It was the first time I’d floated a paddleboard on the Gulf of Mexico, and very carefully, I paddled past the near-shore chop, past the two bright emerald stripes that signify the first and second sandbars, before coming to the gentle swell and richer blue of the deeper water beyond. As I turned to cruise east along the coast, with a friend paddling a dozen yards behind, I noticed two gray shapes approaching from the opposite direction. Six feet long, sleek, and gray, they might have been tarpon, but were probably dolphins.
Excited, I pointed and shouted to my friend, “Dolphins!” He promptly fell off his board, and even more quickly scrambled back on. The dolphins (if that’s what they were) seemed neither curious nor particularly perturbed, turning away only a few compass points to the south, but otherwise continuing their traverse of the coast.
When I tell him my story, Scott Elder, a sponsored paddleboard racer who has competed all along the Gulf Coast, is not surprised. “You see everything. Obviously we have very clear water in the Gulf, but also because you’re standing up 5 or 6 feet above the water – depending on your height – and if you’re wearing polarized glasses you can see exactly what’s out there.”
From a technical standpoint, the beauty of stand up paddleboaring (SUP), then, is twofold: First, the elevated position provides superior visibility into the water – You have a better angle to see the fish and marine life that you might miss from the seated position of a kayak. Secondly, it’s terrific exercise. Even on a calm day you’ll be continuously using the small balance muscles that aren’t called upon when you’re seated. Proper paddling form is essential for speed, but even once you’ve mastered the basics of form and balance you’ll still be putting your core to work every time you go out, especially if you paddle out into the Gulf of Mexico.
“Paddleboarding hits every muscle in your body, from your toes – literally – all the way up to your neck. It hits your core, your neck, your shoulders, your forearms, hands…everything. And once you create your balance you can do pushups on a board, you can do sit-ups on a board, you can do squats on a board.
“A lot of people don’t understand, but when you stand on a paddleboard you’re standing on liquid, so you’re never going to be still. No matter how calm a day it is, you’re always going to be adjusting, so you’re activating every muscle, whether you’re paddling or not.”
It may not be the most efficient way to move across the water, but it’s accessible to nearly anyone, fun to try in calm water and surf swells, and a great way to spend a day cruising atop some of the prettiest water found anywhere in the world.
If you’re thinking of going out, Scott recommends picking a calm day, and even then you should still be a strong swimmer. In Rosemary Beach you can rent a paddleboard at Walkover E, where there’s a hut that rents paddleboards and kayaks by the day or by the hour during favorable weather conditions.
And that workout? You’ll feel it in your muscles, but that’s not all. “Paddleboarding for me is basically, a way to get mentally in tune,” Scott says. “Being on the water is just natural, and it’s something I need to do for other people to be able to stand being around me. If I’m off the water for too long, my wife will send me out! She knows me pretty well.”