Stand up, sit down, lie down, go alone, take a friend, turn around, relax on calm water, exhilarate on fast water, peddle or paddle, one seat, two seats, pack a lunch, catch a fish. Ooops! Flip over. Get wet. Find the paddle. Have a laugh. Have a blast!

With kayaking enjoying a resurgence of interest and stand up paddleboarding sweeping the country on inland waterways, it’s no surprise that enterprising New River Valley entrepreneurs are at the ready with products and experiences.

Luke Hopkins, founder of Stride, a Blacksburg company which designs and manufactures stand up paddleboards ~ affectionately dubbed SUPs industry-wide ~ says: “Inland stand up paddleboarding has begun to explode, and it is the newest way to inspire paddling enthusiasts and surfers to get out on the water.”

This 33-year-old national, freestyle, kayak champion has traveled to world kayak competitions in Australia and Spain. He has designed whitewater kayaks, paddles, water apparel and life jackets. In 2008, Hopkins was living in the Washington, D.C. area, involved with a landscape company. “The housing boom went down, and I invested in the next passionate thought I had. A friend with an extra paddleboard invited me to go out on fresh water. I started my business the same day I started paddleboarding.”

His creative mind immediately went to work. “Within 20 minutes of paddling, I decided to re-design the paddleboard to be family and user friendly,” he says. Boards, ranging from seven to 22 feet long, can’t exactly be toted around with one hand or carried on an airplane. “Transportation and handling were huge obstacles. I thought about modular pieces, sliced like a loaf of bread that could be disassembled and re-connected.” When that concept didn’t hold water, the inflatable prospect surfaced.

Hopkins left the D.C. area late in 2008 and set up his company in the New River Valley. “I went to Virginia Tech. I know the New River like the back of my hand. I wanted to pursue my business venture in a small town, in a place that’s good to raise children.” He’s doing just that, and he still takes time to get out on the water and paddle for fun.

Today, Stride designs, manufactures and distributes a line of SUPs that can be inflated at river’s edge, then reduced to the size of a large sleeping bag and carried in a sack to your vehicle. Unlike competitors, which manufacture paddleboards in Korea, Thailand and China, Stride has some work done in those countries and also uses parts from Minnesota, California, Indiana and the New River Valley. “I am unique about what I’m doing,” Hopkins relates. “I design products domestically. Parts and pieces come from all over the world and across the country, and every product is finished in Blacksburg.”

Shawn Hash, owner of the 20-year-old company, Tangent Outfitters, is getting the word out on stand up paddleboarding, offering lessons and experiences. “Canoeing is declining, outdoor paddle sports are increasing, and business is growing,” he says of Tangent, which is most well-known for fishing and rafting expeditions. The demand for kayaks is higher than for canoes, and people are learning about stand up paddleboarding.

“Madison Avenue uses kayaking to sell stuff. It’s cool. With the advent of kayak fishing – kayaks designed to hold rods and equipment – you’ve got two sports in one,” he explains. While there are tandem kayaks for two people, Hash relays that the idea is stronger than the reality. “Kayaking is about personal freedom. We’re driving the SUP experience with individuals, corporate retreats and conferences. Nationwide it’s expanding in popularity; but in our area right now, we have to cause the tide to rise. In five years, you’ll see SUPs everywhere.”

Hash goes on to explain that freshwater has most potential for this new sport because there is so much more population around fresh water than salt water. And he touts (and only stocks) Stride inflatable paddleboards. “You can live in an apartment, drive a Prius and have a stand up paddleboard.”
Like any good, occasional sports writer and contemporary woman, I wanted to experience this new phenomenon for myself. Time constraints made a trip to the river not feasible, so I stepped up for the next best thing: a simulator ride on a stand up paddleboard at Back Country Ski & Sports (over on U.S. 460 near the hospital – and the Dairy Queen®). Brett Davis, the manager, did not know I was coming, but within 10 minutes, he had everything set up – a Stride (they sell them, of course) stand up paddleboard waiting for me to climb aboard.

