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Where to stand on your SUP

One of the first thing people ask when getting on SUP for the first time is “where do I stand?”.  Let’s take a look at this question in some detail.  Standing in the right place can really make your paddling experience more enjoyable. 

Most people get on a board for the first time and stand at the carrying handle.  It’s as good a place to start as any, after all it represents the balance point of the board by weight if the handle is properly positioned for carrying the board.  However, if you’ve been paddling on your board for a while and really have it dialed in, there is a good chance you’ll be standing somewhere other than exactly at the handle.

Most, but not all, displacement boards I’ve paddled on seem to like it if I stand slightly in front of the carrying handle.  Though the handle represents the middle or balance point of the board by weight, that doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with where you should stand when the board is in the water. There are a few things that you should consider:

  1. How is the volume distributed in the board?   If you want to know the best place to stand then you need to know how the board floats.  The point on the board where the displacement is evenly distributed may not necessarily line up with the center of mass of the board.
  1. How the volume distribution and shape of the board affect how it responds to being paddled.  Boards, like all watercraft, tend to climb in the water when paddled.  In fact, what we should be trying to do when we paddle is lift the board in the water so it sits higher with less wetted surface, essentially allowing it to skip across the top of the water rather than plow through it.  Some boards, because of shape and distribution of volume, seem to pop up in the water in a pretty level way.  Others seem to climb at the nose with the tail dropping.  You’ll want to be standing in a different place on the board in each instance.
  1. How you paddle.  Things like how much weight you get off of your board and onto your paddle, the “gear” you choose to paddle in, has fast your stroke is, and how early you exit all play a role in determining how a board responds to being paddled. It is entirely possible that two people with considerably different, but still effective, approaches to paddling will find that they should be standing in slightly different spots on the same board to make it perform optimally.

Given these facts, the key is to experiment a little whenever you are demoing a board for the first time or dialing in a new board you’ve just purchased.  As with any experiment, the results of your testing out different places to stand on the board will only be meaningful if you are able to get some objective feedback.  This is what your GPS is for.  

If you own a GPS device, it is extremely valuable to mount in on your board where you can see it and get immediate feedback as you’re paddling.  It’s essential for figuring out what you’re doing when you paddle that makes you go fast and what doesn’t.  It can also help you better understand things like where to stand on your board, as well as when it is advisable to move and by how much and in which direction.

Figuring out exactly where you should stand on your board for flat water paddling  

You’re going to have to start somewhere when experimenting, so starting at the handle seems like as good a place as any.  The first thing you want to do is figure out where to stand in flat water.  

If you have a GPS, set it to provide either speed or pace information and mount it on the deck of your board where you can see it while paddling.  If you don’t have a GPS just follow along and try to get as much subjective “how it feels” information.  You should go through the exact same process, you just won’t be able to corroborate what you feel with objective speed data. 

Start paddling normally standing at the handle first. Get a sense of what it feels like and, if you’re using a GPS, see what speed you can comfortably sustain.  Then creep forward, noting any difference in how it feels, both in terms of speed and effort, as you do.  Use your GPS to see how your speed or pace changes.  Try to do the same moving back a bit.  You’ll pretty quickly get an idea of when your board feels faster and, if using a GPS, be able to support that feeling with the information your GPS provides you.  Once you’ve got an idea where the ideal spot to stand in flat water is, you can proceed to the same process of experimentation going upwind and downwind, starting in small little ripples and over time moving to progressively choppier conditions.  If you’re using a GPS for real time feedback, you’ll always get a subjective idea of what feels better supported by objective speed or pace data.  

Over time you’ll get your board dialed in and know where the right spot to stand is in various conditions.  I highly recommend this process as it will not only help you better understand your own board but, if you’re using a GPS and watching it closely, will probably also help you better understand your technique.  

Here are a few things I’ve found that might help make the process of finding the best place to stand on your board a little easier and faster and are pretty much best practices for paddling effectively in various conditions other than flat water.

  1. Paddling in the flats:  In my experience, most (but not all) boards like to see you stand a little in front of the carrying handle.  While it can seem like it’s making your nose plow a little when paddling slow, all watercraft climb nose first as they accelerate.  The faster you paddle, the more likely it is that if you stand at the handle you’ll have some your board out of the water at the nose.  This doesn’t help you go fast.  Generally, the longer the water line the faster water craft go.  This means you want all 14’ (or 12’6”) of your board in the water.  You should never trim your board while standing still but rather at your typical traveling speed.  Most displacement boards I’ve tried perform noticeably better this way.  I’ve tried paddling with different techniques and most boards still seem to prefer me standing a little further forward as opposed to further back.  Again, your own results may vary and you’ll want to know exactly how much to move forward, but a logical first step in your own testing is to stand a little forward of the handle.
  1. Going upwind:  On lower volume boards I’ve always seemed to need to move back when going upwind.  The bigger the chop, the more awash my deck is with water and that really tends to slow a board down.  The problem is, if you stand too far back you’re essentially “going uphill”.  Finding the sweet spot going up wind in sizeable chop on a low volume board can be fairly elusive.  Again, using your GPS to confirm what you are feeling is the key to finding the correct standing spot.

