It’s about as close to walking on water as some of us are ever going to get.

Stand-up paddling, or SUP, is giving those of us without heavenly powers the ability to stand on the sea (or river or lake).

You may have seen a stand-up paddler lackadaisically cruising the coastline just beyond the surf at one of Maine’s beaches. And you may have blinked hard a few times and looked again, wondering if that figure in the distance was some sort of apparition.

Maybe it was your uncle Frank, may he rest in peace, taking a hiatus from heaven to warn you that your sweet summer fling with the badminton instructor wasn’t going to end well — and that you might take a racket to his noggin before all was said and done.

More likely, it was a stand-up paddler.

Those standing visions on the seas have become more common this summer. The sport has started to pick up in Maine, meaning more surf shops are offering lessons and more locals are taking to water with long boards and paddles.

While relatively new in New England, the sport has lingered for decades in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, since surf instructors began standing on their surf boards in an effort to better see their students and incoming waves.

More locally, surf shops like Liquid Dreams in York and Ogunquit are encouraging folks to stand-up paddle right off the Maine coast.

The surf shop’s York location offers a Mom’s SUP lesson every Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m. “Mother SUPers,” the ladies were fondly calling themselves during the lesson I took last weekend. The $30 cost includes a wetsuit, board, paddle and instruction.

Your balance is entirely up to you.

Typically, the SUP brigade heads to the waters off Long Sands Beach just in front of the surf shop. But last Sunday the waves were coming in fierce, a seemingly endless cycle of small typhoons belly-flopping into the shallow waters. Local surfers were thanking the surfing gods. I was wondering how long it’d take those waves to churn me into butter.

Instead our novice group piled into the Liquid Dreams van with a stack of paddleboards strapped to the roof and headed to nearby Cape Neddick Harbor. The harbor offered relief from the intimidating waves. And folks who duck under the Shore Road overpass can access the flat-water tributaries.

BEGINNERS DON WETSUITS

At the beach, seven boards were unloaded and laid out on the sand like a row of spring break sunbathers. We pulled up our wetsuits, struggling a bit because the early-morning sun was already shining in earnest, making our skin sticky with sweat.

Nico Evans, one of Liquid Dreams’ SUP instructors and our trusty overseer, gave us some pointers from the beach, showing us how our stance should be wide and our feet parallel to each other, rather than one foot forward as in traditional surfing.

We should stand in the approximate middle of the board and our knees should be loose, he said. When standing, both hands are on the paddle, with one clutching the T-shaped end in the same way we might hold a canoe paddle.

Beyond those basics, it’s simply a matter of staying upright.

I and the five other students, including a trio of friends who used to be neighbors and a mother and daughter team, lifted our boards from the ground and headed to the water.

The paddleboards look much like long surf boards and can range in length from 9 to 12 feet, sometimes longer. The length and width increase the board’s stability, meaning the more square inches touching the water, the easier it’ll be to stay on.

We walked the boards in deep enough to ensure the fins at the board’s rear wouldn’t touch the ocean floor. Evans suggested we start off on our knees to get a feel for the board, the paddle and the rhythmic rise and fall of the water’s surface.

The group paddled out, steering clear of a congregation of rocks that would make an unfortunate landing if someone fell off her board when attempting to go from kneeling to standing.

Having already had some SUP experience, I was feeling moderately confident about standing up. Except the 10-foot board I was currently on was shorter than those I’d previously tried. That meant a tumble from the top was still readily possible.

Following Evans’ earlier instruction, I laid the paddle across the board in front of me, while still maintaining a grip on it with both hands. Carefully, I lifted one leg, planting my foot wide. Then my other foot found its way to the board’s top. My upper body was still bent over for stability, leaving my rear end in the air, bobbing in view of the unfortunate Cape Neddick Harbor beachgoers.

The transition from hunched-over Neanderthal to upright paddler is by far the most nerve-wracking. It feels like a reversion to infancy, when little ones start experimenting with their legs, unsteadily standing up for the first time with the help of a coffee table or chair.

I straightened up slowly, feeling the board tip precariously from side to side as I did. Finally I was upright, my body adjusting for balance as the board moved in the water.

Feeling as sturdy as could be expected, I put the paddle into the water, which actually made balancing easier.

A few strokes on one side is enough to turn the board around, so paddling in a straight line means continually switching sides. For the first five minutes, my legs jittered under me. But as I grew more comfortable with the movement of the water and the reach and pull of the paddle, my body began to relax.

My fellow SUPers were standing up, too. “Am I going to fall off this thing when I try to stand up?” I heard one woman ask. “Maybe” is the only decent answer I could think of.

One by one each found her feet on the board, until we were all cautiously propelling ourselves around the small cove. Evans, on his own board, stayed close at hand to offer pointers and encouraging words.

We were given the option of sticking around in the small cove or heading to the calmer waters of the nearby tributaries. We unanimously chose the tributaries.

Paddleboards are wonderfully accommodating that way — they can take you on a lazy river tour or tackle the ups and downs of ocean water. If so inclined, you can even surf with them.

TAKING A DIP TO COOL OFF

We paddled around boats moored there and alongside the remnants of an old train bridge. And being a well-balanced collection of people, we weren’t falling in (though mom of the “mother and daughter team” did take a spill). It started getting a bit hot in those wetsuits.

One by one we all slid off the boards into the water to cool down. I’m certain we all assumed our individual clumsiness would toss us into the water at some point. It was almost a sign of triumph to end up in the water on purpose.

After 45 minutes or so of paddling, turning and some near collisions with each other, we headed back the way we came. Although the waves in the harbor were nothing like their intimidating cousins on Long Sands Beach, I still nearly tipped off the back of the board when a swell rolled under me.

When we neared the beach and the end of our lesson, I returned to the kneeling position. I haven’t quite gained the confidence yet to ride the waves in, as little and unintimidating as those waves might have been.

I’ll get there eventually. For now, I’m content to paddle the Atlantic just beyond the breaking waves, perhaps confusing folks on the beach who might look out and think, “Is that woman out there walking on the water?” 

Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 791-6333 or at:

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