Top 3 Tips for Stand Up Paddle Boarding in the Ocean

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Stand up paddle boarding is the same no matter where you paddle, right?  Wrong!  Each body of water will have different weather conditions, currents, waves and other conditions to consider.  I live in Chicago, so I mainly paddle on Lake Michigan, inland lagoons, and the Chicago River.  However, Lake Michigan can be all kinds of different depending on the time of day, launch location, wind and boat traffic!  

Folly Beach, South Carolina

Folly Beach, South Carolina

In my most recent trip to South Carolina, I was paddling in the Atlantic Ocean.  I've only paddled in the ocean once and it was the Pacific - and not without a sharp learning curve.  Scratch that, I have technically paddled in the Atlantic Ocean, but the Caribbean is an entirely different experience - the waves are smaller, but the wind can be fierce.  

My Pacific Ocean experience left me with a severely bruised thigh that took a few weeks to heal, so I caution anyone paddling the ocean for the first time.  My goal for paddling in the ocean was to make it out past the break and enjoy a nice paddle along the coast in the rolling waves - see the picture above after successfully making it past the break!  If you are interested in SUP surf, watch this video to get some tips.  I've yet to try actually surfing the waves, so I'm no help there! 

Back to my first experience in the Pacific Ocean with a hard board I rented in Santa Monica from Poseidon Paddle and Surf.  One of my expert surfing friends cautioned me to find an entry point away from swimmers and surfers - you don’t want to be wiped out by a wave and watch your board go flying into a swimmer.  I walked into the waves with the board at my side, nose facing in front of me.  I successfully held the board and walked through the beginning waves and jumped on to my knees when I was past the break - or so I thought.  Out of the blue, a wave wiped me out, my board went flying and slammed into my thigh underwater - ouch!  I was in tremendous pain, but determined to get past the breaking waves and continue my paddle.  My second attempt was successful and I paddled along the coast for a few hours enjoying the ride and views - in pain.

In South Carolina, I was a little smarter and I'm fairly certain the waves were a little smaller, too.  I started earlier in the morning at low tide and made it out safely both times I paddled.  As I was walking into the water, I held the board down to safely make it through the breaking waves and ran for my life in between wave sets to get further out past the break.  It becomes challenging when you can't touch bottom and the waves are still breaking.  Here are my top 3 tips for ocean paddle boarding so you can learn from my mistakes!

Top 3 Tips for Ocean Paddle Boarding  

  1. Entry Point/Safety - Scan the water and pick a safe spot to enter.  Avoid concentrated areas of swimmers or surfers so you don't hurt any swimmers or tick off the surfers.  As always, wear a life vest and have a whistle.

  2. Attach Your Leash - I can't stress this enough.  If your board goes flying, the leash should prevent you from losing it altogether and possibly hitting other swimmers in the water.

  3. Entering the Water - The placement of the board as you walk into the water is important.  If you hold the board parallel to the coast, a wave will likely catch the underside of the board and flip you over.  Carry the board under your arm until you are waist deep in the water.  From here, there are two methods that have worked for me:

    • Place the board next to you, flat on the water with the nose facing forward.  Secure the paddle lengthwise on the board under your grip.  As you walk through a wave, let the board ride over the break as you dive into the wave.  Once there is a lull between wave sets, walk as fast as you can to get further into the ocean - and further past the break. 

    • The second method for higher tide and when the waves are breaking further out is to paddle like you would on a surf board.  Place your paddle on top of the board lengthwise and lay on the board face down.  Use your arms to paddle the water and power through the waves.  Make sure your paddle is secure under your body so you don't lose it in a rough wave. 

Successfully beyond the breaking waves!

Successfully beyond the breaking waves!

Drifting back into the breaking waves!

Drifting back into the breaking waves!

I've read many articles with tips on how to get past the break, including this one from, that suggests standing is the best way to paddle through the breaking waves.  Ummmm - that sounds terrifying to me!  I think with a little practice reading waves, this might be true, but could be difficult for a beginner.  My personal favorite is this article from with Sam George.  I could totally relate to this article - get away from people, run for your life between waves - yep, sounds pretty accurate! 

Once you make it past the break, enjoy the rolling waves, but pay attention - if you drift back towards the coast too much, you'll end up like me in the picture above!  Paddling in the ocean is amazing and provides a different challenge for any paddle boarder, so I absolutely love it and am planning my next date with the breaking waves!