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Stand Up Paddle Boarding

Exploring the Origins and History of Stand Up Paddleboarding

Stand up paddleboarding (SUP) is a water sport that has gained popularity in recent years. It involves standing on a board and using a paddle to move through the water. While it may seem like a new activity, the origins and history of stand up paddleboarding date back thousands of years, and there has been evidence of paddleboarding in many countries as far back as 3000 B.C.  It seems that many cultures may have invented various ways of stand up paddleboarding separately from each other.

One theory suggests that stand up paddling originated in ancient Polynesia, where it was used as a means of transportation and fishing. The Polynesians used a similar technique to navigate their canoes through the water, standing on the edge of the canoe and using a paddle to move forward. Another theory suggests that SUP was developed by Peruvian fishermen who stood on their rafts to get a better view of the fish in the water. Regardless of its origins, modern SUP as we know it today began in Hawaii in the 1900s.

Johan “Pops” Ah Choy

Peruvian Origins

The earliest known evidence of stand up paddleboarding dates back to the 16th century, when Peruvian fishermen used “Caballitos de Totora” (reed horses) to navigate the waters off the coast of Peru. These small, narrow boats were constructed using reeds and allowed fishermen to stand up while paddling, providing greater visibility of fish in the water. While this form of stand up paddling may have been more utilitarian in nature, it is considered by many to be the earliest example of the sport.

Polynesian Origins

Stand up paddleboarding has roots that trace back thousands of years to ancient Polynesia. The Polynesians used a similar form of standing on a board to navigate the waters for fishing and transportation. This activity was known as Hoe he’e nalu, which translates to “to stand, to paddle, to surf, a wave.”

The Polynesians were skilled navigators and seafarers, and they used their boards to traverse the vast Pacific Ocean. They would stand on their boards and use a paddle to propel themselves forward, making it easier to spot schools of fish and navigate through rough waters.

Stand up paddleboarding as we know it today was popularized in Hawaii in the 1900s. However, it is important to recognize the rich history and cultural significance of stand up paddleboarding in Polynesia.

Modern Origins


Stand up paddleboarding, or SUP, has its modern origins in Hawaii during the 1900s. It is believed that Hawaiian surf instructors began using paddles while standing on their boards to get a better view of their students and the incoming waves. This technique allowed them to catch more waves and was soon adopted by other surfers in Hawaii. John Ah Choy, a local Hawaiian surfer, is credited with inventing the modern stand-up paddleboard in the 1940s. In the 1940s, local Hawaiian surfer John “Pops” Ah Choy began standing on his board and using a canoe paddle to catch waves since he was starting to get too old to pop up and paddle prone.  This technique allowed him to surf longer and catch waves that were too small to ride lying down. His sons as well as Duke Kahanamoku began to use this style of catching waves to keep an eye on students and swimmers, and even take photos in the water. Another iconic pioneer of paddleboarding and paddle surfing was John Zapotocky, who paddled around Waikiki for decades.

In his early forties, John became a strong advocate for SUP and could often be found standup paddling from Tongg’s to Queens in search of waves.

As he grew older, John remained a regular presence at Queens and Canoe’s, often seen in the early morning hours surfing and paddling. He was recognizable by his signature white hair, which would remain dry even after spending hours in the water. John’s love for the ocean and passion for SUP left a lasting impression on the waterman community and cemented his status as an icon in the world of surfing and paddling.

John Ah Choy at Waikiki
John Zapotocky at Waikiki – this photo was likely taken by someone else stand up paddleboarding!


The popularity of SUP spread to California in the early 2000s, where it was embraced by surfers and non-surfers alike. Laird Hamilton, a famous big wave surfer, is often credited with popularizing stand up paddleboarding and starting a worldwide phenomenon. He began using a paddle while surfing in the 1990s and helped to develop the modern stand-up paddleboard. Today, SUP has become a popular water sport around the world, with competitions, tours, and even yoga classes being held on paddleboards. The versatility of the sport has made it accessible to people of all ages and skill levels. In addition to being a fun recreational activity, SUP has also been used for fitness and rehabilitation purposes. The low-impact nature of the sport makes it a great option for people recovering from injuries or looking for a low-impact workout. Overall, the modern origins of SUP can be traced back to Hawaii in the 1900s, where it was developed as a tool for surf instructors. It wasn’t until the 2000s, however, that SUP became a popular water sport around the world, thanks in part to the efforts of surfers like Laird Hamilton.

laird hamilton history of stand up paddleboarding
Laird Hamilton

Popularity and Growth

Stand up paddleboarding (SUP) has seen a surge in popularity and growth in recent years. According to a report by DataIntelo, the global stand-up paddle (SUP) board market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 7% during the forecast period 2020-2026. One reason for this growth is the versatility of the sport. SUP can be done on any body of water, from lakes and rivers to the ocean, making it accessible to a wide range of people.

Another factor contributing to the growth of SUP is its health benefits. SUP provides a full-body workout, improving balance, core strength, and cardiovascular health. It is also a low-impact activity, making it ideal for people with joint problems or those recovering from injuries.

The growth of SUP has led to the development of new equipment and accessories, including inflatable boards, paddles, and safety gear. The Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championship Race added a Stand-Up Paddleboard division in 2006, further fueling the growth of the sport.

While the COVID-19 pandemic initially caused a slowdown in the growth of the sport due to social distancing restrictions, SUP has since seen a resurgence. As people looked for safe outdoor activities, SUP provided a way to exercise while maintaining social distancing guidelines.

man, supping, paddle


Stand up paddleboarding has a rich history that dates back thousands of years across many continents. While the modern form of SUP and its popularity originated in Hawaii in the 1900s, the roots of the sport can be traced back to ancient cultures such as the Polynesians.

Today, stand up paddleboarding has become a popular recreational activity enjoyed by millions of people around the world. It offers a unique way to explore bodies of water, from calm lakes to challenging ocean waves. The sport has also evolved to include various disciplines, such as racing, yoga, and fishing.

As with any sport, safety should always be a top priority when practicing stand up paddleboarding. It is important to wear appropriate gear, such as a life jacket and leash, and to be aware of weather and water conditions. Beginners should take lessons to learn proper techniques and safety tips before venturing out on their own.

Overall, stand up paddleboarding offers a fun and rewarding way to connect with nature and stay active. Whether you are looking for a peaceful paddle or an adrenaline-pumping adventure, SUP has something to offer for everyone.

Hayley Gordon

Hayley Gordon has been surfing for over 20 years. Riding both shortboards and longboards, she's traveled the world to surf but mainly sticks to her two home locations of San Diego and Long Island.

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