Tom Lynch's On The Water: Wobbly sea legs -- A first try at paddle boarding

By TOM LYNCH August 19. 2017 2:25AM
Showing stellar form, columnist Tom Lynch nears the end of his first attempt at stand-up paddle boarding. (WESLEY HAMPTON)

I never fell in.

That may not sound like much, but it was a major accomplishment for me when I tried stand-up paddle boarding for the first time earlier this month in Portsmouth.

My track record has been less than stellar with activities that involve standing up on water without a boat under me. Wind-surfing? Couldn't get the hang of it. Water skiing? Multiple failures. So while I've wanted to try paddle boarding for several years, I was always just a little worried about whether I'd spend more time in the drink than of on top of it.

I finally decided to give it a shot because A) we're running out of summertime, and B) we're going on a family vacation soon and I don't want to be embarrassed.

See, my niece Lisa is into paddle boarding, and I told her that dear old Uncle Tom would rent a board and go with her while we're on vacation. Actually she's into paddle board yoga, so I figured I definitely needed a little practice before we go, lest I spend an hour on my knees, whimpering and hugging my board while she does handstand poses on hers.

I spent some time online researching my options for paddle-board lessons and instruction. There are several places around the state that offer both, but the one with the most specific information available online was Portsmouth Paddle Co., which coincidentally I had read about just recently in the Sunday News' Discover New Hampshire vacation guide.

Portsmouth Paddle offers private and group lessons and organized tours, all of which include rentals. When I got a positive response to my text asking if their 90-minute "Eagles Nest and Grass Flats" tour was appropriate for a beginner, I made a reservation.

PPC runs most of its programs in the protected waters of Little Harbor, surrounded by Portsmouth's South End, New Castle and Rye's Odiorne Point - an area I've kayaked in many times and wrote about last year.

I arranged to meet the tour guide at the small car-top-boat landing on Goat Island, along the causeway between Portsmouth and New Castle, one of two put-in spots the highly mobile company uses regularly.

It was an overcast day, so it really wasn't a big surprise when I arrived to find out that I was the only taker for this particular tour. I was happy that I'd essentially be getting a private lesson, and my guide, PPC owner Wes Hampton, didn't seem terribly disappointed - in fact, he was downright gracious, telling me that singles and small groups are easier to work with than bigger tours.

He had our boards on the beach when I arrived. I put on my inflatable-if-needed life belt and strapped on the ankle leash to keep me and the board in the same general vicinity, and we were ready to go.

As we shoved off, we started on our knees while Wes explained the basics. When I was ready to stand up, he said, I needed to lay the paddle across the board and move to a crouch, keeping my movements smooth and balanced and my feet shoulder-width apart.

Once I got up, it took me a few minutes to get my knees to stop shaking while I got used to the motion of the board. As we paddled away from shore, Wes laughed as I held the single-bladed paddle across my body, alternately using it for balance like a tightrope walker and trying, from force of habit, to paddle with both ends. "Yup, kayakers do that," he said.

He explained that the ideal paddle board stroke is right alongside the board, keeping the paddle as close to vertical as possible to help keep the board moving in a straight line. It didn't take long to get the basic stroke down, and we were soon moving along nicely around the little islands near the New Castle shore.

Things got a little more complicated as we rounded one of the harbor's largest islands and turned into the wind. My momentum slowed almost to a stop, and I felt like a human sailboat luffing in the breeze. I shortened my paddle stroke as Wes suggested, and turned slightly as though the human sailboat was tacking into the wind, which seemed to help.

Waves were the other big challenge. Luckily, boat traffic was minimal, but we did have to deal with the wakes of a couple of vessels. Wes told me to take the waves head-on, which was tough when the wind was against us, but definitely less of a balance test than taking them from the side would have been.

After scouting around the islands trying to spot the eagles which nest nearby (they weren't home), we paddled across the main channel to the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion historic site. We skirted the Portsmouth shoreline past Lady Isle before making the longest open-water part of the trip, a half-mile or so across the harbor back to where we started. Luckily, the wind and waves were with us, and we made good time.

By the end of our trip, which covered almost two and a half miles, my arms were a bit tired from the paddling, but I felt the exertion mostly in my legs, both from the constant balancing movements and from having to stand with my feet in basically the same position for an hour and a half. That immobility will probably be less of an issue with practice; Wes was able to move around at will on his board.

I don't think I'll be trading in my kayak for a paddle board any time soon, but I can definitely see the attraction, and why it's a good way to build core strength.

And with this session under my belt, I'm confident that I won't embarrass myself too badly when I get out on the water with my niece - as long as she doesn't try to get me to strike a pose.

For more information on Portsmouth Paddle Company and its offerings, visit portsmouthpaddleco.com or call 276-9354.

Tom Lynch writes occasionally about his adventures on the water in New Hampshire. Suggestions are welcome at ulonthewater@gmail.com.


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