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An overwhelming sense of dread crept into my mind. I couldn’t shake the notion that I’d just failed my stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) pre-test in the backyard of Maria Souza, the owner of Maui’s Stand-Up Paddle Boarding School and the instructor for my first SUP lesson.
The hula hoop she gave me to warm up my tight back and hip muscles never twirled more than a couple times before falling to the ground. I felt unstable and uncomfortable learning the strokes standing atop her paddleboard, even though it rested peacefully on the grass. Driving to Sugar Beach, on Maui’s southern shore, my fears intensified like the waves pounding the surf.
How would I handle the ocean waves? Would the currents and winds Souza warned me about wash me away? What about sharks and jellyfish?
Minutes later, gliding effortlessly above calm waters, all those doubts seemed so silly. It felt empowering and liberating to stand on the water, almost like I was walking on the moon. Learning from Souza, an elite ocean athlete, turned out to be a breeze.
“Jesus used to be the only one who could stand on water,” she said. “Now we can, too.”
SUP has taken Hawaii, especially Maui, by storm in recent years. In the islands, the sport traces its beginnings back to the 1960s, when Waikiki’s famed Beach Boys would paddle out to take pictures of people learning to ride the waves on surfboards. In the early 2000s, SUP was rediscovered as an alternative way for surfers to train when the surf was flat. With its big boards and lightweight easy-to-handle paddles, SUP is much easier to learn than surfing, windsurfing or kitesurfing, and that’s the major reason its popularity has exploded.
“Paddleboarding is a release,” Souza said. “You learn how to step lightly and float and not be hard on anything. You can apply this to the rest of your life. The water cures all.”
Souza considers the ocean her church and watersports her religion. She’s an experienced windsurfer and kitesurfer, and she has won the annual 32-mile race across the Molokai Channel on a stand-up paddleboard three times. She was also the first woman to tow-in surf (which is when a surfer is brought to a powerful break via Jet Ski or helicopter) the enormous waves of Maui’s Peahi, nicknamed Jaws.
A native of Brazil, Souza was drawn to SUP for its therapeutic powers. A back injury derailed her career as a competitive outrigger canoe racer. She started Maui’s first SUP school in 2005.
“I believe that SUP changes lives in an easy way,” she said.
“It is like having a dream job. It is cool to have an office in the ocean.”
Souza takes a safety-first approach to teaching. That’s why she starts every lesson on land. She said she specializes in working with people who fear big water, and she continually talks about the importance of respecting the ocean.
“Most people find me after they’ve had a bad experience. Maybe they got hurt,” she said. “That’s what I like — getting them comfortable in the ocean again.”
Souza follows three basic rules for SUP: Never turn your back to a wave. Only paddle out as far as you are willing to swim back (coast guard rescues can be expensive). Stay away from everybody.
SUP riders are still considered outsiders on the water, much like early snowboarders, who were despised by skiers when they hit the slopes.
“We are new, so we are not loved,” she admitted. “We have to watch out for swimmers, divers and surfers. They don’t like us because we move faster and catch more waves. We stand up in a proud position. ”
During my land session, Souza taught me how to stand up and how to stroke, but she especially emphasized the two most important fundamentals — how to turn and how to fall.
“If you fall, you want to splash in a relaxed motion,” she said. “If you are tense, it will feel like you’re hitting cement.”
I mastered one of those skills. Paddling through the shore break, I was tossed off my board by a large wave. I didn’t mind, though. It was a refreshing end to a wonderful morning.
Souza touts SUP as an activity for a lifetime. She even recently taught her 73-year-old mother the sport.
“Once you buy a board, there are [no more expenses to have to worry about] in order to paddle,” Souza said. “It’s quite a good deal.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Stand-Up Paddle Boarding School808-579-9231www.standuppaddlesurfschool.com
Private lessons last 90 minutes and cost $159 per person. Family Day Camp, which lasts two hours, costs $199 per person. Commission: 10 percent.