By Tetsuhiko Endo
“It’s like snowboarding the 80s,” says world champion paddle racer and all-around waterman Jamie Mitchel, observing the scene at Pier 40 on the west side of Manhattan this morning. He’s referring to the rapid growth spurt of stand-up paddling (SUP), which in the last five years has exploded onto the outdoor sports scene with a fervor not seen since Jake Burton put two foot straps on a wooden plank.
The current popularity of the sport is on display here as around 100 people launch 14-foot epoxy surfboards into the Hudson River at the start of what will be a 28-mile paddle around Manhattan. Some will race, and some will simply enjoy the city views and the fresh northeasterly winds, but all are hear to support SEA Paddle NYC, which raises money for the Surfer’s Environmental Alliance, and chosen autism support groups.
The fact that each racer raised a minimum of $1,000 in order to be here as well as a solid showing of pro stick men and women (so called for the long, thin paddle they use) demonstrates something else about the movement: a strong sense of solidarity.
“It’s like a family,” says Mitchell. “And you know that in any family someone’s kid will be sick or someone will need help, so you realize that if you all work together, you can raise a lot of money for these kinds of issues.”
Pro Surfer and SUPer Jodie Nelson agreed. “For me, surfing was always a selfish thing, just me, me, me. SUPing is more community oriented, and events like this let us give something back to our friends.”
One man who appreciates the support is Sam Pa’e, straight off the plane from Oahu. Sam is paddling today to represent his son, Sam III, who was diagnosed with autism at six months old. “I love the camaraderie of this community and we are here just trying to spread the Aloha spirit.”
Despite having his car break down last night on the 59th Street Bridge, Pa’e seems to still have plenty of Aloha.
Participants and racers have come from Long Island, New Jersey, California, Hawaii, Portugal, and Australia. Unlike many surf gatherings, there was a large group of women limbering up and ready to go. Nelson said she estimated the ratio of men to women who SUP to be close to 50/50. “The learning curve is lower and it’s less intimidating,” she explained. “I always tell people that if you can walk down a sidewalk, you can SUP.”
That might be so, but few people can walk or paddle as far as Tom Jones, a veteran SUPer who holds the record for longest paddle at 1,507 mile–a feat he completed last night when he paddled into Manhattan's Battery Park 92 days after leaving Key West. After that much paddling, 28 more miles should be a walk in the park, right? “I’ll be feeling it tomorrow,” grinned Jones.
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Indeed, many of the paddlers will feel it tomorrow, and not just because it’s a long way. Most of the participants at Pier 40 were 30 years old and over, an observation that reflects the older demographic of people who are involved in the sport. There was, however, one conspicuously young paddler on hand, though you wouldn’t know it from looking at him. Slater Trout, the SUPing world’s wunderkind is 15 years old (about 10 years younger than anyone else at the event) stands six feet two inches tall, and is comparable in stature to whichever Greek god you you can think of.
Last year, he came in second in the Battle of the Paddle–the race that is generally considered the world championship of the sport–and he is hoping for first this year. The SEA Paddle NYC is one of roughly 15 races he will compete in this year and he estimates that there are another 350 or so around the world. As he warms up, Trout swigs from a jug of water. “I’ve got a regimen of liquids that I have to drink before every race. It took about two years to figure out the right formula, but we’ve got it worked out now.”
Despite his serious racing goals and training regimens, Trout concedes that coming to New York is still more about supporting the cause than actually racing. “I’m here because I want to support autism and help the sport (of SUP) grow,” he says. “I love surfing, but racing is so popular right now that I’m pretty dedicated to it.”
Despite the world class athletes, it is the various charity causes and a sense of community gathering that rule the day. Another Hawaiian, Izzy Paskowitz, who is here representing his nineteen year old autistic son, Isiah, put is best when said: “Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t even tell people that I had an autistic child. It was something that I hid along with all of my guilt and frustration. Now my family and friends have helped me so much that it feels like all of these people are part of my support group.”