My Stand Up Paddling Story: I Used to be a Surfer
My Journey to Stand Up Paddling
I used to be a surfer. A wake up early, charge every day, hard-core surfer. I have fond memories of my high school days surfing with my buddies all over Orange County, especially at the famous 54th Street jetty in Newport Beach. I competed in contests and traveled to faraway places all for the joy of surfing.
In addition to surfing, my buddies and I were part of the IMUA and then later the Offshore outrigger canoe clubs and even won the 16 and under California State Championship. While in high school, I bought a used road bike to train for surfing and fell in love with the feeling of being alone on the road. I knew I wasn’t headed towards a career as a pro surfer and I was getting burned out with fighting the crowds just to catch a wave.
In college I hung up my board and charged head first into bike racing. It didn’t hurt that I left the great waves of Orange County for the frustrating waves of Santa Monica. I found that I had a knack for bike racing and received some good results right away, spent some time at Olympic Training Center in Colorado and raced in Europe. For the next 25 years I was “roadie” and didn’t touch my board.
When my two sons were born, I knew I didn’t want to spend my weekends doing epic rides with a bunch of other “roadies”. Trust me, some of these guys are pretty single-minded. I was also getting spooked by stories of my fellow cyclist being hit by a car or riding off a cliff.
Michael Kelley and his sons pose for a selfie after sharing a stand up paddling session.
I made another change to my exercise regimen and reluctantly I started to run. Slowly at first but then I got faster. Of course, I had to compete in this new sport and found a group of fast runners to train with. I really liked doing the 10k and half marathon races. Unlike in bike racing, where there is a real possibility of seriously crashing, in running races you just go as hard a you can till the finish line. I still enjoy running and racing to this day.
When my two [now middle school age] sons started surfing on the school’s “Surf Team” I decided that I wasn’t content to watch them from the beach, but I also didn’t want to sit out in the Santa Monica lineup waiting for a 3 ft. wave to arrive from the depths of the bay. I had seen SUP surfing in the past and thought it looked like fun. I really liked the idea of trying something new and that you could have fun surfing waves that nobody else wanted.
After renting a surf SUP for a few sessions, I purchased an 8’10” PVC surf SUP and began to learn how to surf all over again. The experience was humbling and fun at the same time. I actually enjoyed being a beginner again and seeing improvement in every session. I poured over all the websites to find tips and watched countless YouTube videos. I was paddling at Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey one day when I saw a friend, Nikki from Pro SUP Shop, cruise by on a stealthy, black carbon BARK racing SUP. I had never been stand up paddling on a race SUP before and she was kind enough to let me take it out for a spin and I was hooked.
Nikky told me that I should check out this big race that was happening that weekend called Battle of the Paddle in Dana Point. When I arrived at Doheny State Park with my son and brother, I had no idea what to expect. Once I saw the racers running down the beach, jumping on these long, skinny race boards and paddling furiously through the surf, I knew that I had to do this sport. It was like surfing, outrigger canoe racing and bike racing rolled into one. I also really liked the Ohana spirit that I saw from the racers, spectators and vendors. Yes, the competition was very serious, but there seemed to be an emphasis on having fun that appealed to me. This definitely was not the bike racing crowd.
The other appealing thing to me was the design of the race boards themselves. We used to chuckle at photos of the hollow wooden paddle boards from the 30s and we now see that they were actually very cutting edge for their time. I love to go stand up paddling and catch a wave on my 14’ SUP and imagining that I’m surfing back in the day with Duke Kahanamoku.
After paddling some demo race boards in and out of the surf at the Battle of the Paddle, I said to my brother, “I’m going to do this next year”.
Cut to a year later and I did the race in the Battle of the Paddle at the new venue in Salt Creek. I had a fairly good finish (for a 48-year-old) at 21st place in the 14’ open race and was mid pack in the distance race. It was really exciting charging through some pretty big surf with hundreds of other competitors. Looking towards my 50th birthday, I’m having a great time learning a new sport, being competitive and spending time in the ocean with my sons.
So now, I am a surfer again.