catch waves, but here in Vermont, most people think of it as a way to tour flatwater lakes and rivers. If you have visions of catching waves with your board, think surf-style shapes (shorter, wider boards with round noses). If you are into fitness, speed and covering a lot of miles on flatwater tours, think lake shapes (longer, narrow boards with pointed noses). There are also river specific boards for running whitewater, but that’s kind of a niche.
     MY ADVICE: Surf-style boards are more affordable and more versatile. Unless you plan long flatwater tours or getting into racing, go with a surf-style shape.

     Consider the size of each potential rider if you are buying for a family or group. It’s always best to err on the side of a bigger board. Lighter people don’t sacrifice too much on a bigger board, but a small board is a non-starter for bigger people.

     MY ADVICE: For riders weighing 120 pounds or less, look at 9-foot-6 to 10-foot boards. For riders between 120 and 175, look at 10-foot-6 to 11-foot boards. For riders between 175 and 225, look for 11-foot to 12-foot boards. For riders over 225, the width of the board will be the biggest stability factor. Look for an 11-12 foot board that is at least 33-35 inches wide.

     The ideal board weight is between 25 and 35 pounds. Any board that weighs more than 35 pounds can get rather cumbersome on longer walks from your car to the beach. Also check out the type of handle or hand-hold the board has. Make sure it feels good in your hand. Even if you can’t demo the board on water, you’ll at least want to pick it up under arm before buying it.

     MY ADVICE: Get a board that weighs less than 35 pounds that you can easily walk short distances with and hoist onto a car roof rack.


     Inflatables have their place, but I don’t recommend them for a lake like Champlain or any water that ever gets choppy or wavy. They are OK for slow rivers or calm ponds. They are easy to deflate and travel with but take about 10 minutes to pump up. You sacrifice a lot in glide on an inflatable board, and they get bounced around in choppier water.
: Stay away from inflatables unless you really can’t store or travel with a traditional board.


     The vast majority of paddleboards are made with a fiberglass/epoxy shell and a foam core. These can and do get dinged, but they are easily repaired. More durable plastic boards are heavy, and cheaper all-foam boards can get chunks ripped out of them with no good repair options.

     MY ADVICE: Get a fiberglass/epoxy board, try not to ding it, and patch it quickly if you do.

     Used boards are hard to find, because most people who have bought a paddleboard have done so in the last five years and aren’t looking to give it up. If you do find yourself looking at a used board, there are a few things to check out.
     Is it dinged up, and if so, are the dings repaired at least moderately well? If dings go unrepaired, water will get into the foam core. A tell tale sign of this is if the board feels heavier than it should for its size.
     Also, check out the fin and finbox and make sure everything down there is in working order.
: If you can find a used board that’s not excessively dinged up or waterlogged for under $500, jump on it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Cross Country Surfing!?

I think we can all agree that skiing and surfing are siblings — the original extreme sports and ancient sources of stoke.

I think we can also all agree that cross country is an indispensible part of skiing, expanding participation, making it a mode of travel in addition to an adrenaline pursuit, and leading to alpine touring and mountaineering. 

That’s why it is so fitting that Stand Up Paddling has come along. Surfing now has its cross country component, a feeder that opens the sport up to literally every body of water.

So if you’re ever looking for a way to describe SUP to your friends, parents or the otherwise uninitiated, take them back to their grade school days with an A is to B as C is to D statement. This works especially well in Vermont, a mountain-lake state with an ingrained alpine culture.

Q: Downhill skiing is to cross country skiing as surfing is to:

A: Stand Up Paddleboarding!

SUP opens surfing’s door to flatwater exploration, and if you’ve ever been SUP surfing, you know it’s a perfect ocean equivalent to alpine touring through the mountains. 

We can’t surf in Vermont, except when the onshore lake winds kick up — which is not uncommon and can be super fun. But we sure can Cross Country Surf.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Vermont SUPsets

Of all the reasons Stand Up Paddling makes so much sense in Vermont — our abundant waterways, our human-powered ethos, our board-riding culture — the quality of Lake Champlain sunsets is the most vivid.

