Stand Up Paddle Boarding: Summer’s Coolest Sport


This time of year, the Chicago lakefront bursts with runners, cyclists, swimmers, triathletes and kayakers. But if you want a unique way to experience the water or refresh your workout routine this summer, try one of the newest sports on Lake Michigan: stand up paddle boarding.


Reported by The Outdoor Foundation as 2013’s most popular outdoor activity among first-time participants, stand up paddle boarding combines surfing and kayaking on an over-sized surfboard. Originating with ancient Polynesian cultures, SUP as a sport exploded onto the scene in Hawaii 15 years ago. It spread to California and beyond, arriving in Chicago around 2005 when Dave Olson of Kayak Chicago decided to add SUP classes and rentals to its kayak rental business at Montrose Beach. In 2009, Ian Jacobson, owner of Chicago SUP, opened the area’s first exclusively SUP business at North Avenue Beach.


“I grew up on Lake Michigan,” Jacobson says. “After discovering SUP on a trip to Hawaii, I brought it back to Chicago as a way to catch waves on smaller days. Instantly a light went off in my head that this would be something people would enjoy doing on flat water as well. Within a month I had a business up and running with six boards. This year we will have over 60. Initially we used to have clients from Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, even Ohio, as we were the only dedicated stand up paddle boarding operation in the Midwest at that time.”


Newcomers to the sport like SUP because of its short learning curve and low impact nature. Don’t let those qualities fool you, though. SUP primarily requires balance, and as such provides a total body workout.


“Paddling correctly is a learned skill which involves paddling with your entire core and back,” Michael “Westy” Westenberger of the Chicago Paddle Company explains. “It’s a rotational movement. We always say the best paddlers paddle from their toes to their shoulders. Throw in an unstable surface and you add balance, too.”


SUP appeals to a wide range of participants, from elite athletes to those who just want to have fun. Those looking for competition can choose from a plethora of races throughout the United States. Races often cover between four and nine miles and require both endurance and sprinting energies. Races usually have either a water start or a beach start, which involve paddlers sprinting to the water’s edge with board in hand. Racecourses follow a series of loops involving multiple buoy turns, which keeps paddlers in front of spectators, trace the perimeter of a lake or follow a simple out and back format. Race directors determine the course design, which often highlights the strengths of the local area.


Those interested in local SUP competition have plenty of options. Chicago Kayak teamed up with BIC Sports to provide the BIC One Design Series each Sunday morning at Montrose Beach. These 10-minute sprint races follow four-buoy format courses that change weekly. Each heat produces a winner who moves on to a final race that day. The winner of the final race takes first place for the day. Event winners then qualify for the worldwide circuit’s final race in September at a location yet to be determined by BIC.


Chicago SUP, located on the beach at North Avenue, also hosts many competitions. From Aug. 8 to 10, some of the world’s top professional paddlers will come to North Ave. for the Chicago World Paddle Challenge, a Stand Up World Series event, to compete for a $20,000 prize purse. The unique format of this event allows amateur racers to line up side by side and compete in the same field as top pros.


Those looking to SUP for a cause can consider the True North Treks race for cancer survivors on July 27 at Montrose Beach. For triathletes looking for a change of pace, some triathlons now offer a SUP component in place of the swim. For instance, Leon’s Triathlon, which takes place annually in Hammond, Indiana, added its first SUP division last year.


The recent popularity of SUP ultimately lies in its adaptability, and variations abound. You don’t have to take a class in order to rent a SUP, but it never hurts to learn proper technique. Along the Chicago area beaches, several SUP outfitters provide a range of opportunities for learning, practicing and socializing with SUP. They offer beginning, intermediate and advanced classes for kids and adults alike for $35 to $50 per class, equipment rental by the hour, passes or memberships. Each outfitter also has its own beautiful view of the city.


“Everyone, regardless of their level of expertize, will ‘ah’ at the most majestic views of Chicago’s glorious skyline from our vantage point,” John Gibbs, founder of Chicago Paddle Rentals at the 31st Street Harbor, says.


Many outfitters along Lake Michigan also feature guided expeditions and unique offerings that blend yoga, Pilates or fitness workouts while using the floating SUP board as a base.


“SUP Yoga is basically as it sounds, yoga postures practiced on a stand up paddle board,” Mary Lou Cerami, a certified yoga and SUP instructor working for Chicago S.U.P Yoga, says. “The paddleboard makes a perfect yoga mat. It’s wide, stable and challenging, yet suitable for all levels, beginners included. I teach a progression of yoga and balance techniques that get everyone comfortable on their boards quickly and effectively. From the start, you learn how to correctly stand up on your board, paddle in a straight line as well as turn and maneuver your board in any direction. It’s part of every class I teach. The more comfortable you are, the more poses we can try. Every class is different and tailored to each unique group I teach.”


Cerami’s classes take place at Kayak Chicago’s Montrose Beach location.


As a competitive sport, a fitness routine and a recreational pastime, SUP has a lot to offer. Whichever facet of the sport appeals to you, the area’s beachfront SUP outlets can certainly meet your needs. The next time the sunlight glitters on those blue Lake Michigan waves, give this fun and exciting sport a try.


For more information on classes, competitions, expeditions, social paddles, private groups and board repair and storage, visit the following websites:; or its SUP-specific website:;;;