Stand-Up Paddleboarding Is the Perfect Social-Distancing Activity

A woman takes a sunset paddle off of West Avenue.
A woman takes a sunset paddle off of West Avenue. Photo by Julienne Gage
This spring, Miami's been balmy, beautiful, and mostly untouchable under the lockdown of coronavirus. Beaches and pools remain closed, and parks have been struggling to muster the heightened facemask enforcement they need to reopen. But increasing numbers of Miamians have realized that Biscayne Bay is a massive resource for getting outdoors and out of proximity to other humans, especially if you can get your hands on a small vessel. This season's favorite? The stand-up paddleboard., a local company that has spent two decades specializing in inflatable motorboats, says it's seeing a significant uptick in stand-up paddleboard sales. In the month of February, it sold zero. By late spring, it was averaging two per day.

"We sold out all our 60 SUPs in one month," Eliot, a tech support specialist, tells New Times, noting that a banner ad touting the benefits of water vessels for social distancing probably helped.

Locked out of the pool where I used to swim daily laps, I too became a stand-up paddleboard convert during the pandemic. It started after a friend offered me entry into his waterfront property and lent me his old board. The next thing I knew, I was out there every other day, gaining the strength to lift and drop the board into the water, stand up and balance on it, and even battle strong currents. I also found that the board was great for meditation and suntanning or for catching up with friends while paddling six feet part.

The more I got out on or near the water, the more paddlers I found hosting onboard wine-and-cheese parties, cheering on impromptu dolphin shows, or returning to shore to discuss the latest dorsal-fin sighting. That short triangular thing that looks like a broken piece of palm bark? If it goes gliding right along, it belongs to a shark.

I've since bought a board and consulted with maritime experts to make sure I'm getting the optimal ride. Here's what I've learned:
click to enlarge Paddleboarders along the Venetian Causeway socialize in social distancing fashion while taking their dog for a ride. - PHOTO BY JULIENNE GAGE
Paddleboarders along the Venetian Causeway socialize in social distancing fashion while taking their dog for a ride.
Photo by Julienne Gage

Before You Go

Hurricane season is less than a month away, and big storms are already rolling in. So, a friendly reminder: Always check the weather forecast.

Respect the wind, the waves, and the deep blue sea, and "don't be cocky," says Girard Middleton, a paddle surf champion and owner of SoBe Surf. Also, remember that you're "absolutely a target" for lightning, Middleton adds.

He recommends installing the app Windy, which can track your location and send you storm alerts — provided you wear a smartwatch or carry a fully-charged phone in a waterproof pouch. And if you get into serious problems, don't hesitate to make an SOS call to 911.

He also says to go when the wind is blowing east or west, but not north or south unless it's moving under eight mph. "Be doggone sure you're wearing a leash, because if you get knocked off that board in the wind, you're not catching it," Middleton adds.

Getting In

Miami-Dade County's marinas have opened, even if the parks attached to them haven't, but if you go on the weekend, be ready for crowds as you get ready to launch. Paddleboards are about ten feet long, so if anyone gets in your social-distancing space, you can just wag your board as a warning.

Indian Creek in Miami Beach is a good place for beginners because there aren't many boats kicking up a wake, and there's an easy launch at Pine Tree Park. But again, don't forget your leash, consider wearing or carrying a lifejacket, and watch your head if you're anywhere near a dock or a bridge.

Middleton advises against paddling out into the ocean until you're more experienced, beaches reopen with lifeguards, and you've taken a few paddle-surf lessons. The bay has plenty of waterways and islands that offer more manageable swells and more favorable winds. For weekend trips, it's safer to paddle up near Normandy Isle than around the Venetian, where Jet Skis and speedboats abound.
click to enlarge Sunset is a great time to go paddleboarding, but not such a great time to swim. Sea creatures like sharks tend to feed around dawn and dusk. - PHOTO BY JULIENNE GAGE
Sunset is a great time to go paddleboarding, but not such a great time to swim. Sea creatures like sharks tend to feed around dawn and dusk.
Photo by Julienne Gage

Getting On

It's best to paddle into the current on your way out because after you've spent an hour burning some 300 calories and using muscles you didn't know you had, you'll be glad the ride home is smooth sailing.

If the water's choppy, sit down. See a speedboat or a Jet Ski? Wave to make sure they see you too, and maybe keep closer to the water's edge. And watch where you're taking those selfies lest you get stuck in the mangroves. (Yes, speaking from personal experience.)

Standing takes time. It can easily take a few weeks of sitting, then kneeling, to get used to steering. Once your back, arms, and core are stronger, standing will be a breeze.

Middleton compares the stand-up experience to golfing. During SoBe Surf's lessons, paddlers learn what's known in paddle-speak as CPR. First, you catch the tilted side of the paddle as far forward as you can, then you power the stroke with your hips and core, and as the paddle reaches your hip, you recover it.

Once you've mastered that, says Middleton, "everything comes into focus. You can put your earbuds in, listen to a podcast, and then stop to watch the dolphins," all while getting a killer cross-training workout.

Being One with Nature

That being-one-with-nature thing sold local marine biologist Sascha Cushner on a stand-up paddleboard purchase. She has an ocean view from her Miami Beach apartment, and usually she'd be out there swimming or going to some other part of the bay or beach to rent a kayak. Then she realized she could invest in an inflatable paddleboard and store it in a backpack at home. Now all she has to do is carry it down in the elevator, cross Collins Avenue, then pump and launch it on the side of Indian Creek.

"It's taken what's been a challenging time and given me alternative access to the ocean I've been missing," Cushner says.

She doesn't waste time worrying that a sharp-toothed sea creature might puncture her vessel, but she does have some pointers for interacting with the wildlife.

"Just be respectful of marine life, and don't get too close," she says.

Dolphins, sharks, manatees, and stingrays all frequent the bay and the Intercoastal Waterway, but saltwater crocs are rare, and jellyfish are more of a wintertime, oceanside creature.

And don't be fooled by Discovery Channel's Shark Week marketing. Cushner says most South Florida sharks are pretty shy. Still, she says, you can avoid a confrontation if you 1) don't get too close, 2) don't wear shiny jewelry that might look like some tasty gills, 3) don't swim into a school of small fish, and 4) don't go swimming near somebody who's fishing, nor during feeding hours (i.e., dawn and dusk).

Because nobody wants to escape COVID-19-spewing coughs only to find themselves swimming in algae blooms and raw sewage, Cushner recommends checking pollution reports from the Florida Department of Health's Bureau of Environmental Health Water Programs. And get involved in clean-up and conservation efforts, starting with a visit to the Miami Waterkeepers.

Paddleboarding, says Cushner, is the guilt-free pandemic liberation many of us need.

"It's like the poster child of social distancing," she says.
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Julienne Gage is a Miami-based anthropologist and journalist who has worked as a reporter and as a civil rights and international aid communications specialist in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Her fieldwork has exposed her to many forms of cultural expression, and during her master’s in anthropology, she studied at Cuba’s Center for the Investigation and Development of Cuban Music.
Contact: Julienne Gage