Something just feels right about standing up for the setting sun — paddle idle at your hip, facing west. It's a like salute to the cosmos.

I’m grateful that when those oranges and pinks start to mix before dusk that it’s all happening over an Adirondack backdrop. And if you’re out far enough on the lake, the dark purple of night that hangs over the Green Mountains becomes visible to the East, with a rising moon floating above the ridgelines.

The SUP media landscape (yes, there is such a thing) is obsessed with silhouetted SUP'ers standing in front of the setting sun. I suppose it derives from paddleboarding's surfing roots (this iconic "Endless Summer" movie poster is exhibit A).

But I’ll put our SUP sunsets up against any West Coast or Pacific island backdrop.

If there was any doubt that Vermonters belong on paddleboards, there is always affirmation at about 8 p.m. in the middle of Lake Champlain on a calm day in July.

 Paddle on!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

'A slight chance'

I had the occasion to meet meteorologist Steve Glazier from the local FOX affiliate this week and give him some feedback on summer weather forecasting from a paddleboarder’s perspective.

I got my snide jab out of the way first, mimicking him and his colleagues in Lt. Frank Drebin tones: “Okay, we have a 40 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms this afternoon, but there’s only a 10 percent chance of that.”

Then things got serious. Meteorologists have been relying on percentages so long that they’ve lost sight of how little value they offer. As a Lake Champlain person, you can’t do much with a “40 percent chance of …” forecast, especially if it’s more than 12 hours out.

Steve acknowledged this, as well as the general shortcomings of forecasting through audio/visual media — the flashing lightning bolt graphic that is displayed when there is a slight chance of thunderstorms offering a prime example of the disconnect between reality and covering your bases.

Being surprised on the lake by a pop-up lightning storm is no joke, and meteorologists have an important role to play in helping us avoid that. But some phrases should never be uttered, like: “there is a slight chance of a passing shower.” Really, don't bother. We’ll see it coming. We’ll experience it as it passes by, and we’ll enjoy the calm lifting clouds on the other side.

So I offered a suggestion. Keep the computer-generated percentages to yourself, and if it’s less than a 40 percent chance of precip, just say: “Showers and thunderstorms are unlikely.”

It’s positive. It’s accurate. I really think I got through to Steve on this.

But he had a counter.

“How about, ‘Showers unlikely — but possible,’” he said.

Redundant? Yes, but I’ll take it. There's even a slight chance he'll use it on the air.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Spring Mendoza Line

Sixty degrees. That’s the magic mercury, for both water and air.

After the typical Vermont freeze, when the strength of sun becomes noticeable on your cheeks, it’s not until the air reaches 60 that you first feel free of winter’s clutch. Sixty degrees brings the toes out to wiggle in sandals and reveals legs all around us after so many months of mandatory pants.

For Vermont Stand Up Paddlers, that first 60-degree day starts the clock ticking to the moment you’ll hear the slap of your board hitting the water for the first time in the New Year.

Finishing the ski season strong, thoughts shifting to leis and the Lake

This was an especially chilly winter as far as recent memory goes — although typical by Vermont folkloric standards. Lake Champlain froze completely for the first time in ten years. March was cold. April was cool, cloudy. May has been all over the place, but decidedly not warm. The last patches of mountain snow are just now dispersing into creeks and tumbling toward the valley.

Water temps in Lake Champlain remain in the upper 40s …

Dry suits and jackets — spring in Vermont
But they are rising toward 60! — that next plateau in our SUP season. Sixty degree water marks an unofficial beginning to the Lake Champlain summer. It’s when Stand Up Paddling in Vermont can be what Stand Up Paddling is meant to be.

This is a Hawaiian sport, rooted in surfing. It's brought a real connection to that sunny spirit of Aloha to the Green Mountain State. We have no doubt added our twists, donning dry suits to play with ice chunks on the Winooski River in March and pushing early season outings on Lake Champlain.

But as much as we can gear up for some guerilla spring SUPing, the sport goes best with summer days and sunset colors. That iconic surf vision of running over sand toward water with a board under your arm can only happen in-season.

And it all starts at 60 degrees.

Behind schedule perhaps, but it's coming ...