A brief history of, and Beginner’s Guide to Prone Paddleboarding

Although little known in Europe, paddleboarding aka “prone paddleboarding” aka “prone” is gaining in popularity and experiencing an increase in interest amongst the SUP community. This is in contrast to Australia, California, New Zealand, South Africa or Tahiti where it has a massive following. TotalSUP talks to Fanatic France SUP Surfer and top French prone paddler Médéric Berthe who possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge on the subject. We have asked him to prepare a brief history of paddleboarding and a guide to various races, board formats as well as who the legends of the sport are. He leaves no stone unturned in this exciting interview.

Hello Médéric, can you tell the readers a little about yourself?

My name is Médéric Berthe, I am 38 years old, I am married to Sandrine Berthe and have 1 daughter Keilana. I live in Lit-et-Mixe, Landes , in south west France, where I work as a physiotherapist.

As far as I can remember my life has always been on the beach and in the ocean, my mum worked on the beach and my dad windsurfed, so it was rare if I never set foot on the beach in a single week. When I was 6 I discovered bodyboarding and since then I have never stopped playing in the ocean. I have never limited myself to a single discipline, I moved to shortboard and longboard before discovering the world of lifeguarding / surf rescue.

When the SUP boom happened in France I jumped at the chance to discover what the discipline had to offer, then it became SUP surf then SUP race, then I also paddled outrigger canoes (OC1 and OC4 as helmsman).

I competed a lot in prone competitions, this year alone I competed in the prone race at the Tahiti Air France Paddle Festival and he also competed in the Waterman Tahiti Tour Round 2 in Papara.

How did you discover prone paddleboard ?

Surf rescue opened the doors of the paddleboard world (also known under the name of “prone”). I became hooked right away with it. Since I became more involved in the surfing world I discovered the history of the surf pioneers, in the not-so-distant past the term of waterman was used sparsely. I really liked the idea of knowing how to do a bit of everything on the water, to be able to evolve on the ocean in any conditions and on any craft.

I love to watch old videos where we see guys throw themselves into solid conditions in Waïmea without leash on boards that weigh over 30kg, they then take the set on the head, lose their board, swim to shore and have a great big smile on their faces. This is for me the image I have in mind of an ultimate waterman! I think that’s partly why I joined the prone paddleboard scene. These guys who spent their winter surfing incredible waves prepared themselves on a prone paddling during the “flat” season. This was my vision of surfing: simple and humble guys in opposition to what we know now as the surf business with plenty of “rockstars on shortboards”.

Can you tell us the history of paddleboarding?

The history of paddleboarding is similar to that of surfing. When Captain Cook and his crew discovered the Hawaiian Islands at the end of the 18th century they saw the natives using planks of wood to move quicker on the water. The same boards were used to slide on the waves and thus became surfing!

This practice continued, then the boom started by the Duke at the beginning of the 20th century. Hawaiian, surfer, rower and Olympic swimming medalist Duke Kahanamoku exported the phenomenon of surfing around the world and paddleboarding.

In the wake of the Duke, another talented swimmer and surfer, Tom Blake brought prone paddleboarding to another sphere, making it a sport. A genius inventor, Tom Blake experimented extensively in the 1920s to build the fastest paddleboard possible. This is how he developed his famous “Hollow board”.

Tom Blake is behind the world’s oldest paddleboard race, the “Catalina Classic”. It was in 1932 that to prove the effectiveness of his boards for the rescue, Blake and three Santa Monica rescuers (Pete Peterson, Wally Burton and Chauncy Granstrom) made the first crossing between Palos verdes Peninsula and Catalina Island.

Later, in 1955, the race was created in its current form with a departure of “Two Harbors” and an arrival at “Manhattan Beach” is 51 km. The first edition attracted surf legends such as Greg Noll, Ricky Grigg and Bob Hogan.

It is incredible to think that the “Catalina Classic” already existed a year before the arrival of surfing in France in 1956!!! The “Catalina Classic” took place 5 times between 1955 and 1960. It was relaunched in 1982 and since that date it takes place every year on the last Sunday of August.

In 1996, a Hawaiian rower from the Catalina Classic, Dawson Jones, decided to create a major rowing race in Hawaii. Thanks to the will of 3 enthusiasts, Dawson Jones, Garret Macamara and Mike Takahashi as well as to the financial support of Quiksilver, the first edition of the “Molokai 2 Oahu” saw the day in 1997. So, to all the SUPers, at its origin the “Molokai” is a prone race! It was only in 2006 that the stand-up paddle made its appearance on this “classic”.

