The iconic surf town of Laguna is experiencing a SUP revolution.
By Vicki Hogue-Davies and Nathan Zoller
Recreation in Laguna Beach is aquatic by nature. For people who enjoy the ocean, there is a giant free playground available just off the shore. It’s not very surprising that more people than ever, both locals and visitors alike, are paddling out on surfboards, and increasingly on stand-up paddleboards, to have fun and get exercise in Laguna’s waters.
A Surfing Town
Surfing has long been an integral part of the Laguna lifestyle, getting its start here in the 1930s. The locals-only Brooks Street Surfing Classic, first held in 1955, is billed as the oldest continuing surf contest in the world. It takes place only when surf conditions are prime; thanks to a great south swell during mid-June, this year marked the contest’s 50th anniversary.
Former professional surfer Jeff Booth—a top five surfer on the ASP World Tour in 1995 and now a national sales manager for Billabong—grew up surfing Laguna’s waters, as did well-known local names like Hans Hagen, Alisa Cairns, Mike Morrissey and others. The town also boasts up-and-coming surfers such as Porter Hogan, Adam Mejia and Taylor Pitz, all former riders on Laguna Beach High School’s surf team. Numerous leaders from the world’s most famous surf-lifestyle brands—including Billabong, Hurley, Hobie and Quiksilver—call Laguna home. Some were raised here while others found the beaches, ocean and laid-back vibe perfect fits for them.
And while the surf lifestyle is an iconic part of Laguna’s identity, another board sport is making revolutionary inroads here. Every day, droves of stand-up paddleboarders can be seen offshore.
“Stand-up paddleboarding has come on really big here within the last three years and even doubled in the last two,” says Byron Kurt, co-founder and president of the World Paddle Association and a member of the Hobie paddleboarding team. Byron has surfed for the past 40 years and took up SUP approximately six years ago. “As long as we can keep the sport affordable and easy to learn, I expect it will keep growing,” he says, noting that paddleboarding does not require the physical prowess or have the learning curve that sports like surfing, kite surfing and windsurfing do.
“The sport is fun and relatively easy for all ages and abilities,” Byron continues. “I don’t know what other ocean sport offers that. With SUP, in virtually five minutes you can go, ‘Wow, I am paddling on the water.’ ”
Both following and encouraging the SUP trend are an influx of businesses that have opened in town to sell and rent paddleboard equipment and teach newbies about the sport. Hobie Surf Shop, rooted in surfing, sells paddleboards and has partnered with Pacific Edge Hotel to teach the sport to guests. Montage Laguna Beach also arranges lessons and SUP tours for its guests.
“We have boards at Pacific Edge Hotel that we rent out for guests,” says Hobie President Jeff Alter. “Some of the local boys work the rentals and lessons. The [certified] instructors teach guests how to get in and out of the surf, and [with beginners] they paddle out to see the kelp beds and the instructors stay with them.” He notes that the paddle experience can be customized based on ability.
Safety is key in teaching beginners how to stand-up paddle, says Ryan McDonnell, who has taught lessons at Laguna’s Stand Up Paddle Co. since 2009. “It is crucial that a new paddler understands the conditions of the water before entering,” he says.
“The ocean is a constantly moving element and very different compared to paddling on a flat body of water,” Cameron Kilmer adds. Cameron also instructs at Stand Up Paddle Co. “Correct etiquette is reviewed [during lessons] in terms of where proper entry and exit areas exist and how to not interfere with surfing zones. Proper navigation through the shore pound is taught before entering the water as well as paddle technique, standing positions and how to navigate your board.”
In the interest of safety, it is important to take lessons from a certified paddleboarding instructor before hitting the water.
Some certifying organizations for instructors include the World Paddle Association and the World Standup Paddleboard Association. Once a new paddler knows the requisite safety rules and sets out on Laguna’s waters, they’ll gain an entirely new perspective on the town from the water.
On the Water
“You don’t get much prettier water or more benign ocean conditions than Laguna’s,” Byron says. He notes that in the morning before the wind comes up is the best time for paddling, especially for people new to SUP. “If people get out in the morning and paddle on calm waters, they have a better experience right off the bat. It is also really nice in the late afternoon near sunset after the wind has died down.
“There is a whole adventure aspect to paddling in Laguna,” he says. “Just be aware of how close you are to rocks and surging water, and try to keep away from that. When you are up off the water 5.5 or 6 feet, depending how tall you are, you can see much deeper through the water than you could if you are swimming or on a surfboard.”
