FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. -- An array of paddleboards lined a sandy beach above Fayette Station Rapids on Thursday, while the sounds of reggae and beach music from a generator-powered sound system drowned out the background drone of churning whitewater.
The Hawaii-born sport of stand-up paddleboarding (known as SUP to its practitioners) was about to have its West Virginia racing debut, despite non-tropical temperatures in the high 50s and occasional bursts of wind-driven rain.
The sight of dozens of paddleboard-toting vehicles passing by, carrying participants to the event, caught the attention of Natalie Waters of Honolulu, a former Ohioan who, with other family members, was in the New River Gorge to rock climb.
"We couldn't go climbing because of the rain, so we were just driving around looking at things when we saw a van go by hauling a bunch of paddleboards," Waters said. "I've gone paddleboarding in Hawaii, but the idea of paddleboarding on a river, in West Virginia? We decided to follow them and watch what they were doing."
Within an hour, Waters was riding a demo paddleboard supplied by vendors taking part in a pre-race tryout session, on a stretch of flat water above Fayette Station Rapids. She was soon joined by brothers, Jacob and Jordan, students at Ohio State and the University of Cincinnati, respectively, and her mother, Kitty, all SUP newbies. All of the novice stand-up paddleboarders managed to paddle their way upstream, under the Fayette Station Bridge, and back without getting more than their feet wet.
"We said, 'let's watch,' when we saw the van go by,"Natalie Waters said, "and after watching, we said 'let's do it.'"
"It was fun," said Jordan Waters. "I'd like to do it again -- but not through any rapids, yet."
Most beginners are able to stand up and paddle atop a paddleboard within an hour of becoming familiar with the surfboard-like conveyance, said Melanie Seiler, who organized Thursday's SUP event. Seiler is an instructor and guide for Adventures on the Gorge's stand-up paddleboarding program, which debuted this summer on Summersville Lake.
"We had 11 commercial SUP trips this year, and everyone seemed to like it," she said. "People on our trips ranged in age from 10 to 70."
Seiler, who took up the sport last year, said interest in SUP is growing rapidly throughout the East.
Lake-borne SUP appeals to people of all ages and abilities as a form of exercise and as a platform for viewing nature. "Fishing off these things is really something, too," said Tim Truman, a Beckley native who now is the Indiana-based Midwest distributor for Boardworks Surf, a maker of paddleboards. "They are quiet and, since you're standing up, you see fish in the water better than if you were sitting in a boat."
"Interest in stand-up paddleboarding is just starting to develop in West Virginia, but I expect it to grow rapidly, since it's such a natural fit for the kinds of water we have and the level of interest we already have in paddling," said Pat Schneble of Harpers Ferry, a distributor for Great Lakes Paddleboards.
"Riding a stand-up board through Class II rapids is like taking a kayak through Class V water," said Jayann Jones, a 17-year rafting guide for Songer/Adventures on the Gorge, who has ridden a SUP through the lower New River Gorge, home of the New's biggest and baddest whitewater.
"It adds a whole new level of adrenalin to things," she said. "I think the whitewater aspect of stand-up paddleboarding is what will really take off around here."
Standing waves in the Gorge make it possible for downriver SUP riders to stop and surf, much like their ocean-going brethren.
"It's as close as you can come to surfing in an ocean in West Virginia," said Jones.
Seiler said those who take up the sport should expect to spend about $1,000 for a board and paddle.
According to the stand-up paddleboarding website Supglobal.com, the sport originated on Oahu's Waikiki Beach in the early 1960s, when youthful entrepreneurs would stand atop long surfboards and use outrigger paddles to reach vantage points for photographing tourists as they learned to surf.
In the early 2000s, a number of top competitive surfers used SUP as an alternative way to train when the surf was down. Eventually, they organized SUP races, and paddleboards gradually began to appear in harbors, lakes and rivers.
Thursday's competition at Fayette Station included two races -- an upstream attainment race over mostly flat water to Thread the Needle Rocks (a small Class I rapid) and back, and a two-mile downriver race through three rapids, including Class III-IV Fayette Station.
"As far as we know, ours is the first attainment race for paddleboards to take place anywhere," said Seiler, who was the first woman across the finish line for that event, as well as for the downriver SUP race -- West Virginia's first.
Michael Taveres of Richmond, Va., finished first among 20 SUP racers in the upstream event, and also took top honors in the downriver race.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.