Stand-up paddleboarding
Not the author: a SUP junkie off Sydney

SUP Dude

Masochistic surf kook bent on taming very large stand-up paddleboard seeks Graveyard of the Atlantic for island-linking expedition entirely at whim of wind and waves.

Stand-up paddleboarding
Bucky McMahon

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THERE'S TREPIDATION, just a bracing shot, as I shove off from the muddy tip of Ocracoke, the southernmost barrier island in North Carolina's Outer Banks. While an extravagant 11 feet six inches long, my stand-up paddleboard always seems even more capacious in my imagination, a houseboat to be outfitted with a lounge chair and wet bar. But as I bend to my seven-foot paddle, my feet working for equilibrium, the shore recedes and the SUP suddenly assumes its true dimensions, insignificant in the vastness of Pamlico Sound—and pretty darn tippy with sharks about.

But that's just anxiety short-circuiting the mind-feet relationship. I'm a beginner, but I know this much: SUPs respond to every ripple; you just have to talk back with your toes. Relax and the motion becomes caressing, addictive, the board an extension of the feet, the paddle an extension of the hands, the whole a harmonious unit standing tall and making good time. That's the theory, anyway.

Pamlico is ripping right along at about five knots, disorienting to watch—unbalancing, even—while perched atop an oversize surfboard. Happily, the flow is going more or less my way. I seem to float in place while the globe spins under my feet, sea grass thrashing as if in a tempest, sprats and rays and crawling things bolting at my approach. The SUP nods its nose agreeably, kissing off the velvet wakes of unseen vessels, and I find my rhythm, poling yet deeper into the early-morning fog, leisurely dipping my paddle now and again to correct my course. I hope. The fog obscures the land, but this feels like northeast, and over that way lie Cape Hatteras and the Diamond Shoals: the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

I've launched at first light to make a two-mile crossing of the Hatteras Inlet and then paddle on some ten miles up the seaward coast of Hatteras Island, where bigger waves roll. I may have a paddle, but I'm a surfer, and I want to see what this brute can do. I'm on the first leg of a six-day solo trip: Ocracoke to the great sand dunes of Nags Head, about 70 miles total, in and around the natural amusements of 30,320-acre Cape Hatteras National Seashore. I'll admit to being a little spooked by Pamlico's immensity, under cover of fog, and the many unknowns: wind, currents, lightning, and, especially, my competence.

What I had in mind, in my pre-trip fantasizing, was a nautical update of the classic TV western—Maverick, say, or Cheyenne—with my SUP as seafaring horse. All I'd need, really, was my trusty paddle, a canteen, and a drybag. Riding from beach town to beach town, I'd change lives and learn shit. Come August, I strapped my 45-pound paddleboard to the roof of my truck and headed up from my home, outside Tallahassee, Florida, to the Outer Banks, where I hadn't been since a memorable teenage surf trip 30-odd years ago. Exposed as they are to deeper water and every whim of weather, the Outer Banks are the likeliest place on the East Coast to find summer surf, offering endless uncrowded beach breaks and a string of little towns, each about a day's paddle from the last.

So far, so good on the shakedown cruise. The drybag, bungeed to the foredeck, isn't slowing me down a bit. I'm comfortably balanced, pivoting at the hips to put my whole upper body into the strokes, and have started looking forward to some sort of trouble. Will powerful currents sweep me miles out to sea? Just let 'em try! I'm approaching the issue of tides on a “need to know” basis, and I figure I don't need to know. I have my schedule; they have theirs. More ominous is the beehive pile of black clouds mounting to the north.

A HORN BLAST SOUNDS behind me. I swivel, tottering, nearly falling. Here comes the Hatteras–Ocracoke ferry, with a bellyful of summer tourists and vehicles. I quick-stroke out of the channel and onto the nearby flats, skimming about two feet above a grassy bottom, spooking flatfish. The ferry passes about 300 feet to starboard, and I wave my paddle to a couple of surfers who've solved a thorny logistical problem by volunteering to take my truck across the inlet. We'll rendezvous at the Frisco Pier sometime in the P.M. If I don't show, they'll call the Coast Guard.

