Paddling for Joy—Stand Up Paddleboarding in San Diego
Lizabet Latvala remembers the thrill of living close to the ocean when she moved to coastal northern California as a young adult. She told me: “Northern California's water is cold year-round—but that didn't stop me from being in the ocean. I began surfing. It was a magical time and I loved walking into the sea with my board and paddling towards the horizon. At night I would hang the wetsuit by the wood-burning stove in my little cabin tucked in a redwood forest. In the morning the suit would still be wet...”
Lizabet didn’t know it at the time, but she was starting a journey—a journey guided by the ocean, that would include meeting her husband, bringing her son into the world and experiencing a sort of “rebirth” with the help of a sport that is a cornerstone of her life today: Stand Up Paddleboarding.
I would learn more about Lizabet’s journey, and the sport of Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP), as I prepared for my first SUP lesson which Lizabet kindly offered to give me through the company she founded: PaddleJoy Fitness (www.paddlejoyfitness.com).
My own curiosity about SUP started years ago. Every time I went to the beach or bay I would see somebody on a paddleboard—paddling with that slow, determined rhythm that looks so peaceful. I began imagining myself on a paddleboard and yearned for the right moment to give it a try. It was a challenge for me to paddleboard because I didn't live near the beach and my car was too small to carry the large board. So I patiently waited for the moment—knowing the day would come and an opportunity would present itself to take my first paddle. In the meantime, I began researching equipment and stumbled on some interesting facts about the history of SUP.
Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP), originally called “paddle surfing,” began as an ancient form of surfing in Hawaii. Over time, SUP evolved into a way for Hawaiian surfing instructors to manage large groups of students because standing on a board gave them a higher vantage point. The increased visibility allowed them to see all their students as well as incoming swells.
The popularity of the modern sport of SUP has its origin in Waikiki. In the early 1960s, the Beach Boys of Waikiki would stand on their long boards and paddle out with outrigger paddles to take pictures of the tourists learning to surf.
Since those days in Hawaii, Stand Up Paddleboarding has gained popularity in part because unlike surfing, it is very easy to learn. It can also be enjoyed on any open body of water suitable for small boats and kayaks and does not depend on a swell. SUP is very popular with women, and with their lower center of gravity they can be more skilled at it than men. Paddleboarders also rave about the strong core workout they get.
Several months ago, my wife and I reconnected with Lizabet, a dear old friend we'd lost touch with for many years. As we began catching up on our lives, we discovered a mutual love of the ocean and were surprised to learn what an important role it played with each of us. For me, this role was writer, photographer and web publisher for a website dedicated to San Diego's beaches. For Lizabet, the role was surfer, beach mom and SUP instructor/trainer. Shortly into our conversation Lizabet suggested: “You have to try Stand Up Paddleboarding.” To which I replied: “I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity.” I guess the saying is true: “All good things to those who wait.”
So I prepared for my lesson and began asking Lizabet more questions about what she'd been up to all these years and how SUP had come to occupy such a special place in her life. Lizabet told me that before she discovered SUP, her life had taken a few twists and turns that eventually resulted in her not being able to be in the ocean. Ironically she told me that SUP would help lead her back.
She left northern California and moved to San Diego's north county to surf warmer water and continue her education. Lizabet said: “Surfing in San Diego was a different experience, fun in its own way. The first time I paddled out in Del Mar I saw a fin break the water near me and quickly paddled back to the beach. After huffing and puffing for a few moments, I realized the fin belonged to a dolphin—a pod of them were playing in the waves! I paddled out to join them—with tears of appreciation in my eyes.”
Lizabet met her husband Chris at San Marcos State and their first date was a surfing session at Cardiff Reef. Chris, a second-generation southern California "core" surfer, shaper and competitor, was also instrumental in connecting Lizabet to the ocean with their mutual love of surfing. Chris and Lizabet married and brought a beautiful boy into the world—Kirin.
Being pregnant kept Lizabet off her surfboard and she naturally gained weight during the pregnancy. After her son Kirin was born, she worked hard at losing the excess weight, but in her words: “I would lose and gain the same pounds over and over again. It was yo-yo dieting.” Admittedly, Lizabet had succumbed to an unhealthy diet and pattern of eating.
