Paddling a Plastic SUP through the Hudson Highlands
You can almost guarantee this. The more years a person’s been paddling, the better the equipment. Most of us start on some sort of all-around board then graduate to something fancier, either a slick ride for the waves or some sort of flatwater torpedo. I’m no different. I have a 12’6″ for distance, and a 9’8” for the waves. But these days, you’ll most likely find me on my special ride, a board most experienced riders wouldn’t dream of paddling.
Let me introduce you to my big, red, plastic beast. “What’s this? A plastic board?” you may ask. “Aren’t those things for beginners?” That’s may be so, but I’ve had one for for years. And I always will. Here’s the thing: my home waters are the Hudson Highlands, which is no ordinary riverbed. It’s a spectacular place where the Hudson cuts through the Appalachian Mountains, creating a raw channel of cliffs, stone, hills, and mountains. That also means the shores are pure rock. Combine that with extremely murky water, and you can see my dilemma. This place is a paddleboard destruction zone! I’ve torn my bottom out without even realizing it. Fin impacts have launched me over the nose of my board more times than I can count. Needless to say all my rides have a host of scratches and abrasions. It’s the price I pay for the scenery.
Big Red is nine feet, nine inches long. It’s thirty-four inches wide and weighs close to fifty pounds. By any modern standard, it’s a hulking beast. It’s slow too — it’ll top out at about 3.5 mph, which puts it somewhere between a snail and a turtle. It’s hollow, so the deck sinks under my feet. Sounds like a pretty awesome ride, right? Ahh, but it is!
Big Red is ideal for the rocks because you can’t dent it. I’m not longer terrified of every point and crag. If I hit something, so what? Not only that, I never have to bag it. Nor do I worry about crushing the nose or cracking a rail while taking it off my car. Sure it weighs as much as a two Volkswagens, but so what? That’s the price I pay for indestructibility.
For family vacations, I maintain my plastic is far superior to any slick waverider. My board can carry myself and not just one but two kids at the same time! It’s also perfect for messing around on. My kids use it as a diving platform, or for king of the hill, or they pretend it’s a boat in the middle of the ocean. If the kids want to actually paddle it, I know they’re on the most stable and safe board I could give them. Speaking of paddling with kids, this is where Big Red shines. It has four handles and bungies, perfect for little hands to grab. The width means my kids can squirm about without having to worry about capsizing.
May I also suggest this is the perfect four season board? I once took it out on a New Year’s Day charity paddle. Of course, everyone was faster than me, that is, until we reached the ice. Then it was time to demonstrate the power of plastic! I slid my board onto the thin ice, then jumped. The ice beneath me cracked and formed a trail. I may have been creeping along, but that was a lot faster than being stuck. Try that on a carbon board, guys and girls! I dare you!
While we’re on a winter theme, may I introduce you to the world’s heaviest and silliest sled? Oh yeah! All I have to do is pop off Big Red’s fin, and she rules the neighborhood sled run. Standing up or sitting down, it doesn’t matter ‘cause either way you’re having fun. I can even steer her with a land paddle. And if I fall, or spin out, the kids and I are laughing too hard to care.
Yet beyond the fun, there was a trip when it proved itself superior to anything else. I was paddling through Constitution Marsh, a popular spot directly across from West Point Military Academy. My daughter Miranda and I were having a fine time looking at birds and plants. Unfortunately the tide was going out fast and started to get stuck in the mud on the far side, far away from launching point. The marsh was impenetrable, but there was another way back. I could leave the marsh and take to the unpredictable Hudson. Unfortunately, this meant paddling not just any stretch of river. Miranda and I would have to go through World’s End, named that because this sharp turn is the narrowest, roughest, most unpredictable stretch of the lower Hudson. It’s where Revolutionary War troops stretched a chain to prevent the British ships from sailing up the river. I’ve paddled it a couple of times on a cruising board and got spun about by the unpredictable eddies, cross currents, and chop. Now I was going to have to face it not only with my seven year-old daughter on board, but also against a combination of current and tide.
Unfortunately there was only one choice, so towards World’s End I paddled. As we approached the sharp turn, the river started churning. Little Miranda said, “I’m scared, Daddy.” I of course reassured her, hoping my voice didn’t show that I was twice as scared! We started getting tossed about. Miranda held on tightly while I paddled, fighting through the crazy water, fending off the cliffs at one elbow and avoiding the boat channel at the other. I couldn’t imagine anything scarier than flipping even falling right there. I could just see the headlines.
A heart-stopping ten minutes later we rounded the bend into safe waters. The trip was probably my roughest passage ever through World’s End, but in hindsight it might have been the easiest. Sure it was slow, but we never fell. The board didn’t even tip much. Miranda had plenty to hold onto during the rough ride. My plastic monster carried us through those rough waters even better than my fancier rides.
So if you’re ever paddling the Hudson Highlands, you just might spot some idiot on a plastic board with a big smile on his face. If you do, give me wave. We can stop and chat, and if you’re lucky, I might let you take a ride on Big Red, the best board I’ve ever owned.
Map of the Area
SUP Examiner’s Note: Consider visiting the Hudson Highlands State Park during your visit to the region.