Higher volume boards tend to go upwind much better.  It’s a drier ride and you don’t need to move back nearly as much, if at all.  In fact, in some cases you might even want to move slightly forward.

Often, if the waves are big enough, when you’re paddling upwind there is a smaller “bulge” or “bubble” in the water going opposite the wind wave coming at you.  If you can find that bulge and park your nose on it, it will definitely make your paddling easier and almost feel like you’re being pulled along on a conveyor belt.  This feeling is akin to that you get when drafting.  Getting a little forward on your board will help you capture this little bulge in the water and keep your nose on it, just like moving a little forward on your board helps you when drafting.  Also, when the waves you’re paddling into get big enough you’ll find you can ride down the back side of them.  Again, if you want to capture a wave, it helps if your board is running “downhill” a bit to start with.  Getting a little forward actually has your board floating a little nose down which helps you drop onto waves, whether it is shore break you’re surfing, a bomb you’re trying to catch paddling downwind or the back side of a wave you’re paddling into. You’ll just want to make sure the deck of your board isn’t constantly awash and underwater.  If it is, you’re too far forward.  

Your GPS isn’t going to tell you as much once you’re outside of the flats.  No two waves are the same so it becomes difficult in rough water to get consistent, meaningful data from it.   Now the question of where to stand becomes much more subjective in terms of how things feel and the degree to which you seem to be able to derive benefit from the water conditions.

  1. Going downwind: No matter what board you’re riding, downwind conditions are going to require you to move around on your board.  To be sure, lower volume boards will require you to move around more.  Similarly, if you’re trying to downwind on what is primarily a flat-water board you’re going to find yourself having to move around more as well.  If you’re on a higher volume board with a bulbous nose you might find that in smaller downwind conditions you don’t have to move much at all.  But as conditions get bigger, you’ll have to increasingly move up and down your board to take full advantage of what the conditions are offering.  Riding a downwind specific board likely means in modest downwind conditions you’ll need to move around even less.  

Positioning on your board in downwind conditions






When trying to catch a wave you’re going to need to creep forward on your board from where you usually stand.  This gets your board’s nose down and gets the board in a “downhill” orientation that helps you harness the wave you’re trying to catch.  How forward you go will depend on the size of the wave and how hard you think you’ll have to work to get it.  Sometimes it’s easy and you can get on a wave with hardly any effort and no movement at all.  Other times you really have to pull yourself onto a wave, and when you find yourself teetering at the top of a wave and it feels like it’s 50/50 whether you’re going to get it, you definitely want to get the nose down to increase the odds of dropping onto it.  Most of the time, being slightly forward seems to increase your chances of feeling the tail lift and the nose drop and catching any little bump available.  

Once you’ve dropped on to the wave in question you need to be prepared to get back on your board.  The bigger and steeper the wave you’re riding is, or the closer together the waves are, the more important this becomes.  Staying forward will almost guarantee that your nose will dig in and the deck of your board will submerge.  At best this just slows you down.  At worst it digs in so much it causes you to lose control and turn one way or the other, or it can even pitch you face first off of your board and into the water.  Again, the degree to which you have to move back depends on the size, steepness and period of the waves as well as the length, shape and volume of the board you’re riding.  So, there’s no rule on how much to move, you’ve got to feel it out.  

It’s not uncommon when dialing in a new board that you get it wrong at first.  You don’t get forward enough or soon enough to catch the waves you’re after and end up missing rides.  Or, you don’t get back soon enough and get stuck in the wave with your nose underwater.  If you step back too much or too soon, you stall your board and lose the wave you just worked to get.  Those that surf will find all of this very familiar.  Downwind paddling is really just surfing from wave to wave off shore rather than catching a wave in the shore break.

Again, as with upwind paddling, using your GPS when downwinding isn’t going to help you as much as it does in the flats.  The feedback you get about whether or not you’re in the right place on your board is much more subjective.  Are you really struggling to catch waves or do you seem to be dropping onto them effortlessly?  Are your rides long and extended, allowing you to carry lots of speed into catching the next wave or do you feel like it’s difficult to get what you think you should out of the waves you catch?  

