Monday 22 July 2013

The Case for Board Spec Restrictions and against Restricting a Paddler’s Technique

As appears on Distressed Mullet (click here):

I’ve stayed clear of the whole discussion on whether or not there should be restrictions on SUP board specifications to this point.  I still figure I’m new to this sport and I am well aware that I have huge gaps in both knowledge and experience when it comes to many aspects of it (sadly they are the fun ones – downwinding, surfing,etc.). While I am quite comfortable talking about basic technique in flat water which can then be applied to various conditions on the ocean, you aren’t going to see me competing with either Dave Kalama or Jeremy Riggs doing clinics related to ocean stuff any time soon.   When it comes to board design I’m still learning as well.  I have ideas on what might be reasonable in terms of design restrictions, but have been quite content to let others with a richer background in SUP debate it and have just listened instead.   That changed yesterday when I read an article on by Steve West.

Steve is no doubt and intelligent guy and has a ton of experience on the ocean. Certainly far more than me. He’s even written a book about SUP.  I think we agree on the need to keep SUP as standup paddleboard and not standup canoe or something else.  Interestingly that is what motivated Jimmy Terrell to write his piece about restrictions to board specifications as well.  However Steve and I also have a huge difference of opinion, and I feel so strongly about it I decided it was time to get off the sidelines and “stand up” and be counted on this issue.

For most of you there is one question at issue.  Should there be restrictions to board design specs or not?  Steve, however, raises another issue in the same discussion – should there be restrictions to paddling technique as well in order to keep the SUP we know from changing.  He thinks there should be and I couldn’t disagree more.
Lets deal with the issues one at a time.  I agree with those that think there should be some type of restrictions to board design specs.
I come from a sprint canoe background.  There have been restrictions to boat specs since long before I started to paddle.   C1, C2, K1, K2, K4 all have restrictions with regards to length, weight, and concave surfaces below the water line.  There used to be width restrictions as well until around 2000 when they were dropped.  Boat manufacturers were making the boats increasingly narrow below the waterline and then achieving the minimum width well above the waterline.  The result was strange looking boats with “horns” sticking up at the widest point just to meet the width restrictions.  The boats looked ridiculous, were difficult to store and transport, and the rule had no effect on the practical width at the waterline.  The International Canoe Federation looked at the situation and correctly decided to get rid of any minimum width restrictions.

Knowing that the equipment being used in a race was all essentially the same meant that I knew I wasn’t going to lose a race because of equipment.  Nobody would.  Even with the width restriction removed the equipment in a race is sufficiently the same to ensure that nobody is going to lose a race because of their boat.  That is a good thing.  It also means that the boats will continue to look similar to the way they do now well into the future.  Thus the nature of sport will basically remain the same.  Canoe-kayak will look similar 20 years from now to the way it does now.  It will evolve to be sure, but the spirit of the sport will remain the same.  This is something that those supporting restrictions to board specs are aiming for – to keep the spirit of the sport intact as it evolves.

Board spec restrictions are also trying to do something else.  Namely keep the sport accessible to new participants.  Currently first time paddlers can take out race boards and still paddle with some sense of stability.  Granted there are some custom race boards that they would find difficult to stay on, but by and large they can use a decent board capably very quickly upon entering the sport.  This means the sport is user friendly and attractive to new participants.  This is one of the reasons the sport is growing so fast.  If boards were allowed to evolve without limits, that would change.  Such a change would be to everyone’s detriment – board and paddle manufacturers, race organizers, and participants.  Even the top-level elite racers would feel the pain, losing their sponsorships as growth in the sport declined.  We all have a vested interest in keeping this sport accessible and attractive to new participants.  We should all be watching the rec races at the events we go to with interest and supporting and encouraging those participants.

But what of fairness?  There are those that are claiming that they are put at a disadvantage because the sport currently favors lighter paddlers.They’d like nothing more that to remove ALL restrictions, particularly those around board length. I disagree with this approach for a few reasons.

To start with, we should be concerned about the majority, not the few heavier paddlers who are upset because lighter, fitter athletes are beating them.  Most paddlers entering the sport are well suited to the board options available.  Having to pay more for longer, more complex and more difficult to store boards is not something that is going to make the sport more attractive to them.

Heavy, incredibly fit athletes in our sport are rare.  I’d suggest to the 250 lbs., chiseled from granite running back who is upset that he is at a disadvantage competing against Connor Baxter on a 14 foot board that he is in the wrong sport or at the very least should adjust his goals and expectations.  By the same logic I’d say the same thing to Connor if he were complaining about not being able to play professional football.  Some sports are better suited to athletes with certain body types.  That’s just fact.  Furthermore, the reality is we already have a board class for individuals like this in our sport.  It’s called unlimited.  Big guys are free to race on these boards already.  However there is no logical reason that we should change the sport, to the detriment of the entry-level paddler, in order to make everyone race unlimited against them.  It just makes no sense.

For the 250 lbs. weekend warrior athlete who isn’t the paragon of fitness, I’d suggest that before trying to legislate everyone else onto different boards to “level the playing field” they first look in the mirror, get out the body fat calipers and make a commitment to change their physique, improving their health in the process.  After all, that is one of the most basic reasons we should all be doing SUP in the first place – it’s an incredibly fun and enjoyable way to get fit and stay in shape.  If they do that, they’ll see an improvement in their performance.  Then, if they’re still not satisfied, they can buy unlimited boards and compete against the 250 lbs. running back.

