Whitewater stand up paddleboarding (SUP) is gradually becoming mainstream on Class II and III rivers around the world. This winter there were some great debates in the Whitewater SUP facebook group so I asked the experts to weigh in on the hottest topics.
Ian Smith – SurfSUP Adventures (Pittsburg, PA)
Dan Gavere – SUP Instruction (Hood River, OR)
Corran Addison – Owner of Corran Addison Paddleboards (San Clemente, CA)
Taylor Robertson – Werner Paddles Athlete (Chico, CA)
Tim Thornton – River Drifters (Hood River, OR)
Mike Tavares – Athlete, Team Manager, and Events Manager for Boardworks and Badfish (Richmond, VA)
1. Do you prefer plastic or inflatable boards?
Ian: I absolutely prefer high-quality inflatables to any other board for whitewater. Their durability, lightweight and performance in steep, critical whitewater is essential.
Gavere: I prefer inflatable over plastic for whitewater because of the lightweight to durability ratio.
Corran: Plastic by far. The two main reasons are that the inflatable boards have a springy feel to them that tends to buck you off – even the most stiff ones do this to a degree. Secondly the plastic slides across rocks while the PVC sticks – so each time you contact a rock you go flying off the board. As the ONLY manufacturer to make BOTH inflatable and plastic, my opinion is very unbiased as I’m quite happy to sell either, but the plastic is hands down better. The only “negative” is that our board weighs 43lbs (compared to about 35lbs for most inflatable boards). While this is almost 20-30% lighter than other plastic boards on the market, its still heavier than inflatable. However at $789 its also 50% cheaper than an inflatable which is significant!
Taylor: I prefer inflatable as they just have not figured out how to make plastic boards light enough. Inflatable boards are also nicer to fall on.
Tim: Both. Inflatable for downriver whitewater and hard board for surfing. They are kinda like a creek boat vs a playboat. Sure the playboat (plastic SUP) can go downriver but its difficult and not nearly as enjoyable.
Mike T: For whitewater, I choose a mixture of inflatable and epoxy with our sharkksin plastic on it. I like having the performance and response of a hard board when I am paddling hard whitewater and for river surfing, but also use my inflatables quite a bit when I want a board that is easy to transport and a bit lighter.
2. What’s your favorite board for whitewater?
Ian: My favorite board for running rivers and creeking is the new ULI Boards Zettian. This is a board Rob Mazzetti and I designed for running steep runs like the Top Yough and Paint Creek. We are just about to cap prototype tests in the next month or so and the board will be available to the public. It absolutely excels in everything from steep and technical creeking runs to high-volume river running.
Gavere: My favorite board for whitewater is definitely my Starboard Stream Board. For my style and the type of whitewater I enjoy paddling it has the perfect design.
Corran: That’s tough because it depends on use – for hard whitewater – pushing limits, nothing compares to the Streetfighter. It’s a whole class easier than the next best board in ease and forgiveness. Class 4 on it feels like class 3 compared to other boards. But for technical paddling – zippy slalom style on easier rivers – the SL350 is really amazing. I’ve been enjoying paddling that tremendously.
Taylor: I really could not pick a favorite as of yet. I like Uli Boards and the new Dan Gavere Starboard. Having the right paddle is equally as critical, the new Werner Session works great.
Tim: Gavere’s Starboard Stream hands down
Mike T: My all time favorite board for river running is the Badfish MVP 9.0. It’s got a great shape that is very different than other whitewater boards out there. It paddles through whitewater with amazing response and control. It also has good surfing ability for catching waves on the fly as you are cruising down the river.
3. What’s your favorite board for river surfing?
Ian: My favorite board for river surfing is the ULI Boards 8’4″ Mini Quad. What I like best about it is its ability to cross-over and adapt in almost any scenario. The rigidity and shape of the board makes it an ultra-high performance board that surfs amazing and can also be paddled down-river on the best play runs. I also routinely surf this board in ocean swells and it performs incredible there. If I had to choose a single board for all the types of paddling I love, this board is it.
Gavere: My favorite board for River surfing is my 9’6″ Stream Board because most the best river wave surfing I find is during a river run and it’s my river runner board. For park and play I really like the 7’11″x30″ surf series by Starboard.
Corran: The Static. I lived in montreal for 12 years and surfed there for 8. I really have the design nailed for river surfing shapes, and the Static is mind blowing, no question. Its shape is perfect for the dive and turning needed on river waves.
Taylor: I have been using the Badfish River Surfer quite a bit. It has the volume that is required to keep me on the wave as well as execute arial moves and flatspin 360’s.
Mike T: The Badfish 6.11 River Surfer is my go to river surfer. It has a unique volume profile and rocker that allows it to surf just about any wave on the river. It allows you to surf river waves without the feeling of being bogged down or stuck to the water and the rocker profile makes it easier not to pearl, which is the classic problem on the river.
4. Fins or no fins?
Ian: Fins all the way.
Gavere: I enjoy paddling my boards without fins often so I spend about 50 percent of my time paddling down rivers with fins in about 50 percent of my time paddling down rivers without them I like the feel of a board without fins but I also enjoy the tracking in the speed you get out of a board with the fins.
