LAGUNA BEACH, CA. - They say you can’t walk on water, but you can stand on it ... if you have the right equipment. Watersport fans will already know I’m talking about stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP for short, but if you’re not familiar with SUP, just picture standing on a surfboard and paddling through the water. And one of the best places to experience the sport is Laguna Beach, which boasts some of California’s best surfing, and SUP, of course.
It’s early, and surprisingly chilly, at a small beach called Fisherman’s Cove, where I meet instructor Elise Debes of La Vida Laguna. The wind is whipping, I’m shivering and when I hear that the water temperature is about 13 Celsius, I gratefully accept a short-sleeved wet suit.
The first thing Elise tells our small group of novices is: “First-timers usually fall off their boards.”
So, my goal when I hit the water is not to fall. But first we get a quick lesson on the sand, practising the paddling motion in the air, learning that we need to alternate sides every four strokes, and climbing up on the boards to learn the proper stance. I feel like I’m in yoga class.
Elise starts us in “tabletop” position, knees on the board with hands in front of the handle, resting on our knuckles with paddle in hand. I rock back and forth slightly before hopping my feet forward to stand with butt back, knees bent. I pretend to dip the paddle in the water and look out at the horizon.
Left: The locals in Laguna are a curious lot. Middle: The dramatic coastline in Laguna is truly striking. Right: Writer Karen Asp
“Don’t look down,” Elise warns, “or you’ll have issues balancing.”
From there, it’s all about bracing your core (SUP has earned a reputation as a belly flattener) and paddling. Easy, right? Sure, until I walk my board into the water.
I assume the (tabletop) position and Elise gives me a push from behind. I try to pretend I’m on my stable, sturdy yoga mat, but the waves are rocking beneath me and my legs start to shake. I have to psyche myself up to make the jump. It’s not graceful, but I manage it, although I feel like a newborn pony wobbling on its legs for the first time.
My feet are wider apart than they should be, my knees are quivering, and my legs have turned to mush. I contract my core and leg muscles, which seems to help, but I remain frozen for at least a minute. Finally, I dip my paddle into the water, making sure it doesn’t get tangled in the kelp below my board.
For the next two hours, I’m like the “Little Engine That Could,” repeating my mantra over and over again: “I will not fall, I will not fall.”
And, I’m proud to admit, I don’t!
In fact, after a few minutes, my legs stop quivering and I actually feel quite confident.
We paddle several hundred metres away from a rock called Seal Rock, which is a bit of a misnomer as it’s really a hangout for sea lions, who lounge there by the dozens. From afar, we hear the playful chattering of a pod of about 30 spinner dolphins. They frolic around us and even Elise, who’s on these waters every day, is charmed by the display.
“More often than not, we don’t see dolphins,” she says.
When two dolphins dart under the front end of my board, I commit the cardinal sin of SUP: I look down. But, I wobble for only a second as they zip by.
It’s all quite an experience and makes me think that this SUP is something I could really fall for.
Here are some other experiences to enjoy in Laguna Beach: 1- Book a room at the Surf & Sand Resort (www.surfandsandresort.com) where all of the rooms come with earplugs. Why? The resort sits on the edge of the ocean, and at night, the waves roar. 2- If you’re a gelato fan, you’ll love the fun flavours at Dolce Gelato (www.gelatobydolce.com), which rotates its menu regularly. 3- Head to the Deck at the Pacific Edge Hotel (www.deckonlaguna.com) for great sunsets. 4- Spend a few hours at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (www.pacificmmc.org), which rescues, rehabilitates and releases marine mammals stranded on shores. 5- Visit the Stand, a local favourite where the menu is as creative as the cuisine and placing your order at the walk-up window is half the fun. Not a vegetarian or vegan? You may be once you taste the Stand’s delicious vegetarian creations.