“Imagine a water sport that just about anyone can do – and enjoy – on almost any body of water, without spending a ton of money, without a lot of equipment,” says Pensacola paddleboarder Tom Pace. “The paddleboard is sort of the bicycle of the water,” he explains. “Just as there are all sorts of bikes, cruisers and racers, road bikes and mountain bikes, bikes for beginners and for experts, there are also standup paddleboards (SUPs) for all ages, skill levels, and water conditions. It’s the most inexpensive boat you’ll ever find.”
Pace has been paddling for ten years, and is a great proponent of the sport for enjoyment and competition. “I’ve always been a competitive person,” he says. “Actually, I ran track for seven years, including three years in college, and I sailed competitively as an amateur and then as a professional for nearly twenty years. At one time I was the top-ranked amateur windsurfer in the US, and later was seventh overall on the pro international windsurfing tour.” His wife Katrina has taken up paddling as well. “After about a five-minute lesson to get started – to learn where to put her feet, to figure out how to go from kneeling to standing – she took to it instantly, and was eager and excited to get going.” Katrina started out in Tom’s outrigger canoe and progressed to standup boards, eventually competing and giving lessons, and for a time was a manufacturer’s rep for a line of SUPs.
Last spring, Pace took his competitive spirit and his paddling skills to the highest level, at the Olukai downwind races off the coast of Maui, right in the trade winds belt. “This race is an eight-mile run straight downwind in the open ocean,” Pace says. “It’s a whole different world – surfing more than paddling, catching the breaking swells with a strong push at your back – it’s like no other paddling I’ve done. There are winds up to 30 knots, and every move must be made with the wind and waves uppermost in your mind. We do that all over the world, but it is just different there, with much more energy and power, and it is truly magical! There is incredibly blue water all around, and there are whales and sharks sharing it with you. This is definitely one of the most recognized and prestigious events in stand-up paddleboarding.”
“One boarder, Kathy Shipman, a hard-core water athlete is exceptionally good at running her 17 foot race board along the Maui coast, and she’s probably over 50,” says Pace. “She’s proof that this sport is accessible to most people, not just 20-something males. It’s a very friendly group, and the sport is quite laid back, even though it’s competitive on the water.” The coast along Oahu is another popular place for paddlers even when they’re not racing. There are outfitters, such as my friend Kelly Moore, who will ferry boarders from their vehicles at the finish point up the coast to the starting point.
Pace has also raced SUPs and windsurfed in the British Virgin Islands, and plans to do that again “at every available opportunity.” There are plenty of opportunities closer to home, however, for competitive stand-up paddling. The Southern Stove Paddle Series, hosted by Smith Lake Paddle Boards, consists of two racing series, the annual Paddle at the Rock at Smith Lake Park, near Cullman AL and one on the Black Warrior River through downtown Tuscaloosa. “Anywhere there’s a river or stream, a lake or a bayou, you can paddle,” Pace says. “It’s great fun, great exercise, and a wonderful way to enjoy the water.”