Photo caption: My home launch site along the Hudson River.
I’m going to go on a bit of a rant. Bear with me. Has anyone noticed how delicate stand up paddleboards are? For a thing designed to conquer the water, they can barely touch anything. Maybe it’s because most boards are constructed for beaches. Practically every manufacturer’s website shows their boards on pristine beaches with smooth sand stretching as far as the eye can see. I don’t know about you, but that isn’t my home waters. It’s a riverbank lined with rocks, stones, and cement, perfect terrain to crunching and mangling a SUP. And it’s not just me; many, many SUPers are paddling on lakes and rivers, launching from concrete boat ramps and docks. And these boards are getting dinged, cracked, smashed, and dented.
Durability of Stand Up Paddleboards
Does the industry care? The answer is, mostly, no. Most SUPs have the same sandwich construction. You’ve got a foam core sandwiched inside one or more layers of a hard skin, usually PVC or carbon. To be fair, this construction is fine for normal use, if you define normal as a sandy beach. But lots of us don’t live near perfect coastlines, which means we have to constantly make sure our SUPs don’t touch anything — anything — which is impossible, of course. Over the years I’ve perforated an Exocet without even feeling a thing. I’ve crushed the nose of an Amundson. I’ve also holed NSPs, cracked a Cabrinha, and dented BICs. All in a day’s paddle — and these are “tough” brands. This happens so often I don’t even bother to put away my repair kit. My question is, should this be normal? Should you have to repair your boards on a regular basis?
Part of the problem is that most SUP companies are coastal. They were surfboard or windsurfer manufacturers before the SUP craze. From their experience, sandwich construction is pretty good. And they’re right, from that perspective, and it explains why there are few really tough boards. And by tough, I mean able to take an impact with a rock at cruising speed without denting. If it can’t do that, then I say the board isn’t tough. Of course, all manufacturers advertise their boards as either “tough” or “durable” or “made-to-last”. Uh, huh. I’m a teacher, and this talk reminds me of when my suburban students boast about their toughness, yet barely know how to cross an actual city street. (Reminds me of that old T-shirt “Welcome to Brooklyn, where the weak are killed and eaten!” — I’m from Brooklyn, BTW.) When a manufacturer says a board is “durable”, those words should be worth more than a pile of pixels. It should mean the board can take some real abuse.
There’s the argument too that you should just take your dings and go on with it. That’s certainly what a rude Exocet salesman told me. I would argue that this isn’t serving paddler’s needs. If people want lightweight, fragile boards, fine. That option is there. But what about those of us who need tough boards, a cruiser you can actually “cruise” on without worrying?
Durable stand up paddleboards do exist. Imagine makes some excellent plastic rides. (They even experimented with some full-sized cruising models, which never went into production.) Tower makes a very tough 10’6” board. There’s even a company called Bounce which specializes in tough hard boards. Unfortunately, all of their models are geared toward beginner riders, which I am not. There’s nary a 12’6” or fourteen footer in the bunch. BIC makes some tough boards, and their 12’6” Wing is probably the closest thing out there to a tough cruiser, but why aren’t there more? Maybe it’s because SUP manufacturers are emphasizing lightweight construction? Very durable boards tend to be heavy, but so what? Weight isn’t everything, I’d be happy for a heavy board that I don’t have to constantly baby.
There are durable, hard SUPs designed for river running. Unfortunately these are the paddleboard version of whitewater kayaks, tough, maneuverable, and tiny. I like tough and maneuverable part, but not so much the tiny. If this is construction is so great, let’s build some full-sized SUPs. News flash: most people don’t want to run rapids, but they might want something that tough! I’ll even take a cruiser in plastic. As for the weight of that, I’m not winning any races anyway, so let’s drop the pretense.
Are Inflatable SUPs the Answer?
I know. I know. There’s an solution to this: inflatable SUPs. They can do all of the things I want, and there even some great cruiser models. So maybe an inflatable is in my future? Could be, but I do like the stiffness of a hard board. I want something that can slide off my roof rack and get in the water inside of five minutes. (When you have three children, leisure time tends to come in small chunks.) I’m also scared as hell of puncturing one. Much of where I paddle is a post-industrial landscape. That means besides rocks and concrete, we have twisted metal, glass, and slag poking out of water so murky a swimmer can’t see their hands. Not a joke — I’ve tested the water myself. Maybe I’m just paranoid too. I don’t know. If someone wants to prove me wrong, I’m happy to be proven wrong.
I wonder if the industry might consider a toughness values. A “5” means it can take serious impacts. A “1” would be a super light racing hull which is making that weight/sturdiness trade-off. A “3” could be a typical sandwich construction. That would give us paddlers a better idea if our new ride is a tank or an eggshell. This is a dream, most likely. Nobody wants to advertise their board as “fragile”, even if it is. But at the very least, the industry should take this issue seriously. It’s time to stop always emphasizing weight and performance, and maybe focus more on strength. Not everyone wants a Ferrari; some of us just want a Honda. Me, I want my stand up paddleboard to last, not win races. I want to trust it can take me into the wilds and bring me back home. Is that too much to ask?