When things seem to be easier, the rides longer and more frequent and you seem to be carrying more speed, you’ve found the sweet spots on your board, are moving well between them and have it really dialed in for those conditions.  Of course, what makes paddling, and downwinding in particular, so challenging is that as the conditions change, the sweet spots will change.  There’s no shortcut to dialing in your board for downwind conditions.  It’s just a question of hours upon hours of practice in the widest array of downwind conditions imaginable.  

  1. Drafting: We covered drafting extensively in the June issue of  The Catch (SUP Drafting 101.  Drafting is a huge part of racing and where you stand on your board can make drafting as easy as it should be (after all, the whole reason you draft is to make it easier) or, if you’re in the wrong spot, much more difficult than it should be.

The basic rule is to move forward a little when drafting to get the nose down a little.  Drafting is nothing more than riding the very small waves that come off the tail or the nose of the board in front of you.  In fact, you’ll hear a lot of people from a canoeing background call drafting “riding wash”.  These waves aren’t big like the sort you look for when downwinding.  They’re more the size of the little “bulges” or “bubbles” of water that run against the grain of the main wave that you sometimes see going upwind.  Just like we wanted to be forward on our boards to get the nose down attitude required to catch those upwind waves more easily, we usually want to be a little more forward when drafting as well.  

While drafting is largely about finding the sweet spot on the wave coming off the board you’re trying to draft, it’s made easier by finding the sweet spot on your board as well.  If you’re too far back you’ll feel like you’re going uphill or are still working too hard despite being properly situated on the wave.  If you’re too far forward you’ll feel like you’re plowing, with too much water on the deck of your board, making it feel “sticky” in the water.  When you’re in the right spot, you’ll know it.  It makes things that much easier to find the sweet spot on the wave, as when you do and you’re in the right spot on your board you’ll really feel your board accelerate on the wash.  You’ll almost immediately need to pull more easily or you run the risk of hitting the board in front of you.  

  1. Side winds:  Most of you will have experienced the “pleasure” of paddling in a strong side wind.  You’re familiar with the experience of trying to track your board straight and the need, when the wind gets really strong, to paddle on one side more than the other.  It can be both frustrating and tiring.

Perfecting the basic steering skills that we discussed in the May issue of The Catch (Skill Set: Tracking Your Board Straight) can really help.  If you’re good at them, you can continue to paddle pretty evenly on both sides in all but the most extreme side winds.  This can give you a huge advantage in races.  While the ability to capably control your board is the main requirement for successful two-sided paddling in a strong side wind, where you are positioned on your board can have an impact as well.

In canoes, a side wind affects the back of the boat and pushes it downwind.  This causes the boat to turn into the wind.  So, if you’re paddling on the right in a wind from the right, the wind makes the canoe go to right and you end up paddling wide a lot.  If you’re a left in the same wind, you end up steering more than you’d like.  Remember in racing canoes you’re either a left or a right.  You paddle on one side only.  

On a paddleboard, the fin at the tail tends to pin the tail in place.  Side winds therefore don’t push the tail downwind but instead affect the nose of the board.  A wind from the right side blows the nose downwind causing the board to run to the left.  Unlike canoe, on a paddleboard a right sided paddler doesn’t have to steer with his or her stroke, they can just change sides and paddle left.  Thus, left sided paddling counters the wind’s turning effect on the nose of the board and the board runs straight.  It just means that the paddler is going to spend a lot more time than usual paddling on the left side in order to keep the board tracking straight in a strong sidewind from the right.  

Where we stand on our boards in a side wind can make a difference.  If a side wind affects the nose of our board, then getting the nose down deeper into the water, even just a little, means there is less board for the wind to catch.  This can reduce the turning effect of the side wind a little, making tracking straight easier.  How far you move forward is, of course, a compromise.  The idea is to move forward as much as you can to minimize the effect of the side wind, without negatively affecting the forward run of the board by making it plow. 

Will moving forward in a side wind make it so that you can paddle equally on both sides?  No, certainly not on its own.  Your basic steering skills are still going to make a bigger difference.  But if moving forward a little makes it even just a bit easier it’s worth it.  If it allows you to sneak in a few extra strokes on the upwind side each change then that can have a substantial effect over a long distance and give you a significant advantage.  

Where you stand on your board matters, and it’s not just as simple as “standing at the handle”.  I strongly encourage you to use your GPS and experiment with your positioning in flat water so you know exactly where to stand to make your board move fastest.  And remember, where to stand isn’t just a question of the board you’re riding, but how you paddle as well.  You can’t just stand where someone else riding the same board does and assume you’re in the right spot.  

In anything but flat water I suggest you start with the basics of where to stand in various conditions that are outlined above.  Then get out in those conditions, like we’re always encouraging you to do, and practice moving around on your board and experimenting with how it affects your speed.  Over time you’ll become familiar not only with where to stand, but more importantly how to effectively adjust your positioning to make the board move best in any conditions you face.

Happy paddling!



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