A Brief History of Stand Up Paddle Boarding

For the more skilled and experienced surfers out there, it can be easy to dismiss standup paddle boarding and perhaps even refer to it as “surfing for the lazy.” But as far as the history of stand-up paddleboards goes, the first ones could have possibly appeared thousands of years ago.

Stand up paddling is probably as old as mankind. So old it is that the Christian Bible acknowledges it through the Old Testament where Moses is spotted floating in the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter, Queen Bithia, in 1275 BC. It might have not been a SUP board, but it does speak about man’s ingenuity.

Nevertheless, the most fascinating of it all is about 3,000 years ago when Peruvian fishermen reportedly had their watercrafts made of reeds and paddled using a bamboo oar. Their Caballitos de Totoras was almost akin to kayaks but were anchored on Pacific wave movements.

However, when it comes to the real epicenter, all fingers seemingly point to one modern-day standup paddle boarding paradise: Hawaii.

Ancient SUP Boarding - its Polynesian ancestry

The sport’s undeniable Polynesian ancestry goes back to 1778 when Captain James Cook first docked in the Hawaiian Islands to become the first Westerner to sight the Hawaiian surfers. Using ritually carved Koa tree boards called He'e Nalu, the locals were so great at it that Cook couldn’t help, but wonder how alive the sport was.

It is Hawaii where the popularity of stand-up paddle boarding finally came of age. Necessitated by their everyday chores, a flotilla of stand up paddlers had to shuttle between Kanaha, Kihei, and Lahaina.

The largest of the boards – as huge as 5m long - belonged to the village chief, while ordinary locals-only owned 2 or 3-meter ones. However, paddling was their preferred way of powering out onto the waves.

Nobody knows whether Captain James Cook helped introduce SUP boarding in the UK. But an 1886 photo of an Englishman, stand-up paddling through East Anglia, shows that the activity was alive outside Hawaii. “Quanting the Marsh Hay” was taken by Peter Henry Emerson.

From Maui to the World: Modern-Day Stand Up Paddle Boarding

After Captain James Cook’s discovery, this water sport had to wait for over a century to finally gain global notoriety. And it was until the 1940s that the world first learned of it, thanks to the vibrancy of surf culture on the island of Waikiki.

Celebrated surf instructors Duke Kahanamoku and the AhChoy brothers took it upon themselves to offer surfing lessons to tourists flocking the island. They would stand and use their paddles to warn their students of incoming swells.

Gradually and a couple of successes later, Beach-Boy Surfing took over Hawaii.

But without the input of James Davis, a British surfer, and a travel photographer, the world could have probably waited a bit longer to witness the magic of stand up paddleboarding. His 1980 shots, especially a particular one showing a paddle surfer with a builder’s hat on his head, inspired thousands to throng this renowned surf paradise.

John “Pops” AhChoy had suddenly become a SUP boarding superstar, unknowingly. And he had also given the world an individual who would later be considered the father of modern stand up surfing - John Zapotocky.

The ’Pearl Diver’’

John Zapotocky arrived in Hawaii in the 1940s, and would later fall in love with the turquoise waters of the ocean. And like Kahanamoku and the AhChoy brothers, he too became an avid surfer and went on to inspire many into embracing it. He was so good at it that they nicknamed him the ‘’Pearl Diver’’.

Today, he is the world’s oldest SUP surfer and a regular in Waikiki. He surfs a few times a week and still keeps his board in a rack on the beach where it originally did, 60 years ago.

Modern-Day Stand Up Paddle Boarding

With time, fame and popularity around this sport meant it had to extend beyond Hawaii. And in 2004, Rick Thomas became the first person to paddleboard in California. Later in 2008, the US Coast Guard finally classified the paddleboard as a “vessel,” placing it in the same category as canoes and kayaks.

Today, standup paddleboarding is a popular water activity across the planet with surfers of all ages participating in it. Prices of boards have reduced while manufacturers have diversified on construction materials. But there have also been laws enacted to govern standup paddleboarding, including wearing a leash, which just goes to show the ever growing popularity of the sport.

SUP might have first been called “surfing for the lazy” but it is now one of the most popular water sports to do in the summer, and it is possible we will one day see it in the Olympics.

If you are interested in taking up the wonderful sport of Stand Up Paddle Boarding, contact us for a chat about our SUP boards.


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