“I was 70 lbs. overweight, eating too much sugar and didn’t want to go near the water. I was self-conscious about getting in a wetsuit, and even had a hard time finding one that would fit.”
Lizabet told me that after leading an active life, being overweight: REALLY sucked! She said: “It was tiring just walking up stairs and my heart rate would increase leaning over to tie my shoes. The only place that was comfortable was lying in bed. Very depressed, I sought solace in sugary foods. As a former personal trainer, I knew lack of activity and calorie dense food is a tragic combination for an obese person, but I didn’t have the confidence or self-esteem to care. I was beat.”
Lizabet told me she needed something to help her get back to the ocean and lose weight. She was telling a friend how much she missed surfing and the friend suggested she try Stand Up Paddleboarding. So she tried it, and before stepping on the board for the first time she said: "I had this curious feeling that SUP would be linked to my future livelihood. I loved stand-up paddling! The workout was phenomenal, super fun and better than anything else I could think of!"
Lizabet gave up sugary foods and lost the weight. She told me that: “SUP was instrumental in helping me refrain from sugar. Unlike surfing, it’s an aerobic activity. SUP offers endorphins; emotional release; a spiritual all-is-well-with-the-world feeling and mental clarity. It makes my entire body strong and it’s fun. I love it, and so do my clients.”
I was inspired by Lizabet and her story: now it was my turn to discover the therapeutic qualities of SUP. We arranged to meet for a lesson so Lizabet could teach me Stand Up Paddleboarding.
I’ve been on the water many times kayaking and I’m pretty steady on a board from years of skateboarding and skimboarding, but I admit to being a bit apprehensive about standing on a board and paddling. Truth is: I just didn't want to fall in and get wet. It was November after all and the water was pretty cold.
But Lizabet was real good about starting slow—giving me a chance to get used to the board. It helped being in a calm bay in shallow water too. We started out with a few basics: find the balance point on the board and keep your eyes looking forward. She showed me an easy way to stand by getting up on one knee first and then pushing up on the other. Yippee...I was standing! It was shaky at first but I found the balance point quickly and then rocked the board a little to get a feel for its stability. Paddleboards are much wider, longer and more buoyant than surfboards but it did feel wobbly for the first half hour.
Once I was comfortable on the board, Lizabet helped me learn the correct paddle stroke. Turns out there is a proper paddling technique that helps move the board efficiently while providing a good core workout. And boy was it a workout. I could feel my arms, legs, gluts, abs and just about every other muscle within minutes.
We paddled around the bay for an hour which was plenty for my first time. It never felt uncomfortable and I didn’t fall in! And it was so peaceful—just like I imagined.
It was a great experience, learning about SUP and how it had changed Lizabet’s life. Being on the water is like no other experience. It’s just you, the board and the elements of nature. You feel connected to something that is real and eternal. No road signs or Starbucks.
Lizabet is loving life on the water again and has given up her nemesis of body-image issues. She shares her love of SUP with others through her business: PaddleJoy Fitness. You can find her out on the water every weekend teaching beginners like me and coaching more advanced paddlers on how to get the most out of SUP for fitness and fun. She likes to say: “Don’t postpone joy waiting for your jean size to reach a number you deem acceptable.”
For those of you wishing to give Stand UP Paddleboarding a try, there are many established businesses in San Diego that rent equipment and offer beginning and advanced lessons. For beginners, I recommend starting in calm water like Mission Bay or La Jolla Shores. Here are some recommendations on where to rent boards and take lessons:
Mission Bay Aquatic Center, 1001 Santa Clara Place, Mission Bay CA, 92109. 858-488-1000.
Rentals and lessons.
OEX Dive and Kayak La Jolla, 2132 Avenida de la Playa, La Jolla, CA 92037. 858-454-6195.
Rentals and lessons.
To contact Lizabet Latvala and find out more about her SUP lessons, fitness training and SUP yoga: go to www.paddlejoyfitness.com or call her directly atto 949-228-9822.
Happy Paddling and see you on the water.
John Rogers, The Enlightened Explorer