surfski versus sup

Surfski versus SUP

First a Brief Disclaimer:  I have spent very little time on a stand up paddle board (SUP)  and only on flat water.  I have not done any true down wind surfing and have not been on any true racing boards.   My mission is to introduce surfskis to the masses and don’t have any intention of selling SUPs.   My wife recently bought a SUP and right now I’m not sure who loves it more, her or the kids.

SUP Popularity Explodes and Surfskis are Jealous

There is no doubt that the popularity of SUPs has exploded over the past five years.    Within the surfski community there has definitely been some jealousy and frustration watching this all unfold.   In the end, SUP boards were extremely successful in marketing and creating sex appeal and introducing the surfer mystique and aura to the masses in a way that kayaks and surfskis have not been able to.  The SUPs are also very beginner friendly which has helped substantially.

surfski versus sup

Surfskis Realize they need to be more Approachable

I like to view it all from a win/win perspective and I do believe that the growth of SUP will ultimately help drive the growth of surfskis.   More than anything else the explosion of SUP has opened people up to the concept of getting a great workout on the water.   In my humble opinion Surfskis offer all the same benefits and more.   Historically the learning curve for surfskis has been so steep and intimidating that it just wasn’t feasible for many people.   I definitely see that changing with the new breed of beginner boats and even the mind boggling stability improvements in intermediate boats such as the Stellar SR.

A True Paddle Sports/Racing Community

I feel strongly that the Northern Michigan region has the potential to become a true paddle sports hub.    If you look at what is going in on Florida, California, Hawaii and other big paddle sports communities,  you see that many races are including options for SUP, Surfskis, Outrigger Canoes, and traditional kayaks.   They are all basically cousins of one another and tend to congregate and run in the same circles.    There is no reason we can’t do the same in Traverse City.   Each of these communities are still somewhat small individually, but when you put them all together you start to get the numbers that make it work for big events and expos to happen.

In the long term, I can envision a full paddle sports racing series running on the bay from mid June through September.    I can also envision repeating week night events such as the Girls SUP Night expanding to include men’s groups, surfskis and outriggers canoes etc.

I was amazed this past weekend when I did the first annual Back to Black 18 mile paddle race down the Black River from Black Lake to Lake Huron.   As a first annual it was quite small but there was one determined SUP paddler who completed the full course in good time and with a smile on his face, proving that the SUP boards can go the distance on flat water.

Extensive Cross Over Benefits

There is tremendous cross over among all the sports in key areas such as safety on the water, gear/clothing, racing strategies, paddle technique, and down wind surfing.  Let me offer a few examples:

  • Safety:  They key components of being safe on the water are fundamentally the same regardless of the paddle sport activity you are doing.  You need to do proper route planning with wind and weather awareness,  have the right safety gear including clothing appropriate for immersion in the water, pfds, leashes,  and communication devices.  Additionally you need to practice rescue techniques and scenarios.     See my blog on surfski safety for more details.
  • Gear / clothing:  In both a surfski and a SUP you are going to be very active and also getting very wet.   The lessons learned for what clothing works best for different air/water temperature combinations can certainly be shared and leveraged
  • Racing: whether drafting in flat water,   surfing in downwind waves, or simply picking the best line on the water, they are all roughly the same concepts whether you’re on a SUP or a surfski
  • Paddle Technique:  at the core (no pun intended) both SUP and Surfski are about generating power from core rotation.   The arm positioning (straight lower arm) and core rotationt is almost identical.  There are many other similarities in technique.
  • Down wind surfing:  reading the water and linking from one swell to the next is where I believe the real fun begins for both SUP and Surfski.  

Still Not Sure Which Route to Go

I know it all sounds great, but many of you are probably still left wondering, what are the key differentiating factors between SUPs and Surfskis and if I can only buy one, what should I get?   Below is my admittedly biased guidance:  

Buy a SUP if:

  1. You have explored all pricing options on both surfskis and SUPs and  you just can’t afford to get into a surfski but really want to be active on the water
  2. You want to be able to join the SUP yoga classes
  3. You don’t have any options to store a surfski (inside or out), but can fit a SUP somewhere
  4. You have the flexibility to plan your paddles in a way that ensures you don’t get caught having to battle strong headwinds for a long distance
  5. You know that whatever you buy will need to withstand extensive abuse by the kids, neighbors, relatives, and pets

Buy a Surfski if:

  1. You want to be competitive in adventure races such as M22 Challenge where paddling is a key component
  2. You want to cover longer distances on the water at much faster speeds
  3. You want to have the flexibility of going out in larger bodies of water in a wider range of conditions
  4. You want to be able to get your heart rate up quickly
  5. You need to be able to paddle upwind at a solid pace of at least 5 + mph
  6. You want to experience averaging 7.5 + mph on long down wind runs in the bay or open Lake Michigan
  7. You get annoyed with having to move your paddle from one side to the other
  8. You are ready and excited to take on a longer learning curve
  9. You like to be present, challenged, and unique


To summarize the differences I would say this:   Surfskis are everything a SUP is and a lot more in almost every way.   They are a little more of an investment, they are more fragile and require more care when handling and a bit more room to store, the learning curve is longer and steeper,  they are faster in almost all conditions, and in many cases they will be a more intense workout.   In the long term, they will offer a more rewarding journey if you stick with it.

I consider my family very blessed to have both.   As of right now my wife Kim loves to use them both equally.  We’ll see if that changes as she gets more into paddling and learns the art and science of downwind.   I can’t get used to the slower pace and switching sides with the paddle, but hopefully that will come with time and I know I need to get on some good down wind runs to really give the SUP a chance to shine.

Whatever you decide, we hope to see you out there having fun, getting wet, continuously educating yourself, being present in the moment,  and getting the most out of what these great sports, combined with our beautiful waters have to offer.

surfski versus sup

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