Can I paddle all day? I don't know. So much depends on the wind. You want an offshore breeze, however hard it cares to blow, and a tailwind, of course, if you're going somewhere. Well-spaced swells are a hoot, but a little onshore cross-chop can kick novice butt. Falling is part of the game—fun, even, in moderation—but falling repeatedly erodes morale and eventually exhausts. And if the weather and waves do their worst, I plan to just hunker down and hold on, like a barnacle.

Soon, however, the thunderstorm disintegrates and the fog lifts, morning sunlight revealing the tawny shoreline and bright-green buzz cut of Hatteras Island. I've erred on the side of caution, though, and wound up on the Pamlico side. I spy some fishermen near shore and spend a yeomanly half-hour reeling them in. I have some stupid questions to ask.

1. “Is this Hatteras?” It is. Excellent.

2. “Where's the Atlantic?” One of the fishermen points back the way I've come. “That way,” he says, “but it's too far to paddle.”

Too far to paddle?! Dude, it's what—nine o'clock in the morning? Let me check my day planner…Uh-huh: Paddle! So I paddle, following the curve of the shore for an hour or so, until I reach the southern point and see what looks like a series of rapids. Cool! In we go, and the SUP starts to buck under my feet, smacking into little haystacks, plunging into curling, standing waves. The outgoing tide is kicking up about 100 yards of Class II water where the Sound and the sea collide. I bash on, fall, remount, fall again, eventually battle out to open sea (which is startlingly bright), and dance a discombobulating jig. The wind is still pretty light, but it's pointed straight at the shore, three-foot swells hitting me side-on.

In immediate retrospect, it usually seems that you decide to fall, agree to fall, rather than simply just have to. But the radical contortion needed to prevent a fall often outweighs the benefits of not falling, in terms of energy conservation. I paddle on for another hour, averaging a fall every five minutes or so, accumulating abrasions on knees and knuckles. Eventually, with the sun at high noon and a bleary film of salt and exhaustion over my eyes, I hang a left and catch a no-frills whitewater ride to the beach.

I'm sitting on the SUP munching an energy bar and staring out to sea when a Jeep rolls up and the driver hails me. “You just paddled across the inlet?” he says. “That's crazy, man! It's full of sharks!” Then a couple of beachcombers stroll by: “Hey, are you that guy?” Later, after a bit of rest, I return to my recreation, the wind playing nice now, pushing me along with a trailing swell. I see the first few houses of the town of Frisco in the distance, and there's a scattering of surfers, one of whom paddles out to meet me. “Your buddies wanted me to tell you they'll be at the deli. You're the guy who paddled the inlet, right?”

I find my truck near the pier, having stashed the SUP, my drybag on my back, paddle shouldered like a rifle. A towheaded grommet sits perched on a stair rail nearby.

“You're that guy who paddled across the inlet!” he says. “That's so cool.”

I'm kind of a big deal in Frisco.

THAT WAS NOTHING, KID. Just half a day's fun and a helluva good workout. SUP is actually a very old Polynesian tradition, introduced here via Hawaii, where some haole saw instructors of traditional surfers using the big board and paddle to maneuver around and hover over their neophyte crews. But folks like me have come to see the SUP not only as a new way to surf but as maybe the best boat possible, i.e., the least boat possible. As the sport shifts from the fringe, it's going to see some real feats of derring-do. Already, “sweepers” are paddling into some of the world's gnarliest waves, from California's Wedge to Hawaii's outer reefs. Crossover athletes in Kevlar armor are taking to the rivers, standing up to Class III and IV rapids and hucking waterfalls. This past September, big-wave surfer Archie Kalepa bagged the longest-yet SUP descent of the Grand Canyon: 187 miles. And we may soon see some hero cross the Atlantic.

