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Breaking the Rules

Updated: May 1

[ UPDATE April 2023: Originally published by Dale Swanson, June 4, 2014, on - a now defunct website and brand. When Dale and Elin Fisher formed Flow State SUP they moved all of the original blog posts (with unfortunately low resolution images) to Upon rereading this piece a decade later Dale reports that he still quietly works against the creep of stylistic and technical dogma and still falls a LOT! ]

A year ago I bought a stand-up paddling board; SUPerCharger made by Jackson Kayak. I did not find lessons to learn how to operate it. I did not find a community of like-minded SUP paddlers to learn from and with. I just started playing with it using the knowledge I had accumulated from a couple decades spent canoeing lakes and whitewater rivers. In addition to learning the subtle art of a single-bladed canoe paddle I had just come off a few years practicing canoe poling. So, I wasn’t completely uneducated as far as paddling upright with a 6 foot, single-bladed paddle. I just didn’t know there were already rules for this new thing.

Through this first year of paddling this enormous, 65lb plastic SUP on a variety of rivers and creeks I discovered freedom. I unstrapped myself from the saddle, stretched my legs, and learned to move around without the confining hazards of a canoe’s gunnels and thwarts. It was a revelation. I began to learn what might be possible when free to engage all of my body and focus my weight anywhere on the boat that suited me. It was a rare opportunity to rediscover the river with all of the passion of a new whitewater boater confronting their first class III challenges.

The world opened up.

Recently and for the first time since I started SUP’ing whitewater I found myself in the company of a group of flat water SUP instructors. Hal Boyle (Triad Eco Adventures) invited me test drive his nice, lightweight boards and meet a few friends and SUP instructors at his beautiful home on nearby Belews Lake.

When I arrived (late, of course), everyone had just come in from the lake and were preparing a little dinner on the deck. Hal pointed me to the boards on his little beach, tossed me a PFD and I was on the water … and in the water. I must have paddled 4 or 5 different boards in 15 minutes. Inflatable and traditional glass and each 1/3 the weight of my plastic Jackson river board. They were so much more responsive to subtle and dramatic shifts in board position. I was walking forward and backward, spinning around, testing the side rails, and generally having a blast playing and splashing down in the water.

After a light meal (and only 1 glass of wine) we were all on the water for one last run at dusk. One of my new paddling companions, Cass, commented more than once that I was breaking all the rules they used for teaching SUP … which she quickly followed up with “but you’re doing really cool things that I want to learn.” It was a nice paddle full of conversation featuring me falling in the water 3 times because I saw no reason to stop playing around – LOL

But it really hadn’t occurred to me that SUP would have ‘rules’. This was new.

I was familiar with the concept of “rules” in canoeing. As a 16 year old canoe instructor at Boy Scout Camp I literally (in retrospect) tortured my young, would-be canoeists with ‘rules’. Never stand. Three points of contact. Paddle-stroke precision … especially with the arcane art & function of the “J Stroke.” Rule-breaking like headstands, gunnel-bobbing, and other reckless “skills” were – surprisingly – completely foreign to my training and the Boy Scout canoeing manual.

It wasn’t till many years later that I learned to relax, focus on “principles,” abandon hard “rules,” and learn that the ultimate object is “FUN.”

While the “rule breaking” comments were delivered jokingly I did share some of the canoeing principles I brought to River SUP. Vertical paddle shaft. Bracing and sculling.  Keeping the blade quiet and forward strokes short and forward. Focusing on glide and cadence to avoid overpowering the blade. Edging and trim for efficient tracking and speed. And both visualizing and feeling the chain of power transferring from blade through core and into the board.

Sorry for throwing in jargon in the last paragraph. If you’ll follow along with this blog I’ll be going into more detail on these things in the future.

Ultimately you can (and I do) totally geek out on refining technique. But the rules of SUP – like any set of rules – are sometimes artificial or oversimplified and can hinder deeper understanding. The practice I prefer sets my objective directly on “fun” which – for me – means experimenting, learning & refining. Guidelines developed around understanding gravity and hydrodynamics are helpful in maximizing fun. Principles developed around safety – like wearing a helmet and PFD – are helpful in minimizing the opposite of fun.

As a Whitewater SUP coach my goal is to help you get comfortable enough with fundamentals so that you can begin experimenting and learning yourself. This sport is still developing and there is so much room for new interpretations on how to ‘surf’ a whitewater rapid. I do not want to limit your personal vision with a bunch of dogma.

In upcoming posts I will share some of what I have learned so far in my self-education process – bow stall eddy turns, falling, rock spins, and especially paddle-work since most of the SUP paddlers I have seen appear to have little understanding of the capabilities of a single-blade paddle .

On Friday, June 6 :: Whitewater SUP = Calisthenics



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