Standup paddleboarding makes riding the ocean seem so easy

Racers find their bliss on the waters around Metro Vancouver in a competitive sport with an almost meditative appeal

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      Humans have long wondered about being able to walk on water. Although the laws of physics prevent this from happening, you don’t need a biblical miracle to approximate the experience.

      Through a sport called standup paddleboarding, standing on a board and moving about using a paddle might be one of the closest things to treading on water.

      For Shannon Bell, a former Canadian national champion, the feeling of having the ocean under her feet is nothing short of amazing.

      “It’s a super powerful feeling because the ocean has so much energy,” Bell related in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight.

      Paddling alone or in the company of family and friends provides the Vancouver lifeguard and mother of two boys a feeling of calmness. “To me, paddling is a meditation,” she said.

      It gives Bell a tranquillity of mind that she draws upon during races, enabling her to drive out distraction and concentrate on winning.

      In the 2017 national championship organized by CSA Surf Canada, Bell won first place in the women’s 12-kilometre race as well as in the women’s four-kilometre technical race. She also finished second in the women’s 200-metre sprint. CSA stands for the Canadian Surfing Association, the governing body for standup-paddleboard racing and surfing in the country.

      An injury prevented her from joining this year’s national race held in May. But she was ready days later, in early June, for the Maui Jim Ocean Shootout in Hawaii. The international multisport contest included standup paddleboarding, and Bell placed fifth in the women’s overall for the entire competition.

      As a member of the Canadian national team, Bell won a bronze in the world championship in Lima, Peru, in 2013. In Vancouver, Bell is a top-tier competitor. She emerged first in the women’s overall category in the Vancouver SUP Challenge (hosted by the Jericho Sailing Centre) for three consecutive years, in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Last year, she placed second.

      “I train all year round,” Bell said. “I prepare for my races by training hard on the standup, and also cross-train with swimming. I find if I put the work in, then I feel confident when it comes to race day.”

      Like Bell, Carmen Merkel has a very competitive spirit.

      In the 2017 Canadian national standup paddleboarding championship, Merkel came third behind Bell and another contestant in the women’s 12-kilometre race and the women’s four-kilometre technical race. She was third after Bell’s second finish in the 200-metre sprint.

      On June 2 this year, Merkel finished second in the women’s category in the ’Round Bowen Challenge, which took paddlers on a 33-kilometre chase.

      Merkel also shares a sense of wonder at being able to feel the power of the ocean under her feet.

      “I had no idea how powerful the energy of the ocean and water is until I started stand­up paddling,” Merkel revealed to the Straight in a phone interview.

      According to Merkel, standup paddleboarding also offers a closer intimacy with the water than being in an enclosed vessel like a canoe or a kayak.

      “It’s a very intimate experience that you’re able to kind of experience the ocean in a dynamic way,” she said.

      For local standup paddleboarding, a trip starting from Deep Cove in the District of North Vancouver and down Indian Arm is number one for Merkel.

      “At the end of Indian Arm is Granite Falls, and it’s gorgeous,” she said.

      Porteau Cove and Howe Sound, then Vancouver’s English Bay, are second and third, respectively, on her list.

      Fourth is the Fraser River. Merkel said paddlers can start on the water just off the emerging River District community in Vancouver and make their way around to Wreck Beach.

      Merkel’s fifth top location is Jericho Beach in Vancouver. It’s home to the Jericho Sailing Centre, whose general manager, Mike Cotter, has seen how standup paddleboarding has grown.

      Standup-paddleboard racer Carmen Merkel said that she never fully appreciated the powerful energy of the ocean before taking up this sport.
      Lech Dolecki

      Cotter said the centre had the first stand­up paddleboarding school in the city, starting 10 years ago. He recalled that the first person he saw doing what looked like stand­up paddleboarding was Bernard Labrosse, who eventually taught at the sailing centre.

