Expert advice: World champion Kai Lenny on how to become a paddleboard pro
by Zoe Dickens
Every superyacht worth its salt now has at least one or two stand-up paddleboards stashed in its toy box but, if you’d rather avoid looking like a novice in front of your guests, what do you need to know to hone your skills and become a paddleboard pro? Zoe Dickens talks to Kai Lenny, six-time world stand-up paddleboard champion and Tag Heuer ambassador, to find out…
The most important thing is safety and making sure you have a leash round your ankle and maybe a life jacket on. It’s super important because, firstly, if you get separated from your board the leash will prevent you losing it, and secondly, it’s good to have something because you never know what might happen and you want to be prepared for the worst. You need to have a good safety plan if you’re paddling in the ocean. If the wind is coming strong from one direction, you’ve got to know that you can paddle back to your boat.
Choose your moment
My ideal conditions are 50ft waves but I would say for 99% of people that stand-up paddle the perfect conditions are dead flat water and warm weather. Go with the wind and have your boat follow you. We call it downwinding – the light wind creates little waves and, even if you’re not a surfer, you can catch these swells and it’s really fun and an incredible workout. It’s sort of like mountain biking downhill except it’s water around you so you’re not going to fly into a tree or hit anything.
Saying that, the cool thing about stand-up is that, once you get good enough, in the winter months when it’s really cold you don’t even have to change your warm clothes. You can ride in what you might wear on a bicycle with just a pair of neoprene booties to keep your feet warm and paddle all day long and be totally fine. I love the sport because of how well-rounded it is. There’s no condition that you couldn’t stand-up paddle in.
Practice makes perfect
Honestly the best thing to do as a beginner is go on YouTube and search ‘proper paddle stroke’ because that makes a total difference. Anyone can get on a board and paddle no problem but if you want to get a little more proficient developing a good technique with your arms straight and using your body as a hinge at the waist makes a tremendous difference. The beauty about stand-up paddling is the more time you spend on the water, the more comfortable you’ll get.
If you’re not on a boat or by water, a workout that maintains good balance will help the next time you go on a stand-up. Weight training won’t necessarily help as much as a workout with movement because stand-up paddling requires good balance while the strength it needs is more like a full body workout. Get on a rower and do more aerobic exercises.
Find the right board
The most important thing is making sure that you have a board that’s not too small for you. A lot of the brand websites offer advice on choosing based on your weight in proportion to the board but I would say, no matter what, a good-sized board to start on is something with a rounder shape that’s wide and stable. Probably 10 to 12 feet long and 30 inches wide. If you decide to get a hard composite or carbon board the same rules apply. However, if you’re on a boat the inflatables are amazing because you can deflate and store them easily but they’re also really versatile.
Go to school
If you want to get good at anything it’s nice to have some guidance from people who know what they’re doing. There really is a difference when you get proper technique and it just makes your experience on the water way more fun because you’re not struggling and if the conditions do get a little rough you can hold your own. If you purchase a board from a SUP surf shop they typically give lessons as well. I think the best way to do it is to find a shop near you that carries the board you’re interested and find out if they offer lessons.
Find a local competition
Stand-up paddling is similar to running in the sense that you can enter a marathon and compete with the pros. You’re not necessarily racing to win the whole thing but you might win your division and there are also fun competitive amateur races. I’m pretty sure almost every country now has a SUP race so it can be as easy as googling to find the right one for you. You’re doing it with a bunch of other people and there’s nothing more fun than feeling like you’re part of a community and everyone’s stoked and having a good time. If you seek out to get better, then paddling with better paddlers is going to help you improve without a doubt.
If you don’t want to race then paddling can also be great as a form of transport. I’m from Hawaii so I appreciate being able to paddle through European cities and see them from a water perspective. I come from a place where it’s not nearly as crowded so seeing cities from the water is a lot more peaceful and calmer.
Kai Lenny wears a Tag Heuer Aquaracer Calibre 5 timepiece with blue opaline dial and rubber strap, £2,050, tagheuer.co.uk.