The first time I tried stand up paddle boarding (SUPing), it came without instruction. I rented a paddleboard from the resort where we were vacationing and figured, “How hard can it be?”

The answer, it turns out, depends on what you want to do on the board. A calm, leisurely paddle wasn’t too difficult but wind, speed, and other variables made it tough—and less enjoyable since I didn’t know what I was doing.

Recently, I tried SUPing with Paul Boynton from Board Meetings, to learn how to navigate SUPing from a pro. Board Meetings is a local company that designs SUP outings focused on safety, fun, and wellness. They offer individual lessons as well as group outings designed for team-building, family events, youth groups, and all sorts of special occasions. You can also rent their SUPs for your own excursions.

If you’re interested in SUPing in and around Grand Rapids, take a look at these tips:

For optimum safety and to stay updated on current regulations, reach out to a paddle board rental company, such as Board Meetings.

For optimum safety and to stay updated on current regulations, reach out to a paddle board rental company, such as Board Meetings.

Photo by Experience Grand Rapids

Rules, regulations, and serious recommendations

Boynton always starts with safety and for good reason. Having fun on the water isn’t fun when things go wrong. The US Coast Guard considers SUPs a vessel, so kids under the age of 13 must wear a personal flotation device (life jacket). The law also requires that everyone over the age of 13 have one on board.

The US Coast Guard also requires paddle boarders to carry a whistle (or other sound-producing device) and, if it’s after sunset, a flashlight—both to warn other boaters, if necessary. Beginning in 2019, you may also have to register your board.

In addition to these regulations, Boynton strongly recommends that you SUP with a buddy. “Try to go with somebody, especially if you’re new to it. Don’t go out alone!” He also suggests wearing a board leash so you don’t lose your board if you take a spill.

When we waded into Reed’s Lake for my lesson, I put my right leg onto my paddleboard, as he instructed, and strapped the leash onto my ankle before climbing aboard. Ok…ready to go!

Paddle boarding is suitable for people of all ages.

Paddle boarding is suitable for people of all ages.

Photo by Experience Grand Rapids

How difficult is it to learn?

“Stand up paddle boarding is incredibly easy to learn,” Boynton says. “If you can stand in one place on the ground, you can stand on a paddleboard, as long as you have the right equipment.”

Although, you can SUP on Lake Michigan, Boynton focuses on inland lakes, especially for beginners, because it’s easier to have success in calmer water. “I want people to go out and have a good time!”

SUPing can also be a fantastic workout. “What makes the difference is good form. That’s where lessons come in,” Boynton says. “I help take people from that beginner status and give them mechanical tips to make them an efficient paddler.”

Speaking from experience, I’d say that it’s worth learning the tips and techniques that come with lessons. Things like: when you paddle back to shore, don’t ride your board right up onto shore. “You want to come to a kneeled position first,” Boynton explains, “especially around boats and docks. And don’t paddle too far into shallow water or too close to obstacles.” That can spell danger if you take a spill.

For safety reasons, we also began our paddle by kneeling on our boards, since we were entering the water near a boat dock. Once we passed the boats, Boynton explained and demonstrated where to position your feet and how to move fluidly to a standing position.

I made it to the standing position but was a bit worried about falling into the cold water, especially with so many onlookers from Rose’s deck. Fortunately, Boynton taught me about the effects of offshore and onshore wind, where, and how to hold the paddle, paddling techniques, and more, which helped keep me upright.

Fact: Paddle boards come in a variety of sizes and shapes and it's important that you find the correct board that fits your needs

Fact: Paddle boards come in a variety of sizes and shapes and it's important that you find the correct board that fits your needs

Photo by Experience Grand Rapids

What kind of paddleboard should I use?

If you’re ready to commit and buy a board, you’ll quickly realize that there are many types of SUPs to choose. What’s a wanna-be SUP-er to do?

“Paddle boards come in a variety of sizes and shapes, similar to surf boards or kayaks,” Boynton explains. “For a beginner, I’d get a longer, wider, thicker board,” as these won’t perform as nimbly as sleeker boards so it’s a great place to start.

The material of your SUP also matters. Some SUPs are inflatable, while others are solid. “The inflatables are very durable,” says John Holmes with Bill & Paul’s Sporthaus, which sells SUPs and related equipment. Inflatables are also a good choice if you’re concerned about storage and transportation of the boards.

If you’re more focused on performance, take a look at solid SUP boards. There are several types, including a newer option made of thermoformed plastic: “They’re a little less expensive than the premium boards but perform better than less expensive boards,” says Holmes.

Once you decide you love SUPing, you can check out other SUP styles and models. (Beginner models, for example, tend to have rounded bodies while sleeker models can have more pointed bodies.)  “They even make racing paddle boards,” said Boynton.

If you give it a try and like it, you may find yourself looking into adventurous SUP excursions such as SUP yoga!

There are plenty of rivers and lakes around West Michigan that are perfect for paddle boarding.

There are plenty of rivers and lakes around West Michigan that are perfect for paddle boarding.

Photo by Experience Grand Rapids

Where can I try it?

“One favorite local waterway to SUP is Wabasis Lake,“ says Holmes. For starters, Big Wabasis Lake has a public boat launch, which means you’ll have easy access to the water. “There’s a channel between Big Wabasis Lake and Little Wabasis Lake, “ explains Holmes, who said the channel has a good width and depth for SUPing. “It’s a really wonderful experience to paddle the channel.”

He also recommends the Grand River from Lowell to Ada. “You can put in at the fairgrounds, which is an easy place to get on the river.” Holmes says it’s about an eight-mile paddle on a SUP, which generally takes people two-in-a-half to three hours.

You could even make an evening of it: take your SUP for a spin around the Mill Pond in the Flat River in Lowell, then grab dinner or drinks in the quaint downtown.

Because you can SUP on any inland lake with a public boat launch, there are lots of other popular options. Try your SUP on Reeds Lake, (use the kayak launch, behind the police station), Millennium Park (you can even rent paddle boards at the DeVos Family Boathouse on-site), and at Versluis Lake. If you go with Board Meetings, they also have access to private Bostwick Lake, which is a both a beautiful place to SUP and home to Bostwick Lake Inn, a great place to grab food or drinks afterwards.

While you’re trying new waterways, don’t forget about rivers. The Rogue River, Flat River, Thornapple River (from the Cascade dam to the Ada dam), and Grand River can be good for SUPing, too, particularly the Grand River Heritage Water Trail (as well as the Lowell to Ada route recommended earlier by Holmes).

If you decide to brave the big lake (Lake Michigan), rentals abound at-and-near state parks. Check out SUP rentals from beach towns in  in Holland, Grand Haven, and Saugatuck.

Try to go on a day with negligible wind. “Any wind can create a chop on the water that’s almost impossible for a beginner to paddle,” Boynton says.

As for my experience with Board Meetings, I’m happy to report that Boynton is a great teacher and, although there was one wobbly moment where things looked dicey, I was able to regain my balance and avoid amusing the diners on Rose’s deck. Lessons were totally worth that bonus!

What are your favorite outdoor recreational activities to do in Grand Rapids? For a list of fun outdoor activities, visit Experience Grand Rapids’ outdoor recreation page.