Do you want to be part of the new cool SUP crowd? You need to learn the sport’s lingo to get more out of your SUP experience. If someone tells you their fins slipped out on them while pulling into the barrel, they aren’t talking about fish or barrels.
SUP is as unique a sport as you get, with a thriving subculture that goes back to the 1940s when the Hawaiian Kakunas became the pioneers of wave riding. SUP only caught on in western culture in the 2000s as the legendary surfboard shaper Rick Thomas brought out the first early designs.
This guide will give you the basics of understanding SUP design. We’ll include all the jargon you need to pick out your first SUP at your local surf shop or online dealer.
- Purpose-Built Paddleboard Design
- Inflatable Vs. Foam Vs. Wood SUPs
- SUP Design Elements
- Key Takeaways
Purpose-Built Paddleboard Design
So, what do you want to do with a SUP? Do you want to paddle along the flat, calm waters of the estuary or lake? Or are you keen on paddling out into the waves to score a few rides? Maybe you want to pack the rods and head out for some fishing in the flats?
There are many ways to enjoy SUP. So, manufacturers designed purpose-built SUP models for different purposes on the water. SUPs come in a range of models to suit activities. Here are the common SUP designs you’ll find at surf shops and online dealers.
- Recreational SUPs.
- Surfing SUPs.
- Racing SUPs.
- Touring SUPs.
- Fishing SUPs.
- Yoga (fitness) SUPs.
The rec SUP is a great all-rounder for a range of activities. They are at home paddling into waves and across the flats of the local lake. Rec SUPs usually have more rocker in the nose to help you when paddling into waves. Rec models are around nine to ten feet long, and they come with rounded tails and tri or quad fin setups.
The touring SUP is the next most popular option. They’re longer, thinner, and have a pointed tail design. These boards cut through the chop with less rocker in the hull to allow efficient planning and easier paddling. They come in lengths between 12 to 14-foot.
The yoga SUP is like a shorter, wider touring model. It has plenty of buoyancy, supporting the paddler when executing poses on the water. The racing Sup is a longer, thinner version of the touring SUP. These models have pin tails and pointed noses that cut through the water at high speed. They have a design for paddling long distances and board lengths up to 16-foot.
Dedicated surf SUPs look like large surfboards. They have a more surfboard-like shape, with a pointed nose and plenty of rocker in the front and rear of the board to help it fit in the pocket of waves. They feature design and construction with PU foam and fiberglass for a firm, supportive, but lightweight board. Surf SUPs are the most expensive of all SUP designs due to the construction materials used in the shaping process.
Inflatable Vs. Foam Vs. Wood SUPs
Originally, SUPs featured design and construction with wood carved by the Hawaiian Kahunas. In the 1960s, the surf revolution started integrating the use of PU foam and fiberglass in surfboard design, which overflowed into longboard and SUP design.
Inflatable SUPs changed the game. They offer a lightweight board that’s easy to carry, and it deflates into a package that’s easy to carry. There’s no need to drive around with an 11-foot board hanging off the roof racks.
SUP Design Elements
So, what are the design elements of a SUP? Here’s everything you need to know about board design and SUP components.
The nose of the board plays a role in cutting through the water in touring and entering waves in surfing. Nose design in SUP shaping defines the overall performance and speed of the board. The thinner and sharper the nose design, the faster the board. This nose design cuts through the water, making it ideal for touring and distance running use.
Rounded nose designs slow the board’s speed by adding stability to the SUP. Round noses are for fishing and yoga SUP applications where paddlers need more rigidity and surface area in the nose to stabilize the deck.
Surf SUPs and some recreational models built with surfing in mind have a balance of pointed nose design with more “volume” in the nose and front of the board. This distribution of surface area and volume in the front of the board makes it easy for the wave’s momentum to pick up the paddler.
The SUP Hull usually features one clean piece of thick plastic to support planing. This design reduces drag and paddle fatigue.
The tails tell a similar story to the nose, defining the performance and speed of the SUP. Touring and racing models will feature slender tails that reduce drag in the water. A pin-tail design improves tracking while allowing for the best forward momentum and stability.
A rounded tail is common in surf SUPs, where the paddler needs the tail to fit in the wave’s pocket, allowing them to hold the fins and tail during turns for the best maneuverability. Yoga and fishing SUPS have squash tails. The squash adds stability while allowing for turning.
The SUP deck features design and construction with durable materials like 400D PVC and nylon blended fabrics. The deck pad extends from the tail through the first third of the deck. The deck grip removes the need to wax the deck for traction.
The deck grip helps you dig your feet into the deck to turn and maneuver the board when it gets wet. Some SUPs come with bungee cord rigging in the front of the deck for gear storage. Some fishing SUPs may also feature accessory rails for mounting rod holders and fish finder or GPS units.