But among us mortals, the steadfast USS SUP brings a fresh challenge to the crap surf we often have to settle for. For me, it's still difficult to pick out a wave, pivot the craft in quick time, and scratch in, but I can see how a proficient SUPer would be able to dominate a break, employing the advantages of perspective, speed, and a deep-water takeoff to cherry-pick the best waves. (At some crowded breaks, sweepers have become the new nuisances, surpassing even the local éminences grises on their standard longboards in the Notorious Wave Hog department.)

I have yet to luck into any great waves, but that's not all I'm here for. It's summer. It's the East Coast. I'm rolling loaded dice. I figure that if a swell chances along, I'll be optimally equipped to avoid the crowd and/or head farther offshore than any belly-flopped hand paddler would venture. Hatteras Island alone offers some 60 miles of beach breaks.

Ocracoke-to-Frisco has proven to me the desirability of the SUP as serious transport. And I now realize that when it comes to paddling, I'll never be as happy in a canoe or kayak as I am standing up. After an hour or so floating on my ass, I just want to get there and stand up. With the SUP, I'm there, somewhere new, always, already, the whole way.

I fetch my board, heave it on top of my head, and make my way to a mom-and-pop motel. I head back out to enjoy a captain's platter of Outer Banks bounty and, shortly thereafter, am sleeping like a dead sailor, hoping for surf on the morrow.

DENIED! IT'S BLOWING HARD on day two—but from the southeast, with crumbly little waves spilling on the shore. Pamlico is the better call. Therein lies the genius of the Hatteras geography: The wind will always be coming from offshore on the other side. And since, except for the actual cape, the island is skinny, crossing it isn't too daunting.

I hop across for the eight miles north to Buxton. It's a dry-hair run: I sail on gusts as much as paddle, listening to tunes on my iPod. About two-thirds of the way there, I find a waterfront restaurant where I can tie up at a little canal dock and nonchalantly take my paddle inside. (Never leave your iron behind.) After lunch, I'm soon in Buxton. Choosing a likely-looking cove, I stash the SUP in a patch of grass and, shouldering my pack and paddle, go in search of lodging.

By the way, I don't recommend this kind of play-it-by-ear expedition if you're looking for convenience. The SUP is a bitch to carry—but, on the brighter side, is just too heavy to steal—and my truck is back in Frisco. I hoof it into Buxton, find a motel across from the lighthouse park, drop off my gear, and jog the seven miles back to Frisco on Highway 12. Thus reunited with my vehicle, I drive to the little cove, muscle the SUP onto the rack, and head to the motel. Come morning, I'll be able to perfectly position myself to tackle Cape Hatteras, the crux of the trip.

On the cutting edge of the continental shelf, Hatteras is one of its farthest points southeast and most embattled outposts. Its shape, resembling some strange and elegant weapon, is what survives of the land after eons of stormy seas. The cold Labrador Current battles the northbound Gulf Stream here. It's never calm.

Day three dawns with an unseasonable northeasterly wind. I head over to the Atlantic side and deposit the truck north of the lighthouse—a popular surf break, when there's surf. I'll round the cape from here, sweeping south. From the very start it's a hard workout. I fight side-on chop, the SUP acting up like a mechanical bull, but I've spent two days on her already, and the Frisco Kid, while no Cheyenne, is already a far better cowboy than when he started.

I take a couple of routine falls as I pull parallel with Hatteras's 140-year-old, 200-foot lighthouse. The SUP's nose buries itself in the chop and the starboard rail rises, trying to spill me, but I fight it, slapping at the water with the flat of my paddle, using it like a pontoon or a tightrope walker's pole. Nevertheless, I go down hard, cracking my jaw on the deck and bloodying my lip. And I haven't even reached the real turbulence yet.