Corran: Neither – skeg. With a tail skeg it becomes a non discussion. The opposition to fins is they snag and trip you up and you fall. But they provide drive and tracking. My skeg system offers both worlds – the ability to track and drive the board, and the same forgiveness of no fin. So I don’t have to make that decision.
Taylor: No fins for smaller rivers under 1,000 cfs. Although it makes paddling harder it sure beats catching a fin and landing on your face. Helps to develop your paddling technique as well.
Tim: Fins all the way
Mike T: I always use fins. No matter what river I am on, I have always been able to use fins. I have a number of different fin sizes that I have cut down between 7 to 1 inches. For me, there is no reason to sacrifice the control and precision that you get by having fins in your board. Plastic fins allow you to use them in almost any situation. FCS has some great options for the river!
5. What safety equipment do you use?
Ian: For safety gear, my PFD, helmet, and knee pads are a constant. I almost never wear a leash unless I am running huge volume or surfing a very safe, high volume wave. On steep creek runs I suit up with knee, shin, hip, and elbow pads. I try to keep it light though to maintain mobility. I like G-form pads but add hard shell knee pads for added impacts.
Gavere: On more difficult runs I carry a waist belt with a throw bag attached to it which I feel is the best safety kit for stand up paddling as a first line of defense. Here’s what I suggest:
- Astral PFD Green Jacket
- Fcs Coil leash with rails saver
- WRSI helmet
- Astral river shoes
- Poc Knee shin pads
- Starboard Tiki tech Enduro 2 PC paddle
Corran: I’m a major fan of being safe. I use a full face helmet in all but the most mundane conditions. You fall from high, and fast, on a SUP, and your face is always the first thing to hit the water. My life jacket is long (not a kayak jacket) and covers my kidneys and hip bones. My spine is protected by a plastic pine guard, and the top of the jacket covers my clavicle. I wear knee and shin guards too (G form are a great option), and the Body Glove Dynamo boots because they offer foot protection, and grip while scouting, whithout increasing standing height on the board, and they drain quickly. And I ALWAYS ALWAYS wear a leash! You’re safest on the board, not swimming next to it, but it MUST be a safe, waist leash with several quick release points AND several break away points.
Taylor: My safety equipment includes lots of padding (knee, shin and ankle), good pfd and of course a helmet.
Tim: I tend to not wear pads when surfing (other than a wetsuit which does provide a bit of padding). A leash good depending on location, and I wear an ankle leash when surfing not the waist leash.
Mike T: Coming from a background in whitewater, I always try and be as safe as possible and plan for anything on the river. Here is what I always paddle with:
- WRSI Helmet
- Astral Green Jacket or YTF PFD
- Throw Bag, River Knive, Whistle
- G-Form Knee, Elbow, Compression pads
- When paddling downriver, I try and paddle with a drybag that includes a med kit, small pin kit, and extra food/water/phone, etc.
6. What’s your favorite river for SUP?
Ian: If I were forced to choose a favorite river I would say the Stonycreek River because of the diversity of paddling there. It has a steep, creeky gorge section in the headwaters, an amazing canyon with unlimited play and river running in the middle, and a surf park at the takeout.
Gavere: My favorite river for SUP? I think that would be the Hood River just because I get to do it so often and it’s so close to where I live.
Corran: Thats tough – so many – I end up on the Kern most because its close, but I have WW SUP paddled all over the world and its all good.
Tim: Whitewater = Hood River, Surfing = Deschutes River (but I still need to go do Wenatchee where surfing is abundant)
Mike T: That’s s tough one, but some of my favorites are the Arkansas River, Gauley River, and Colorado River.
7. Any final thoughts about whitewater SUP?
Ian: It is going to be amazing to see what happens to the sport in the next few years. We are just starting to scratch the surface of techniques and I can’t wait to see what the next generation of paddlers brings to the river.
Gavere: Stand up paddling in whitewater is super fun but there’s some basic precautions that every person that wants to get into it should be aware of. Please take a lesson and learn as much as you can about basic River safety and hazards before ever attempting white water on a stand up paddle board. Your local paddling shop or white water shop will be your best place to start as a resource. The progression of the sport of stand up paddling is unreal and I can only imagine what we will be doing in 5 or 10 years.
Corran: It’s really easy and really safe if you use the right equipment. SUP offers a fantastic change for people who have been kayaking the same river for ages – it makes those boring runs exciting again – it make a river challenging without having to run something dangerous. It bring back all those sensations and feelings that excited you when you first learned to paddle – all over again.
Taylor: The river will always win that is why proper instruction and eduction is the key to success. There is no substitute for experience, reading the river has to be earned. I can’t wait to see where this sport goes. The potential to run harder rapids and pull off bigger tricks on waves is endless.
Mike T: Whitewater is still an endless and untapped resource for SUP. It provides any type of adventure and challenge that you are up for. Start small and you will be surprised at how much fun river paddle is.
We’d love to hear your thoughts by commenting below!