Byron notes that there are kelp beds, rock formations and beautiful cliff structures as well as fish and wildlife. Many stand-up paddleboarders have even seen pods of dolphins swimming alongside them.
Whether you are riding a paddleboard or a surfboard, it is important to respect any wildlife you encounter. In fact, intentionally interfering with wildlife is illegal, Byron says.
“If you know a seal, dolphin or whale is there, stay 100 yards away from it,” he warns, while acknowledging that you can’t control whether an animal pops up right next to you. “We are entering into their world and their home. Staying away keeps both them and you out of danger, so just enjoy what is in front of you without getting too close.”
And enjoying the water—its flora and fauna, its views to the shore and the waves—is what both stand-up paddleboarding and surfing are all about. Whether you enjoy the peacefulness of simply paddling along or the rush of facing down a wave, Laguna offers boarding for all levels and experiences.
Best Places to Surf and SUP
Brooks Street: Popular with professionals, Brooks Street beach is for serious surfers; spectators gather to watch the action go down.
Thalia Street: Surfers can spend all day at Thalia; just watch out for the blackball flag.
Rockpile: Swimming and body boarding are not permitted at Rockpile, giving surfers full reign. Hazardous conditions make this area for experts only.
Boat Canyon: SUPers will enjoy the easy access to Boat Canyon and the lack of crowds at this small cove.
Treasure Island: The southernmost beach in Laguna, Treasure Island has some of the best views from the water.
SUP lesson areas: For beginners, going out near Pacific Edge Hotel or other areas where lessons are being given is smart, notes Byron Kurt of the World Paddle Association, pointing out that instructors will send students out when conditions are good.
Things that make stand-up paddleboarding popular can also make it dangerous or put surfers on the defensive. The size of the boards—which Byron Kurt, co-founder and president of the World Paddle Association, calls “surfboards on steroids”—make them easy to balance on, but the low difficulty of the sport also puts more inexperienced swimmers and paddlers on the ocean. Inadvertently, they may invade surf lineups.
“For paddleboarders, I think the first thing to consider is that in Laguna surfers were here first,” Byron says. “Secondly, it is important to know proper surf etiquette.”
His suggestion to surfers is to kindly recommend areas that are more conducive for paddleboarding. “People may paddle into a lineup not knowing what they are doing,” he says.
Jeff Booth has surfed Laguna his entire life and has seen firsthand the influx of people to the water. “There are more people … riding everything imaginable from SUPs, Costco soft tops, blackball beaters (soft boards that can be ridden as skimboards, bodyboards or surfboards),” he says.
Although he identifies as a surfer first, Jeff enjoys SUP occasionally. The big problems, he says, are the size of the paddleboards and the skill levels of some of the people maneuvering them. “I have no issues with SUPs in the water as long as people can manage the board,” he says.
Reckless riding is not confined to inexperienced paddleboarders. Inexperienced surfers and those who don’t use leashes also create hazards for others in the water. “No one is safe from a reckless anybody operating a board,” Jeff says.
The bottom line is that the ocean is open to all, so it is important to get along and practice safety.
Stand Up Paddle Co.’s Ryan McDonnell and Cameron Kilmer recommend that SUPers have knowledge of the surf break areas before paddling out, and avoid heavily populated surf areas such as Brooks Street, Thalia Street and Rockpile.
“Local surfers will need to … ask someone to kindly move when it becomes a problem,” Jeff says. “People need to leave their egos on the beach.”
For complete etiquette and safety tips visit worldpaddleassociation.com/sup-surf-etiquette.
Shops, Rentals and Lessons
Aloha School of Surfing: 949-355-9814; alohaschoolofsurfing.com
CA Surf Co. (surf and SUP): 949-497-1423; casurfshop.com
Hobie Surf Shop (surf and SUP): 949-497-3304; hobie.com
Inspiration Paddleboard Co.: 949-228-9822; inspirationpaddleboard.com
Laguna Beach Surf School: 949-280-3005
Laguna Beach Surfing Lessons: 949-554-7512; lagunabeachsurfinglessons.com
Laguna Surf & Sport: 949-497-7000; surfandsport.com
La Vida Laguna (surf and SUP): 949-275-7544; lavidalaguna.com
Paddle Board Bliss: 949-529-4242; paddleboardbliss.com
Soul Surfing School: 949-637-0463; soulsurfingschool.com
Stand Up Paddle Co.: 949-715-9730; supcompany.com
SUP Fitness Laguna: 949-342-6555; supfitnesslaguna.com
Thalia Surf Shop: 949-497-3292; thaliasurf.com
Toes on the Nose: 949-494-4988; toesonthenose.com