Who are the major players in paddleboard prone in the world?

We have seen in the history that long-distance paddleboarding has its roots in Polynesian culture and more recently in North American culture, however when we look at the rankings of what has become the most important race of our sport, the “Molokai”, all the podiums are taken up by the Australians. But what do they have to do with this sport?

It turns out that the Australians have created the surf life saving. This sport allows the rescuers at different rescue centres to measure themselves against, in a series of events bringing together running, swimming, kayak and paddleboarding! Federated in 1907, Surfing Saving Australia (SLSA) is today one of the most popular sports in Oz! Huge amount of children train from an early age in all the disciplines. There is a professional championship that brings together all the most talented athletes of their generation, Jamie Mitchell, Lachie Lansdown, Stewart Mc Lachlan, Matt Bevilaqua, Jordan Mercer, Harriet Brown to mention a few.

California, Hawaii, New Zealand and South Africa is still a breeding ground for good prone paddlers, somewhere in the middle are some French people. I’m lucky to be part of come to get good places (TOP 10) on these two great classics what are Molokai and Catalina.

What are the standard prone board formats?

There are 4 main types of paddleboard prone:

– The 10’6: paddleboards intended for coastal rescue, they are made for short races (about 500m) and allow to get through in conditions that can be solid and are handy for the return to the surf.

– The 12 ‘or stock: long distance paddleboards they are developed to make long crossings, they remain manageable in the “bumps” or on the flat but are not for surfing.

– The 14 ‘: long distance paddleboards but this category is on the decline.

– UL or unlimited: boards 15 feet and more, these are the F1 of the paddleboard world. Designed exclusively for long distance these boards have a major difference compared to their cousins, they are equipped with a rudder system.

In the “Stock” category, a 12-foot board, there are two trends, the Australian shape and the Californian shape.

The boards shaped in Australia are very much like coastal lifeboats, they are relatively flat on both the top and the bottom and often hold the 10’6 square tail. These paddleboards have the advantage to be stable and manageable, but the glide and the comfort level isn’t great.

In the Californian design we need to refer totally to Joe Bark, the boards are much more tapered with a knee well present, the boards have a very round bottom and a very pronounced pin tail. The Californian design have an exceptional glide and the comfort is good, which can be appreciated during races measuring more than 50 km! However, it is not all perfect, these boards are unstable and less manageable than their Australian counterparts.

I’m doing Stand-Up Paddle, why would I prone paddleboard?

It is always good to start for fun! Many SUPers that I know (yes I also regularly practice SUP) tell me “but you have not hurt your back? you’re pretty sore? it looks so hard! … ” Yes, it may be uncomfortable at first, like SUP or any sport that we are not used to doing. But after some training we get used to the pain and we start to take pleasure.

It is not easy to begin with and people are often surprised how unstable the boards are and that is before they get started on paddling in the knee position! This is probably why prone paddleboarding is not as successful as SUP. But for those who preserve they go on to discover the purest glide that we can have on the ocean, just a board and our hands, no intermediary, it is literally our body connected with the element, we are at the water’s edge, we can feel each swell, we can feel the board vibrate, the water sprinkles on our faces.

Joseph Gueguen is a beautiful example of adaptation, he began practicing the prone for the Waterman Challenge and was so seduced by the glide that now he is among the best French prone paddlers (in addition to being one of the best SUP racers). Ludovic Dulou is another great French paddleboard prone athlete, he alternates SUP and prone, Ludovic has done the M20 6 times on a prone and once on a stand-up paddle.

As well as the fun the prone is also a great for physical preparation, especially for athletes who train at high intensity on SUP and want to avoid the “overdose” and weariness of the sport. Titouan Puyo told me a few weeks ago that he had done a lot of prone in New Caledonia this winter and allowing him to keep fit, and it has also allowed him to not get so hot during training. Yes, in prone we can flow easily!

Finally, if you want to participate in the French Waterman Challenges circuit in Soulac on 15/16 September and have a chance to win your ticket for one of the most incredible events in the world the Waterman Tahiti Tour well you have no choice!!!! You have to put yourself on a prone!


About the Author

Helen Trehoret

SUP, OC1, V6, Surfski ... and field hockey coaching, Helen is a busy British mother of two who lives in Bretagne, France with a passion for all things Ocean. Helen runs Barrachou SUP, a SUP tour company specialized in excursions around Bretagne and Scotland.

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