      Cotter said Labrosse did a windsurfing lesson sometime in 1993 while standing on a windsurf board with no rig and propelling himself with a double-bladed kayak paddle. According to Cotter, he thought the scene seemed very odd at the time, reminding him somewhat of a gondolier.

      Nowadays, standup paddleboarding is a common sight at Jericho Beach and elsewhere.

      “As we speak, there is a high-school group down here preparing to go out for a lesson,” Cotter told the Straight by phone. “It’s become very popular. The ease of doing it is what is attracting so many people. If you can ride a bicycle, if you have enough balance to ride a bicycle, you can standup-paddleboard.”

      Bell and Merkel are also regulars in local recreational races during the summer.

      They both like the Tuesday Night Races organized by the Deep Cove Kayak Centre, which include kayaking, standup paddleboarding, and surfskiing.

      Bob Putnam owns the centre as well as Deep Cove Outdoors, a retail store.

      According to Putnam, the Tuesday Night Races are more about getting out on the water for exercise and enjoyment, as well as camaraderie before and after the event.

      “We do it because it’s fun, first of all,” Putnam told the Straight by phone.

      Bell and Merkel also mentioned the Mountain Equipment Co-op race series, the MEC Big Chop. (Merkel works for MEC.) Now in its 12th season, the MEC Big Chop is run out of Vanier Park in Vancouver and includes surfskis, kayaks, canoes, outriggers, and standup paddleboards. It started on April 19 and goes every second Thursday until the end of summer.

      Beginners can learn about standup paddleboarding at the MEC Paddlefest event this weekend.
      Charlie Smith

      Bell and Merkel likewise cited the Jericho Wavechaser on Jericho Beach. Running on Thursdays alternate to the MEC Big Chop, the Jericho Wavechaser, which started on April 26 this year, also features paddle sports until the end of August.

      Standup paddleboarding came naturally to Bell. As a child, she and her family spent a lot of time in and around the water near Gatineau, Quebec. She was swimming competitively at the age of 10. As a postsecondary student, she went to the University of Hawaii on a swimming scholarship. As a Vancouver lifeguard, she was a competitor on the Canadian National Lifesaving Team for many years.

      Her husband, Gary Parsons, is a water sportsman. Parsons organized the Jericho Oceanman adventure race, which has running, swimming, and paddling. Bell recalled that there was always a mystery event in each category. In 2007, the mystery event in paddling was standup paddleboarding. That was the first time she tried the activity.

      Their two sons, Ocean, 12, and Sky, nine, are also into standup paddleboarding. They are on a youth team in Deep Cove.

      “Standup paddling is a great sport,” Bell said. “I love it because it is an all-over body workout.”

      For her part, Merkel grew up in Alberta and was originally an avid rock climber. She never thought that she would be interested in water sports until she and her partner moved to Deep Cove in 2012.

      She eventually heard about the Tuesday Night Races at the Deep Cove Kayak Centre. She and her partner joined in a kayak, and she noticed a few on standup paddleboards. Thinking that was more fun and involved less gear, she tried it out the next week.

      Meditation plays an important part in Merkel’s preparation for contests. She said it disciplines her mind. Cardio cross-training—like biking and running, as well as strength exercises in the gym—takes care of the physical part.

      Merkel said standup paddleboarding presents a different set of challenges than land races like running because water is constantly moving.

      “That unpredictable nature of the medium that you’re in kind of creates these opportunities for problem-solving for whatever situation you’re in,” Merkel said.

      What looks like an easy race sometimes becomes an epic one, as conditions can easily change on the water. For Merkel, her experience on the standup paddleboard makes her more flexible and resilient.

      Life can be like the ocean, according to Merkel, who said one needs to simply roll with the waves and wind.

      “It helped me ease into change, and ease into, you know, just taking what life throws at me a little bit easier than I had in the past,” Merkel said.

      MEC Paddlefest takes place on Saturday (June 16) at Jericho Beach.