In the early morning hours of a sultry summer day, a small handful of people collect on the sandy salt marsh beach of Wrightsville Yacht Club, a launching point adjacent to the causeway bridge that carries street traffic that last little hop over inland waters to Johnnie Mercer's Fishing Pier. These people have signed up for a two-hour SUP class from WB Surf Camp, and will spend some time learning the basics before they plunge into the inland waterway.
"I do about 30 minutes on the beach called ground school covering the basics, safety, and a little bit about the equipment," said instructor Doug Carroll. "And from there we get on the water. Unlike surfing, with paddleboarding I can continue instructing once we're on the water because we can still talk."
The safety lecture contains warnings about all possible hazards, and he sees fear in his students' eyes when he describes all the things that could conceivably go wrong.
"The first rule is no diving. I do my best to keep the clients in deep water, but that's not always possible. So rule number one, if you're falling, go feet first."
Diving in shallow water runs the risk of incurring a spinal injury, and also when you dive you tend to hold your paddle out in front of you. The blade of the paddle can hit the water and come back at you. The thing to remember when you're falling is to hold up the paddle and just step off the board.
The second big concern is boat traffic. "I do my best to keep them away from boat traffic but that's not always possible. I always tell them if you see a boat you want to make a clear and decisive turn toward shore. Make a commitment toward it. That way you give the boat one clear option which is to go around you."
The third item to be aware of is the presence of oyster beds, which are not kind to the naked foot.
"The last thing I want to do is have someone step off the board and land in an oyster bed. I've done my best to go through surveys and charts to find out where all the oyster beds are in this area, but that doesn't mean that there isn't an isolated shell just sitting somewhere."
The natural tendency is to want to stay in shallow water where you can stand up, but unfortunately oyster reefs prefer that moderate depth as well. "You don't want to step on an oyster shell or a stingray. These mud flats are covered in stingrays, so you don't really want to be walking around. I try to keep them in water they can't stand in the entire lesson."
He tells the group to stay together, a directive that typically falls on deaf ears. "You'd be surprised how much time I spend corralling the group because people are off just enjoying themselves, spacing out and going every which direction. For boaters it's easier if we stay together as a group."
The safety talk is the last thing before going into the water, and he said that way it stays in their minds. "I don't mean to scare everyone, and their eyes get big when I talk about landing in an oyster bed and slicing their feet up or getting run over by a boat. But they need to know."
Terms: Paddleboarding School