When I read the arguments against board restrictions of any kind on various forums, I can’t help but conclude that the strongest proponents of eliminating board specs are doing so for selfish and personal reasons.  It is a stretch to suggest they are altruistic and have the best interests of the majority of entry level participants in mind.  I’ll repeat it here.  All of us involved in this sport should be putting the experience of those entry level people near the top of our list of priorities as they are the ones that are fueling the growth of our sport, buying boards and paddles and keeping those that sponsor the elite racers in business.

Board specification restrictions can effectively limit evolution of board design to prevent boards from reaching the point where they are no longer recognizable as paddleboards and are something more akin to racing canoes instead.  Board spec restrictions are easy to apply and enforce.  Before races boards can be inspected – measured and weighed, just like racing canoes and kayaks are.  If the board passes inspection it is legal and can be raced.  If not, the competitor would have to track down another board.  

So what should the board specs be?  The answer is I don’t honestly know.  I kind of like the way it is now with 14’ and unlimited.  I could get rid of 12’6” but get the issue of air travel so don’t know what to suggest there.  I do believe that women should race on the same boards as men.  It seems silly to arbitrarily say they need to race on shorter boards.  In canoe-kayak we certainly don’t make women race in shorter boats.   I think a length restriction is obvious.  A reasonable minimum width would be useful, and when I say reasonable I mean I’d still allow it to go fairly narrow.  A minimum weight would be a useful spec, as well as some type of maximum amount of recess in the tray where the paddler stands.

I’ll let everyone debate the numbers, and leave them with this thought while they do: board spec restrictions are inevitable.  Currently our sport has grown way more quickly on the water than off, but when the off water growth catches up there will be spec limitations.  With SUP taking off in more and more countries it’s inevitable there will be a movement to form some type of International SUP Federation.   Someone will start a campaign to get SUP into the Olympics, or at least have a legitimate world championship recognized by everyone.  Racing rules will need to be drafted and board specs will be one of the first things to be addressed.  It may take another decade but it’s coming, so get ready. 

With regards to restricting paddling technique, check out what Steve West says:
                        Ultimately, there should be definitions which limit certain bio-mechanical
                        actions (techniques / styles) employed during execution of the forward stroke –
                        relating to stance in particular.

“Where a rider is positioned such that they cannot and do not switch paddling
                        sides and are reliant upon steering strokes and power strokes employed on one side
                        only, combined with a plunge-stroke, exaggerated high-knee, split-stance and radical
                        lowering of the centre of gravity or any combination of these factors, this shall be
                        deemed not to be in keeping with the spirit of the sport.”

His premise is if we tell SUP paddlers that they can’t paddle like a C1 paddler then the boards won’t evolve to become C1s.  I agree that might work, but what a backwards and ineffective way to address the evolution of boards. 

There are two simple restrictions that should concern paddling technique in SUP.  The paddler should be required to stand up and should be required to use a single blade paddle.  Beyond that, paddlers should be pretty free to experiment with technique.  Why?  Because enforcing any rules you come up with about how someone can or can’t paddle is incredibly difficult to the point of impossible.  In fact it is absurd to think you could effectively police technique the way Steve suggests above.

What definition are you going to use for “split-stance”?  Six inches?  One foot?  Two feet?  Suppose you go with 24”.  How are you going to be able to tell that the guy with a 20” split stance is actually 20” and not over 24” when he is out on the water paddling?  Suppose you just say that everyone must use a parallel stance.  What do you do when paddlers start moving their feet around in the ocean on waves?  Their surf stance is a split-stance.  Do you therefore ban both?

A lot of paddlers have discovered how to paddle indefinitely on one side if it suits them, using the very stroke that Steve, in his passage quoted above, says should be banned.  So what do you do?  Tell them they MUST switch sides every 10 strokes?  15 strokes?  20 strokes?  What happens if a guy does 21 strokes once in a race?  Is he disqualified?  Who is counting the strokes?  Who is to say the person counting can in fact count?  What happens in a strong side wind in which virtually everyone has to paddle for an extended period on one side just to go straight?  Do you enforce a 20 stroke rule anyway even if it means people can’t keep their boards straight?  Or do you make an allowance for the wind and say “in a 20 mph or greater side wind the 20 stroke rule does not apply”?  Who is to say how strong the wind really is?  How does the athlete know when they’re breaking the rule or not? 

It is quite ludicrous to try to place such restrictions on technique in order to accomplish something that board restrictions can easily and effectively address.  Imagine the controversy surrounding drafting and multiply it by 1000 and you have what such technique restrictions would get you. 

The reality is a paddler’s technique is an expression of their skill and ability to adapt to both the idiosyncrasies of their board and the nature of the conditions they are paddling in.  The first time people saw Connor Baxter choke down on his paddle it probably blew everyone’s minds.  Now it is recognized as a bit of genius that allows the paddler to find the appropriate gear for the conditions, is widely accepted, and used by thousands of paddlers.  Would Steve have suggested a rule that said you had to have your hand on the top of the paddle, thus preventing this brilliant evolution in technique?   I rest my case.

We are participating in this amazing, incredibly fun and ridiculously addictive sport.  Thankfully it is growing like crazy and hopefully that growth continues well into the future.  We all win, no mater what niche we occupy, when the sport grows.  Like any growing and evolving thing our sport is going to change over time.  If we want to keep it similar to what we have now we’ll have to make some rules that control the evolution.  I think I’ve made a good case for creating a reasonable set of specifications that define various board classes.  I just don’t know exactly what those specs should be and am interested in both watching where it goes and participating in the conversation.   As for paddling technique it is clear – our sport is STAND UP paddling, so participants must be required to stand and use a single blade paddle.  Beyond that, I’m looking forward to seeing where our sports top athletes can take this sport technically given the freedom to do so.