The Origin Story of Stand-Up Paddleboards

Standup paddleboarding or SUP, is a method of self-propulsion on a floating platform using a paddle or pole back thousands of years in several continents. Evidence suggests that stand-up paddling has existed in some form or another for millennia. Ancient civilizations from Africa to South America used boards, canoes, and other watercraft driven by a long stick to fish, travel, wage battle, and even ride the crests of waves. Warriors in regions of Africa stood up in dugout canoes and paddled into enemy territory with their spears as paddles, allowing them to move undetected. SUP, on the other hand, has an intriguing history. 

It’s difficult to say when modern stand-up paddling initially started. Nobody knows who “invented” paddleboarding or who was the first person to paddleboard or the first person to ride a floating platform with the help of a paddle or pole. Modern-day paddle boarding initially gained popularity in Hawaii and California.


standing fisherman on a boat, sea

Its origins can be traced back to Peru, about 3000 years ago. Peruvian fishermen rode the waves in Chan Chan on “caballitos de totora” or “small horses made of reed,” which are incredibly volatile reed crafts commonly used for fishing. Peruvians surfed the waves while standing up, using a bamboo staff as a paddle to provide both sport and entertainment for the crowds after a long day fishing. 


The gondola was utilized as a stand-up conveyance throughout Italy in the 1400s. Gondoliers guided the gondolas through the flowing waters with an oar rather than a pole. While not exactly “surfing,” this form predates SUP and is an early example of standing up paddling.


Israelis and Arabians used a board-boat hybrid called Hasake to surf Tel Aviv in the 8th century AD. Hasake was initially used for fishing, but its 5-foot breadth, which can accommodate a struggling surfer, made it useful in rescue attempts.


monument of Capt. James Cook, a British explorer, first stand-up paddleboarder

You may be aware that ancient Polynesians were among the world’s first actual surfers. Captain James Cook, a British explorer, became the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands on January 18, 1778, sailing past Oahu and landing on the island of Kauai. He realized that the native Polynesians loved to surf; it was an essential part of their culture. The Chief was typically the most skilled wave rider, and he also owned the best board constructed of the finest wood. Due to the immense size of the chief’s board, which might be more than 15 feet long, a paddle was sometimes employed to navigate into the waves. Not only did the Polynesians invent surfing, but they were also the first stand-up paddleboarders!


single paddleboard, red and white in color, white sand

Even though SUP didn’t blow up in 1778, modern-day paddle surfing was born in Hawaii once more. According to folklore, only three men stood up paddling in the 1950s and 1960s: Waikiki surf instructors Duke Kahanamoku and Leroy and Bobby Ah Choy. Duke was a world-famous swimmer, surfer, and Olympic Gold Medalist. Leroy and Bobby have watched their father, John “Pops” Ah Choy, who has a knee ailment, stand up on a giant surfboard with kneepads and a hardhat, paddling with a large kayak paddle. Duke and Pops’ two sons looked for a better way to shoot their surf students while keeping their cigarettes dry. With cameras hanging around their necks and smokes attached to their arms, they were inspired by old man Pops, and stand-up paddling was born.


flag of United States, waving flag

Laird Hamilton, a well-known big-wave surfer, began SUPing as a means to train when the surf was flat. Laird was surfing in a six-foot swell in Malibu, California, in September 2002 while wielding a paddle adorned with a massive American flag.

Few people realized what he was up to, but it was evident he was reintroducing Stand Up Paddle Boarding to the world, and the world was paying attention. While surfing had become a global phenomenon, it was in desperate need of innovation. Paddleboarding took off after surf mags photographed Laird Hamilton with his SUP and an American flag.


Stand Up Paddleboarding, man in black SUP attire, ocean

We can’t discuss the history of SUP without acknowledging Rick Thomas. Even though Laird Hamilton initiated the SUP revolution, it wasn’t until Rick Thomas returned a modern SUP from Hawaii to California in 2004 that the sport took off. Rick Thomas had a paddle explicitly constructed for his 11-foot Munoz surfboard. The viewers in California had never seen anything like this before, and they were astounded. If Hamilton was the spark that lit the fire, Thomas was the gasoline.

Stand Up Paddling gained popularity almost immediately: paddlers no longer needed to be near an ocean to enjoy the sensation of a board beneath their feet. SUP can be done on any body of water – flat, with waves, without waves, and rivers. Furthermore, stand-up paddle surfing breathed new vitality into surfing. You can now paddle off congested surf breaks and into a less well-known wave or break to paddle surf in peace.

Stand Up Paddle Boarding has seized off over the United States, Europe, Australia, and Asia. Not only is recreational SUP an excellent alternative to canoeing or kayaking, but new SUP activities are emerging, including SUP racing, SUP fishing, SUP surfing, SUP yoga, and SUP white water paddling. The sport’s surfing history, combined with its diverse disciplines, makes it appealing and accessible to anyone, regardless of ability.