It's not quite surfing; it's not quite kayaking — stand-up paddleboarding is in a league all its own. The unique sport has exploded in popularity over the last few years, but its roots can be traced back much farther in Polynesian culture.
Much like surfing, the sport gained popularity in California before migrating south to Florida. Here, on the Gulf Coast, conditions are ideal for the sport; the flat, calm water makes areas like Sarasota the perfect place to paddle, and athletes have taken notice. Last year, paddleboarder Rob Alfieri realized Sarasota's potential as a SUP destination, and he founded the inaugural Sarasota SUP Series, featuring more than 100 athletes in three different races.
This Saturday, June 21, the Sarasota SUP Series kick off its second season at Siesta Key Public Beach with the first of three races this summer. We caught up with Alfieri to see what both athletes and spectators can expect.
Why do you think stand-up paddleboarding has become so popular lately?
It really has exploded. I've read that it's the fastest growing outdoor sport in the world. I think it's so popular in Florida, because it's so accessible. I have nine or 10 amazing accesses within 15 minutes of my house; it's incredibly accessible. That's the great thing about Sarasota.
When did you first get into the sport?
It was four or five years ago, when the sport was still really small. I started traveling around to other places to paddleboard, and I realized that Sarasota was by far the best in the area. Other cities will have one or two good accesses, but we have so many here. I started thinking that it would be a great place to host a race, and that's how the idea came about for the SUP Series. I went to the sports commission, and everyone thought it was a great idea. I couldn't decide whether to host it on Siesta Key, Lido or even at the rowing center. We ended up going with three races.
What can people expect, if they've never been to a race?
When I was young, I would spend a lot of time with my mother in Australia, and they would have what they called beach carnivals. It was just a great, family-friendly event, and it's what everybody did on the weekends. That's the same type of atmosphere we want to create here. It's a really fun environment — you get to see all these great athletes competing, and we set it up so that everyone can see everything from the beach. It's really fun for the athletes and spectators.
Why would you recommend someone try the sport?
I tell people it's like riding your bike through a neighborhood you normally drive through. You see it in a whole new way. You can live in Sarasota for 20 years, and when you get out on the water, you'll see things you've never seen before. It gives you a whole new appreciation for our waterways and local ecology. Not to mention the health benefits — a lot of people get into it for the fitness. It doesn't feel like it, but you're working really hard. You feel it afterward. It's also a really great way to relieve stress and meditate.
Why would you tell someone to come watch the races?
It's a really fun way to spend the morning. It's free for the public, there will be giveaways, raffles and food. There will be about 12 different board manufacturers there giving free demonstrations, if people want to try it for the first time. I think they'll be blown away by the day's energy.