New-Wave Paddle Sport Reaches San Juan Island

It’s Not Your Mother’s Surfboard

By J.K. Fox

Photo at right: Courtney Rebel takes to the water on a paddleboard off the coast of San Juan Island. Photo courtesy of Springtide Paddlesports

How’s that surfboard working out for ya?” shouts the man, leaning out of his Toyota and squinting against the San Juan Island sun, about 20 miles west of Anacortes, Wash. You can tell he has the time to chat. The girl rolls her eyes. She, on the other hand, is in a rush.

“It’s not a surfboard, it’s a paddleboard.”

Everything about her manner exudes the air of “Where have you been for the last two years?”

And, she is not without justification. For one thing, there is no surf break on San Juan (ask any frustrated Californian expat), so why would she have a surfboard? For another, recent summers have seen a relentless rise in the popularity of the paddleboard on San Juan. You can’t walk through the town of Friday Harbor without someone driving by with a board lashed to their car.

Like any trend, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when it all took off. This is made especially difficult because recent years have seen paddleboard fever grow on a national level, from the rivers of Colorado to the SEA Paddle NYC paddleboard marathon in New York.

Back on San Juan, a few locals like Bruce Lairson have been exploring the sport for years and are delighted that everyone is catching up.

Lairson grew up surfing and says he feels natural on the board. The sport also has a pleasant practicality because, besides a life jacket and optional wetsuit, it is a very gear-light activity. As Lairson puts it, “The setup and closeout times are quick…you could go paddleboarding at lunch.”

However, the boom in popularity in this location is extra interesting because San Juan already has a long established water sport: sea kayaking. In fact the island is world-renowned for it.

Family-friendly, full-body experience

“It’s the closest you can come to being a marine mammal,” says San Juan Outfitters owner Brian Goodremont of paddleboarding. Although San Juan Outfitters—a local kayak and whale watching tour company—also rents paddleboards now, Goodremont makes the point that the kayak provides a low center of gravity for those with fragile balance.

“The sea kayak is a lot more stable, more sea worthy,” he adds, which is a good point if you choose one of the day or multi-day trips available from local tour companies.

So, what can boarding bring to your San Juan experience that kayaking can’t? Can a pursuit that was born in the warm, surf-topped waters of Hawaii really translate to the freezing depths of the Salish Sea?
The answer, according to San Juan Islander Tony Anderson, is a resounding yes.

Anderson started his board rental business, Springtide Paddlesports, in June 2013, and hasn’t looked back since. Originally trained as a kayak guide, Anderson says that paddleboarding around San Juan affords a family-friendly, full-body experience.

“However you do it, kayaking is very upper-body isolated. On a paddleboard, your whole body is involved in the action,” says Anderson, demonstrating the basics to me at his rental headquarters on San Juan’s Griffin Bay. He adds that the sheer mechanics of the sport give a fresh perspective on the natural world.

“Standing up, your viewing perspective is way better than on a kayak. It’s not only because you can look down (into the water)…You can read the water better, judge distances better. You’ll see the wildlife first on a paddleboard and you don’t have to get as close. You can just sit and be still or be up and alert.”

Tony Anderson, owner of Springtide Paddlesports, launches a board off Jackson Beach, San Juan Island. Photo courtesy of Springtide Paddlesports

Easy to get back on the board

Anderson says that getting acquainted with your paddleboard is an easy process for both adults and children.

“It takes people 10 to 15 minutes to get accustomed to the little bit of movement,” he says. “Then there is this click inside your brain and it becomes natural. You just get it.”

And if you fall in? Well, Anderson claims that it doesn’t happen that often, and if it does the board is easy to get back on.

“They don’t fall in twice!” smiles Anderson.

The waters around the island have a reputation for fast currents and cold temperatures, which may lead some people to question the safety of boarding over kayaking, especially for children. However, Anderson points out that the coastline of San Juan is punctuated with many beautiful bays and coves that offer protection from the open water.

They roll off the tongue like names in a storybook: False Bay, Snug Harbor or Griffin Bay where Anderson parks his paddleboard truck. These quieter stretches of water offer plenty of opportunity to gently probe the coastline for sights of seals, starfish or Stellar sea lions. Anderson also runs guided tours and sunset trips for those who want to explore a wider range of territory.

The popularity of boarding means that rentals are now available from a variety of San Juan Island locations. This means there are more options for exploring the water with an easy hop-on, hop-off attitude, perhaps the perfect answer for those with kids in their party.

Check out Lakedale Resort and paddle the large but placid lake that lends the place its name. Visit the famous Roche Harbor on San Juan’s north end, rent a board from San Juan Outfitters and take in the marina from a new angle.

Or, maybe you should head to Griffin Bay and meet Tony. You could rent a board, or you could just sit on the beach and take in the sight of people enjoying the water. There is a family of four practicing their paddle grip thigh deep in the water. There is a local who has managed to persuade his dog to sit calmly on the nose of his board as he paddles in the sunshine. Or, there is the impatient girl, explaining to the man in the Toyota why paddleboards are so much more fun than surfboards.

And fun, after all, is the whole point.


Springtide Paddlesports:
San Juan Outfitters:
Lakedale Resort:
Friday Harbor Marine:
San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce:
San Juan Islands Washington Visitors Bureau:

J.K.Fox is a teacher, writer and paddleboarder. She lives on San Juan Island and writes about all things outdoors.

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