Pride and lip thus bruised, I accept the indignity of getting down on my knees and choking up on my paddle. Soon, I can see the tip of the cape tapering to a very narrow beach, split in half by surging waves. Dozens of tourists are braving the gap, wading across for the privilege of standing on the tip of the tip of the cape, beyond which run amok massed haystacks and weird geysers of spume. I knee-paddle toward that violence until the current seizes me, and then I ride through the maelstrom on my ass, holding on tight, barnacle style.

I END UP ABOUT 100 YARDS south of the cape, right on the border of two vastly different seas—one gone mad and trying to drown all comers, the other a perfectly placid playground. I remount and paddle back north by northwest, to the calm bay side of the cape, which is packed with families day-tripping and fishermen trying their luck. I stand offshore maybe half an hour watching a guy try to land something huge. Everybody else has reeled in to watch, too, and he works his way up and down the curved beach, finally landing a stingray with a six-foot wingspan.

At this strange beak of the island, the wind is onshore one side, offshore the other, making for some perfect little rollers. I ride dozens, working my way south. But as chance and incompetence will have it, I finally wipe out, watching in horror as my board nearly mows down a child bathing in the shallows. (I do have a leash, but the waves are so puny!) There's nobody for miles but this family, and though nearly beaning the least of them wasn't the best introduction, I go ashore to apologize and make inquiries about getting my butt back to Buxton for the night. It's three o'clock, and I'm sun-baked and famished.

Three generations listen to my predicament and disparage my best options, which are to paddle all the way back to Frisco and hitch a ride back up the highway or haul the unwieldy SUP a couple of miles on sandy roads back to my truck. They cluck and tsk while I shrug and sigh, until the dad, Mike, finally offers me and my gear a ride in his 4×4.

“I'm leaving my money with my wife and taking my knife,” says Mike, though not in an unfriendly fashion. He also tells me he's surfed the point in perfect conditions—huge, barreling—but not the very tip of it: “There's a wave there that's not a regular wave. It's like a phantom wave. It lures you toward it and grabs you, and you're never seen again.”

Back in Buxton, I patch up my wounds, replace a few thousand calories with fried flounder and hush puppies, and hustle my way into a foursome at Uncle Eddy's mini-golf course. (Sorry, but the kids don't beat the Kid.) Early the next morning, day four, I'm back at the lighthouse, resuming my northbound course. With the wind swung back to the prevailing south-southeast and howling, it's a flat-out drag race, a true downwinder, and about as much fun as you can have on a SUP without good waves.

I'm nearly clotheslined by monofilament as I blow by the Avon Pier (why are those guys yelling at me?), then I briefly attract an entourage of dolphins. I make it all the way up to the little burg of Salvo, marked for the mariner by a spike of shipwreck poking up out of the waves. I've made more than 20 miles in about four hours—a logistical glitch for the jogging sailor. No worries. I stash my burden at the Salvo Inn Motel and stick out my thumb.

So it goes for the Kid, his SUP, and his truck, advancing by seaward leaps and rebounds. As my time winds down, I'll zero in on my goal, keeping to the Atlantic side, crossing the mile-wide Oregon Inlet, and reaching Nags Head, a dozen miles farther to the north, on day six as planned. Things will, toward the end, unfold with journeyman paddling on leisurely seas under bluest skies.

But day five's Salvo–Rodanthe leg holds a surprise. I awaken to find the wind has shifted offshore, the sou'wester I've been hoping for, with a little swell to boot. I hit the beach exhilarated, the general plan being a Sunday cruise of five or so miles, northbound. The water is jamming with bathers, and suddenly it all comes together.

Turns out today is the day the Frisco Kid gets his mojo going. All day long, I do one thing: I head far offshore, sweep into a groomed roller, walk the deck to the nose, and just ride; I then step back, cut back, and work the nose to the shore break; and then I kick out, paddle back out at a northbound angle, and repeat—all the while dodging heads as I work through a crowd of gawking skeptics.

“Hey, Jesus!” somebody yells. “Whatcha doin' up there—walkin' on water?”