Surfers have a huge advantage over flatwater paddlers with board selection. They can choose sizes anywhere from high-performance postage stamps approaching six feet in length to eleven and twelve foot monsters. Whatever your preference in size, shape, and volume, there’s a board out there for you. Flatwater paddleboards are a lot more limited. With a few exceptions, they’re mostly either 12’6″ board or a fourteen footer.
Why these two arbitrary lengths? They exist because these are the two main racing stock classes. (There are others too, like surfboard class and unlimited, but these are the main ones.) The idea sticking to these lengths is to allow an amateur paddler the flexibility of entering a race if they desire. Makes sense, but what if you’re not a racer, like the majority of flatwater paddlers? What’s the difference between these two sizes.
The Fourteen Footer
Let’s start with the fourteen footer. The main reason to want the extra length is that it translates into a greater “hull speed”. This has a lot of variables, especially with the paddler, but the general rule is the longer the hull, the faster it goes in water. Go to any race and you’ll see what I mean. The fourteen footers are the ones finishing in front of their smaller brethren. How much faster are they? I was told by Jim Karabasz, owner of Extreme Windsurfing in New Jersey, around 10–12%, depending on the paddler. This means, if your average flatwater speed on a 12’6” board is 4 mph, you can expect to go up to about 4.4 mph on a 14’ board. So if speed is your only concern, your choice is obvious.
The bigger board also means more volume, e.g. “floatiness”. This makes it a better choice for a bigger person. You don’t want too much of your board hull to be submerged and extra length is one way to make it bigger. (You can also make it wider or thicker.) The extra length also tends to add more stability to the board, so, all other things being equal, a fourteen footer will tip less than an equally-proportioned 12’6”.
Of course, everything isn’t rosy in fourteen-foot-land. Sometimes these bigger boards can feel like beached whales next to their smaller relatives. The extra size means more weight. That might not make so much of a difference on the water, a few extra pounds can feel like a lot more lifting the board on and off your car. The bigger size also means there is an increased chance of knocking into something accidentally, like a lamp post or a parked car.
The extra length can also be a problem on the water. This is most notable in side winds and chop. The bigger board presents a longer surface for chop to break against, which means greater pressure pushing the nose downwind. The big board will also require more effort to turn into the wind, which make it harder to handle.
The 12’6” Board
It does seems like a 12’6″ is a step down, doesn’t it? Well, maybe it is and maybe it’s not. It depends on the rider and the conditions. A 12’6″ board has some advantages in choppy water which you might not expect. Side chop won’t push the nose as much, as you probably figured. The shorter board can often fit between the waves and troughs better than its longer cousin, which mean you won’t get tossed about as much. In most conditions, it’s also easier to turn. Not only that, if you ever choose to actually surf this board, the smaller size is far easier to manage in the surf.
These smaller boards tend to be popular with women for obvious reasons. The smaller size makes it easier to schlep. This is particularly important for a smaller person. Not surprisingly, the 12’6″ racing class tends to be much more popular with women than men, with proportionally higher participation. That doesn’t mean that these smaller boards are any less capable. They’re just a little slower, and outside a race that isn’t very important.
The 12’6” board length seems to be the popular size for “cruiser” or touring boards right now. If you’re looking for something that has multiple tie-downs for camping and adventures, you’ll probably be shopping for a 12’6” model. Most 14’ hulls are designed for racing. As of this writing, a world record paddleboard voyage is being attempted by a veteran named Josh Collins, a 3,600 mile voyage from Texas to New York City, on a 12’6” board. (Check out www.veteranvoyage360.com to follow his adventure; he plans to finish in NYC on July 23, 2016.) Considering the difficulty of this trip, and if you watch his daily videos you will be impressed, you cannot argue that this shorter length is a poor cruiser. This size is a great compromise between maneuverability, speed, and capacity.
What to Choose?
Ultimately your choice of board though is your personal preference. If speed is the most important thing, go for the 14’ footer. If you want something that’s easier to carry and a little easier to maneuver, a 12’6” board may be in your future. Pay attention to the less obvious things too. Do you have a big garage, or is your storage space limited? Do you drive a small car? A large board might hang off the back, and that can be a hazard. What about your budget? Smaller boards are cheaper — a few hundred dollars is normal. How about your local conditions? All of these are important factors. Let’s not forget also that these two lengths aren’t your only choices. There are many sub-12’6” flatwater boards out there that might be perfect for a smaller paddler, or anyone else who wants a small board.
The best advice is probably to try both sizes and see what you like. Many reputable shops allow you to do this. If you can’t get a loaner or rental from a shop, see if your paddle buddies can loan you something. That way you can decide for yourself if the extra length is worth it. For myself, there are times I might use one and not the other. On long trips by myself, I want the extra speed. If I’m paddling socially, guiding inexperienced SUPers, or doing safety for a swim, the smaller board is usually a better choice. It all depends on your needs.