The History Of Stand Up Paddle Boarding

By: Marina Andriola

The History Of Stand Up Paddle Boarding Starts With Our Genetic Code

As animals go, we humans are the oddities in our jungle. Unlike most, we are designed to stand up and travel great distances on just two legs. Though our evolution is the subject of great debate, all human babies are born with an innate drive to stand up. Offer your index fingers to the hands of a tiny seated infant and the baby will grip hard, using your offered fingers to immediately push themselves upright on to their wobbly little feet. A human baby will progress from standing alone to walking and eventually running, usually by the second year of life.

Stand up paddling gives us humans an amazingly efficient way to travel quickly across a body of water in our naturally favored position. Think about how excited and intrigued you were the first time you saw someone stand up paddling. Tap into your nomadic ancestry and you’ll understand how valuable it would have been for hunting and the discovery of safe, more verdant shores. It has a universal appeal.

As humans, we are naturally inclined to move forward. We advance with our eyes first, scanning the horizon, arms helping to propel our bodies, all while effortlessly balancing on two feet. Modern stand up paddling is inherently recognized as a valuable skill by our inner prehistoric selves

Ancient Fisherman Lay the Groundwork

caballitos de totora Standing up to fish and for transportFishermen all over the world have been standing solo in their small vessels for thousands of years. Chan Chan is ground zero of a rich and ancient Peruvian civilization. Bordered by fertile lands and an ocean that teemed with life, Chan Chan was once the largest city in South America. On its shore near the village of Huanchaco is a coveted surfing beach where caballitos de totora which translates to “little horses made of reed” are straddled and then surfed by the local fishermen.

To aid in maneuvering the vessels into the waves, a split and hollowed length of bamboo serves as a double ended paddle. 3,000 year old shards of painted pottery depict the unchanged design of these same famously photogenic reed boats. It’s not hard to imagine young, virile fishermen showing off to their peers and potential mates by standing on a caballito and skillfully paddle surfing it to shore!

Amazingly, caballito is a modern name for these handmade boats that predate the arrival of fifteenth century Spaniards and their horses by thousands of years.

Italian GondolaFast forward to seventeenth century Venice, the magnificent Italian city that’s built almost entirely on the water. Eight to ten thousand gondoliers use long paddles to move their vessels through the crowded canals. Today, only about four hundred gondolas remain in service. They shuttle tourists and wedding parties through the beautiful city that remains steeped in mystery, romance and glorious water. 

The Hawaiians Pioneered Stand Up Paddling For Fun!

duke kahanamoku stand up paddlingThe first standup paddle surfers to surf for the sheer joy of flying down the line on a board are believed to be Hawaiian. Ancient Hawaiian islanders survived with nature, not because of nature. They called themselves keiki o ka’aina, literally “children of the land”. 

The earth provided the islanders not only food and materials to build with, but a place of deep spiritual connection and playful recreation. Aina means “that which feeds”. The land, the sea and mankind were thought of as siblings born to the same parents at the beginning of time. As siblings of the sea, Hawai`ians of all ages and sexes enjoyed playing together in the waves. Maka ’ainana is a term used to describe the common people, but it actually translates to “eyes of the earth”. Nature nourishes, and by custom, humans were to play with and  protect their siblings, the land and the sea. 

Though Hawaiians have probably been standup paddle surfing for centuries, the earliest photographic evidence is only about 60 years old. Duke Kahanamoku, the most famous of the Waikiki beach boys, was said to use an outrigger paddle to help propel his heavy board into the velvety waves of Waikiki.

John Zapotocky Stand up PaddlingTwo other Hawaiians beside Duke are often named as the first. Young John “Zap” Zapotocky, born in 1918 had moved to Oahu from the Mainland in 1940. After a few years of working at Pearl Harbor, the Dole Pineapple Cannery hired him as a machinist. A family man loved for his community involvement, Zap also became a dedicated waterman. There is a full feature on John Zapotocky in our Spring 2011 Issue.

He was one of the few non-native Hawaiians to be named as an honorary Beachboy by his surfing brothers. Zap had admired how Duke and a few of the other Beachboys used a paddle to help themselves surf more effectively. In the 1940’s Zap began to include a canoe paddle in his own morning routine of surfing out at Waikiki.

He didn’t stop using the paddle as he surfed for the next 60 years. Dorian “Doc” Pascowitz said at John Zapotocky’s memorial on 10/29/13. “Please remember that this, the biggest, greatest development in the sport of wave riding of the last 1,000 years is the result of the passion, the effort and the aloha of John “Zap” Zapotocky.’ 

John “Pops” Ah Choy was born in 1920 in ‘O’okala on the Big Island, but raised his own family on Oahu. Pops was an inventor, the father of six and one of the others most mentioned as the first to surf with a paddle. Pops constantly tinkered with homemade ideas. He created a board wagon that he (or one of his surfing sons) could use to easily haul 8 heavy boards weighing nearly 100 pounds each, from home to Kuhio beach.

He also designed leg leashes, skateboards and a chair with suction cups which allowed him to fish while sitting on his board. As failing knees made it difficult for Pops to pop up on a surfboard, he began to carry a canoe paddle out to help him surf the waves. Standing between sets also greatly improved his vantage as a photographer. Taking photos of tourists was yet another skill Pops used to help feed his large family. 


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