SUPs gaining popularity in Tampa Bay

If you’ve been anywhere near the water in the last few months, you’ve probably seen one.

They look like long surfboards, and the rider relies on a paddle, not a wave, to get around. They’re called stand up paddleboards, and they are coming to a bayou, lake, river or bay near you.

Local retailers can’t keep stand up paddleboards, or SUPs, on the racks. In some places, they are even outselling kayaks.

Their success stems, perhaps, from their appeal to both adventure seekers and the fitness buffs. In the last year alone, paddleboard sales have doubled nationally, according to a recent Transworld Business report. In the Tampa Bay area, specialty retailers are reporting sales far exceeding the national average.

Brody Welte, who owned Stand Up Fitness in St. Petersburg before relocating his company to California, said his business has tripled each of the past three years.

Welte’s company, which focuses on the health benefits of exercising on a paddleboard, said the appeal to the fitness crowd is a big part of the sport’s success, especially in a light of Americans’ expanding waistlines.

“The fitness industry is unique,” he said. “It’s a complete failure, but it’s still a thriving industry.”

Welte is a big name in the SUP world. He learned the sport from the two men who introduced it to the beaches of Hawaii in the mid-­‐1980s, Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama. He runs the Gulf Coast SUP Championship at Madeira Beach, which is the regional qualifier for the national championship, and his paddleboard program was recently picked up for inclusion in the Special Olympics.

In his races, he’s seen attendance go up every year. This year, roughly 200 racers competed, some participating in a grueling 9-­‐mile heat.

That’s a big number considering this sport was virtually unheard of just four years ago.

Russell Farrow, “owner and toilet cleaner” of Sweetwater Kayaks in St. Pete, remembers a paddleboard race three years ago that had only one contestant. The next year, there were 15, and last year, there were 40.

While he didn’t adopt the sport as early as Welte, he saw a precursor to the paddleboard more than a decade ago.

“The first time I saw someone do it was in the late 90’s – although it was a guy on a wind surf board with a canoe paddle,” he said.

The sport’s appeal is due in part to the paddleboards positive reputation and association with surf culture.

“Surfing has always had a hip, cool crowd. Paddleboarding from the start was hip and cool too,” he said. 

Still others find the appeal to be in the paddleboard’s flexibility. While the calm coastal waters of Tampa Bay seem a natural place to paddle, thriving communities of paddlers have developed in the Northeast, around Lake Tahoe and up and down the West Coast.

Some stand up paddleboarders use their boards to surf, others have taken them to springs and lakes and a small but growing number of thrill seekers have taken their boards on whitewater rivers.

Fishing, photographing and canine companions aren’t unusual either.

“I have a 12-­‐foot board, and I take my 95-­‐pound German shepherd out on it,” Farrow said.

Michael Schenker, the kayak manager for Bill Jackson’s in St. Petersburg, has watched as stand up paddleboards have changed his industry.

At the outdoor sports tradeshow held annually in Salt Lake City, Schenker has seen the growth of the SUP industry from the production side.

“Three years are, there were just a few companies making them. The next year, there were 10 or 15. This past year, it just went crazy,” he said.

Some weeks during the summer, Bill Jackson’s sold more stand up paddleboards than kayaks, not an easy feat in an area where kayaks have long been established as the dominant weekend adventure sport.

The paddleboard crowd, though, isn’t what some would expect. In the Tampa Bay area, the average paddleboarder is between 30 and 50 years old and is a likely a woman, although by a slim majority, Farrow said.

Having a little bit of money makes it easier it to get into the sport as well. Bill Jackson’s carries 15 different models, ranging from $700 for a beginner board to upwards of $1,300 for a premium racing board, Schenker said.

They’re not cheap, but they are a one-­‐ time investment, and that may be helping their growth, Schenker said.

“When the economy is bad, we actually do better. No matter what, people want to spend money, and they’re not going to Europe or buying that $30,000 powerboat, but they can afford a paddleboard.”



  1. Oh, man! I saw those all around Seattle this summer, too!

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