Updated: Apr 8, 2020
Picking the right SUP board for a leisurely paddle around your lake isn’t hard. A large, stable platform that you can put a cooler, a kid, or your dog on top of will usually be just fine. But when you start taking your SUP into the ocean, a whole new set of rules applies. Wave conditions, turning preference, paddle choice and a lot of other things come into play. Add to it that there are a seemingly endless choice of designs out there and it becomes a tough puzzle to solve. Luckily, Adventure IO guide Suzie Cooney has literally written a book on the subject, How to Increase Your Stand Up Paddling Performance, Beginner to Elite.
Adventure IO: Do you have different boards for different conditions?
Suzie Cooney: Oh yes! I often like to say that I have more boards than I have shoes, and I love shoes. On Maui, the full range of boards is necessary, from 8-footers up to a 16-foot long “downwind” surf SUP board for long ocean paddles. I have others in between too, mostly downwind boards in the 14- to 17-foot range.
AIO: What goes into choosing a board based on the conditions?
SC: It’s a combination of things for each particular break or surf spot, including wave size, how the wave forms, wave direction, and sometimes what kind of mood you might be in. And, of course, skill level. From the nose rocker to the tail shape there are a few basics to learn and consider.
Here’s a quick illustration of the more common tail shapes. The square tail is also referred to as a squash tail. The pin tail is designed for speed and the round tail would compliment a longer, longboard style.
For example, on a smaller day, maybe in the one- to three-foot range, you might have fun on a longboard style SUP surf board that rides similar to a longboard surfboard. This board might have a little more volume and less rocker, ride nice and smooth, is stable and allows for style points.
On a bigger day, shoulder to overhead high waves, maybe a swallow tail with a quad-fin thruster style board that will bite on the bottom turns and allow you to accelerate at the top for a snappy turn or off the lip. This board might have less volume and require you to take off in more critical, steep sections but then delivers a nice big turn, and will help you set the rail to go up and down the line
Or if it’s REALLY big, some (not me), will select a heavier glassed board, in the range of 9 -10 feet that is what is called more “gunnier”, pintail shaped board. This board type is usually custom made for steep drops to stick on the water and go down like a cannon. Not for expression or deep turns. You want speed to keep you nice and deep.
AIO: What about different fins and paddles for certain kinds of waves?
SC: Yes, for sure. Since the board length can vary from 7 up to 18 feet, choosing particular fins, how many fins, and different paddle lengths and blade types also enhances your performance.
For instance, if we are downwind SUP surfing, which is open ocean surfing on wind and ground swell, the ideal board length will start at 14 feet and can range up to 18 feet. These boards can also come equipped with what is called a rudder or steering system. The steering systems allow for literally turning into a forming wave and wind swell and then makes it easier to catch the next what we call “bump.” You can then connect these bumps or moving mountains of water for miles.
Fins can have an impact on SUP surf performance and it’s really all about feel. If you’re really good you can tell how a particular fin set up will respond. Some can feel like you’re paddling in mud, and others will literally help the board stick and accelerate down the face of a wave. Nice fins are not inexpensive but can make all the difference on how a board will behave. Turns can be loose or nice and tight. For example, you might have a tri-fin for three fin set up for a more playful expression session. Or if you’re really looking for high performance a quad-fin for four fin system can be a little more serious. If a wave is more hollow and you’re looking to get barreled, you’ll really rely on your fins to help hold you deep and tight. The last thing you want is to slide out!
Paddles are typically all carbon now and for wave riding the blade shape will have a little more volume; a tear-dropped shape and will be wider than, say, a paddle designed for flatwater racing. I prefer and recommend getting a paddle custom cut for your height. Paddle preferences in length will vary based on wave SUP surfing (usually shorter in length) versus if you’re long-distance SUP surfing, a longer board will typically require a longer paddle shaft.
You can also choose the diameter of the shaft of the paddle and flex type. For SUP surfing it’s suggested to have a shaft with a little more flex, rather than being stiff for flat water racing. This is where there are a lot of varying opinions.
"One important note is that a paddle that’s too long may cause upper back and shoulder pain and a paddle too short may cause lower back pain."
AIO: What is your go-to shape/size for most conditions?
Suzie Cooney: We are so lucky on Maui to have all conditions of wave breaks almost all the time. In the morning I can be on my swallow-tail, 8’3” quad-fin SUP surfboard, and then by noon I’m loading up my custom SIC Ding King, 16-foot by 22 in. wide board with a rudder for a Maliko downwind SUP surf session!
AIO: What is your most “extreme” board, or the one you only pull out on special occasions? Suzie Cooney: That’s going to be my rudder downwind 16-foot hollow body carbon board, affectionately known as my “Green Machine.” That’s when the surf is 10-15 feet and the winds are blowing 40-50 mph. This board has lots of rocker to help me punch through the bottom and manage huge surf. It also has a nice pin tail to help me keep my speed! It’s about 27 inches wide so it’s plenty stable when things are totally nuts. I’ve also double leashed this board on days up to 50 mph. Last thing you want is to lose your board in those conditions. I’ve had times where others’ leashes were literally sliced in two by the force of a wave.
AIO: What should people who are just starting to paddle surf waves take into account when choosing a board?
Suzie Cooney: Fun is always first, so you want your board to be stable and have a little extra thickness or volume. It’s best to perhaps rent a few boards to see how you do because in SUP surfing you’ll advance really fast and many outgrow their board in a matter of like 2-3 months or less, depending upon how serious you are.
First time out grab like a 10-foot by 29 inches wide single fin, longboard style. These boards are fun and offer some nice wave riding on smaller breaks. They accelerate nicely and are more forgiving.
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