Modern-day inland paddleboards owe their design and shape to the sport’s beginnings on Lake Tahoe
When driving anywhere around Lake Tahoe it’s hard to miss seeing someone standing upright, gliding through the water on a paddleboard. But few people may know that stand-up paddling on inland bodies of water owes its origins to Lake Tahoe and a handful of surfers.
Phil Segal’s Tahoe Paddle & Oar was the first shop to sell and rent stand-up boards on Lake Tahoe in the mid-2000s, and perhaps first anywhere in the nation not on the coast. His shop also started providing the first boards specifically shaped and designed for flat water, sparking a movement that has since taken off across the country.
“Stand-up boards had been around maybe five years before I started introducing them to the lake,” Segal said. “They were all the surf variety, touring boards. We had Joe Bark — a famous shaper — he started shaping flat-water boards. They were longer — the first ones were 18 feet long.”
Segal said he was first introduced to the sport by Hawaii’s Nick Beck, who he believes is the first to ever stand-up paddle on Lake Tahoe — sometime in the early 2000s.
“He brought over the first stand-up board that I got on,” Segal said. “I started renting those boards as soon as I could get them.”
Once he had a flat-water design from Bark, Segal said, Tahoe Paddle & Oars began taking trailer loads of the boards from Bark’s shop in Torrance, Calif., to Tahoe, beginning the emergence of a sport that has taken over Tahoe and exploded in growth over the past decade.
“The evolution of the board is unique to Lake Tahoe,” Segal said. “That was where the first flat-water board was used and raced. People couldn’t’ get close to us because the boards were so much faster. They are the race boards that you know today. (Bark’s) boards are probably the most prominent boards that you’ll see.”
The sport itself has its roots in Hawaii and was brought to California by surfer Rick Thomas in 2000.
Stand-up then began to grow along California’s coastline, attracting the attention of legendary surfer Laird Hamilton and shaper Bob Pearson.
“Years ago this buddy of mine, Laird Hamilton started talking to me about this new thing he wants to try and do, and it was standing up on a board with a paddle,” Pearson said. “I said, ‘Alright, let’s talk, let’s build a board.’ I had a bunch of tandem boards for two people, I said, ‘Hey I can break a couple of boards down.’
“He was living in Hawaii and Malibu at the time. We went down in Malibu and Point Dume where he lives, and so I said to him, ‘Point Dume is going off, let’s go surf.’ So a buddy of mine, Bill Romanowski — a 49er, Raider guy, four Super Bowl rings — went surfing and Laird came later. About two hours later Laird came out, just when Bill and I went in and were sitting on the beach. Laird paddled out on a tandem-type board with a paddle in his hand. I was just cracking up, just laughing. I go, ‘What a crazy guy, he doesn’t care what he rides.’ Then he caught a wave and made a section that I couldn’t make, and I’m a good surfer. He made a section, and I was like, ‘It must have been a freak wave.’ Then he went out there and did it again. He did three sections in a row that were unmakeable on a normal board. I jumped and went, ‘Let me try that.'”
From that point on, Pearson — who owns Arrow Surf & Sport in Santa Cruz — said he was hooked.
“I went home that night and couldn’t believe how my body hurt everywhere,” he said. “The workout was insane. I couldn’t believe how good it was for the core, the legs, the arms, and everything. Because it was so fun and an incredible workout, I went, ‘There’s something to this.’ I made myself a board. Next thing you know we have a dozen guys on our boards.”
During that time, Tahoe resident, Ernie Brassard, who’d become friends with Pearson and Thomas after spending several decades in the surf industry, was keeping in shape for surfing by paddling prone around the Tahoe. Then during one of his trips to the coast for surfing, he ran into Thomas and his stand-up paddleboard.
“We used to go on surf trips every year and he started bringing this big monster board, and I didn’t want nothing to do with it,” Brassard said.
In 2004, Brassard invited Thomas and his son to Lake Tahoe for mountain biking, but aside from bikes, Thomas showed up with something else strapped to the top of his car.
“He came up one year (to Tahoe) and he had (the stand-up board) on his car,” Brassard said. “Then there was a day the wind was howling and I go, ‘Let’s take that big board of yours and see if we can catch some waves.’ So, we were over at Agate Bay, and we were actually catching waves, taking turns on his board. That was the first time I ever got on a stand-up board, and we did it for surfing.”
Brassard then hooked up with Segal and Tahoe Paddle & Oar, as the sport began to explode on Tahoe’s waters.
“In the beginning there was about six or seven of us, his staff and friends of mine,” Brassard said. “We’d all meet in Kings Beach, and we had to trade out. We didn’t have enough boards.”
Then Pearson approached Brassard with the idea of putting together a lake crossing.
“I said, ‘Ernie, let’s get up here and paddle around and get a bunch of guys on these,” Pearson said. “We called it, Ku Hoe He’e Nalu, basically in Hawaiian it meant stand-up surf, paddle. It was all about getting some exercise in on the beautiful lake, then we said, ‘Let’s call it a race.’ The next year we did it again, and every year we do it.”
The race would be the beginning of the annual Ta-Hoe Nalu festival, which began with roughly 30 participants racing from Tahoe City to Tahoe Vista, and now attracts thousands of people each August to Kings Beach for a weekend-long celebration.
“We had nine people from here that paddled. We had a total of 31 people that actually paddled in the event on Aug. 28, 2007,” Brassard said. “We had a party at Jake’s on the Lake on Friday night, Saturday morning we paddled from Commons Beach to Tahoe Vista.”
Today, paddleboarders dot the coastline of Lake Tahoe, and the shape and design of the lake’s original boards have spread to reservoirs, rivers, and lakes across the globe.
Through training program’s like the one put on by Jay and Anik Wild at Waterman’s Landing, Tahoe continues to serve as a hotbed for the sport, with a local youth movement that produces some of the nation’s top paddlers.
“The kids are just assaulting the sport. You’ve got kids that are 12 years old that are beating 40-year-old men. The fastest growing segment of this sport is the kids,” Segal said.
“I think that (the Wild family) kind of brought this sport up to whole other level. They have an exceptional program over there for the kids. They’ve trained some world-class athletes.”
Tahoe’s next big paddleboarding event will be the Tahoe Vista Paddlefest on Sept. 9-10, which will include two days of music, paddleboarding, racing, and more.