I’m here to say, it’s pretty cool. In fact, I could see myself indulging in just such a sport when it’s really hot, and I want to spare my horses (and myself!) a hot ride. “The side to side motion is what you need to get used to,” Brett explained. “That’s the primary shifting action one encounters on the water.” It seemed to me that was the primary action on the simulator, too. With one long paddle in hand and imaginary water all around me, I balanced, swayed, turned and understood quite quickly how someone could love this. Like horses, it’s rhythmic and soothing. It won’t buck or bite, and, if you fall off, you shouldn’t get hurt. Even if you fall ON the paddleboard – a Stride inflatable, that is – you won’t get hurt.

Davis sees the business growth. “We sold two stand up paddleboards two years ago and nearly three dozen last year.” When he showed me how to add the seat and make it suitable for a kayak adventure, plus strap on your lunch, camera or stuff (all waterproof), I almost bought one!

Paddleboard construction is traced to Thomas Blake, who was restoring boards in Hawaii for a museum in 1932. To reduce weight in a replica he was constructing, Blake drilled holes into the redwood piece before covering it. This hollow board was the inspiration for the paddleboard, and Blake promoted these boards as lifeguard rescue tools.

Contemporary paddleboards are made out of fiberglass, carbon fiber or epoxy and still incorporate Blake’s basic design principles. Of course, the stand up paddleboarding sport found its beginnings in ocean surfing. “Our boards are exceptional,” Hopkins explains, “because they are designed with the everyday paddler in mind. The strong, durable construction will outlast any traditional composite board. And the huge advantage with Stride is its conversion capability to a kayak in seconds. Our customers, including families with kids, are out there enjoying our boards on all types of waterways.”

Kayaks of wood covered in sealskin were created by the Inuit arctic people and primarily used for hunting. Short wide ones with a hole for sitting were stable. Longer kayaks were faster and more seaworthy. Though the sealskin was replaced by fabric by European settlers, the construction was unchanged until fiberglass was introduced in the 1950s. The first plastic kayak was produced in 1984.

Interest in canoeing and kayaking as a recreational sport was brought about by John MacGregor who designed the Rob Roy [canoe] in 1845. He named it for the Scottish outlaw of the same name and based his design on Inuit canoes and kayaks. Kayaking became a part of the Olympics in 1936, and whitewater racing and slalom events were added later.

Modern kayaks are primarily made from molded plastic, fiberglass and Kevlar. But stand up paddleboarding is the fun, new kid on the block, and Stride’s inflatable boards are geared to the every day consumer. “Everyone can have fun,” says Hash, “paddling, falling and bouncing. How many sports can you have fun falling?” Well, not too many that I can think of! The double construction material is the same that’s used in whitewater rafts. They can smash into rocks and get dropped almost anywhere without getting punctured.

“It’s very firm and stable,” states Hopkins. “We’ve put three little fins on the bottom which make the paddleboard track really well. I’ve been in water sports all my life. I know what people enjoy.” So, I ask you, reader, who better to design a stand up paddleboard?

Stride designs and puts out the product. Back Country Ski & Sports sells it and offers simulator rides. Hash and Tangent Outfitters offer the experience or the lesson. It’s a “buy local” extravaganza!


~ Erase the Trace

Stride boards are used on all types of waterways which need protection for future generations. Being water enthusiasts ourselves, it is important that we make a difference. “Erase The Trace” Waterway ethic is an initiative to raise awareness about the litter that exists in and on the banks of waterways which affects water quality. Water enthusiasts are the shepherds of the world’s waterways, and we can make a difference by erasing the trace of the trash left by the past. The simple act of spending a few minutes picking up trash every time you visit a waterway to surf or paddle will have an impact. – [from]

By Joanne M. Anderson
Photos by Laura’s Focus Photography

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