Fishing and touring SUPs come with options for seat mounts on the deck. You can set up an inflatable seat to support your lower back and improve paddling performance while reducing fatigue
The Rocker in the SUP describes the curvature in the board when looking at it from the side profile. Surf SUPs need rocker in the nose and tail to help the board turn on the wave face.
A straight rocker profile is great for touring and racing but lousy for surfing as it gives the rider no control. However, rocker in touring kayaks is also terrible, reducing tracking and stability on the board.
The “rails” are the sides of the board. You’ll usually find inflatable SUPS have similar rails, but there’s a difference in rail shape with surf SUPs.
Surf SUPs require sharp, defined, “boxy” rails to help the sides of the board grip the wave face. The rail will usually get “harder” or sharper towards the tail and softer towards the center of the board.
All other kayak designs rely on “soft” rails that provide more float and better board tracking in a straight line.
Sooner or later, we all fall off the SUP. If this happens in the waves, you’ll have to swim to the shore to collect the board. Unless you’re wearing a SUP leash. The leash is a long, hollow plastic cable attached to a leash leader and leash plug on the SUP deck.
The other end attaches to a Velcro/neoprene strap that you wrap around the upper calve, securing the board to your leg. Your leash should be a foot longer than your board to ensure it works correctly and doesn’t drag you when you fall off.
Vent and Plug (Inflatables Only)
Inflatable kayaks require filling with air. If you inflate the SUP in the morning, the air heats up as the sun gets high in the sky, causing expansion inside the SUP.
The deck features vents that release excess air from the board to accommodate this expansion, preventing damage to its internal support structures. Most inflatable sups have one or two air vents situated on the deck.
High-Pressure Valves (Inflatables Only)
Inflatable SUPs feature Boston valves for fast inflation. Boston valves allow for high flow rates and rapid inflation. You can inflate your SUP in under five minutes with an electric 12-volt air pump.
You’ll need to check the valves after every use to ensure they aren’t leaking. While inflatable models have long lifespans, they are subject to damage to the seals and the seams on the board.
Handle and D-rings
The SUP deck features a handle in the center point, allowing you to carry it to the shore. There are also D-rings located strategically on the deck, stern, and bow of the SUP for attached docking lines and other gear.
Fin Boxes and Fins
The bottom or “hull” of the SUP is designed for “planing” across the water, hence its name, “the planing hull.” Displacement hulls sit in the water, not on top of the water, and they don’t apply to SUP design.
The hull and rails of the SUP p[lay a role in tracking the board. However, the SUP gets most of its directional guidance from its fins. SUPs are available with the following fin configurations.
- Single-fin setup.
- Twin-fin setup.
- Tri-fin “thruster” setup.
- Quad-fin setup.
- Five-fin setup (least common).
The fins mount to fin boxes, secured with fin keys. Touring, fishing and yoga SUPs can benefit from a single-fin setup to improve tracking. Surf SUPs can use single, twin, thruster (tri-fin), or quad-fin configurations.
The twin fin setup feels loose, making it easy to turn the SUP. The thruster (tri-fin) setup gives a balance of straight-line speed and maneuverability. The quad setup allows excellent tracking in the wave face for straight-line speed in fast waves.
Understanding SUP Fin Design
The SUP fin features three design characteristics; the tip, leading-edge, and trailing edge. The dimensions of these three elements affect the performance of the SUP more than you think.
The top of the fin extends into the water. The length of the fin determines the board’s tracking and speed. Longer fins create more drag but improve tracking. Shorter fins create more speed but don’t track as well as longer fins.
Leading Edge (Rake)
The area closest to where the water moves over the fin. The “Rake” of the fin is its angle of curvature, influencing the board’s maneuverability. The longer the rake, the less performance the SUP has in tight turns, but it performs better in long, carving turns.
The rear edge of the fin. The curvature of the trailing edge determines how efficiently the fin releases water, generating lift. The more pronounced the curve, the less friction it creates and the faster you can turn the board.
So, what are the key things to note in this post when purchasing your first SUP? Here’s what you need to think about before spending your hard-earned money on a board.
Understand Design Elements
It’s good to have a handle on the basic design elements of SUPs mentioned in this post. Understanding the differences in rail design, shapes, rocker, and fin setups helps you tailor your SUP to your experience. Whether you want to float on the lake or tackle the waves in the ocean, you need the right SUP design elements to handle those conditions.
Get the Right Board for Your Activity
SUPs are available in different categories to suit what you want to do out on the water. Choose the right design to suit your activities. There’s a model-specific SUP for you for surfing, fishing, yoga, or touring. Check the length, width, nose, and tail of the board you like and see if it fits the design parameters mentioned in this post.
If you’re not a seasoned surfer, go with an inflatable kayak. They are a quarter of the cost of foam/fiberglass models and are ideal for beginners to find their feet on the board. Foam SUPs offer you the convenience of compact storage and portability, and they are easy to set up.