Paddleboarding event supports HopeWell Cancer

Stand-up paddleboarding might have a clunky name, but the sport has a passionate following that's growing in the Baltimore area.

In September, more than 100 people gathered at Gunpowder State Park's Hammerman Beach in Middle River to participate in one of the region's first stand-up paddleboard races and, in doing so, to raise money for Baltimore County's HopeWell Cancer Support, which provides nonmedical services for people with cancer and their families. The event, dubbed Bliss on the Bay, returns May 31 — and this time, the organizers expect to see even more people on the water.

Stand-up paddleboarding — or SUPing, as it's known — has a long history, though its popularity as a recreational sport on the East Coast is relatively new. SUPing involves standing on a paddleboard, which is similar to a surfboard, and using a paddle to move through the water. It has roots in ancient fishing communities, from Peru to Venice, and has been a recreational sport since at least the 1940s, when Hawaiians began SUPing for fun.

The first Bliss on the Bay event was a "test of sorts," says Hal Ashman, owner of Ultimate Watersports in Middle River and one of the organizers of Bliss on the Bay. Ashman, a SUP enthusiast, says, "We knew SUP was pretty big out west and in other parts of the world. We wanted to gauge how hot the SUP race world was on the East Coast."

According to a 2013 report published by the Outdoor Foundation and funded by the Coleman Co., 1.5 million Americans participated in stand-up paddleboarding in 2012 — a slight increase over the 1.2 million participants in 2011. People paddled on a regular basis, too, getting out on the water an average of six times during the year.

Ashman was thrilled to discover that in Baltimore, Bliss on the Bay attracted elite SUP racers from all over the East Coast as well as a large number of local residents interested in SUP racing on a recreational level. Bliss on the Bay includes several levels of races, including a children's race, a 5-mile race for elite racers and a 2.5-mile recreational race.

Dundalk resident Bryan Barton has been SUPing for four years; he participated in Bliss on the Bay last September and will race again this month.

"Once I did my first race, I was addicted," he says. "I loved the competition, yet everyone is there just to have fun."

Even though it looks challenging, Ashman and Barton insist SUP is a sport for everyone.

"The average person looks at it and thinks, 'I can't do that,' " says Ashman. "It's similar to surfing — the visual of standing up on the board." But the addition of the paddle makes SUPing easier, he says. Plus, unlike surfing, which requires waves, SUPing can be done on flat water.

Ashman says he has seen everyone from young children to people in their 70s try out the board.

"We have yet to find that age is a problem," he says. "We are promoting heath and wellness for everyone at every age."

Even on flat water, SUPing is good exercise. "It's a complete body workout," says Ashman. "Like swimming, there's no part of you that doesn't get a good workout. It's an incredible core workout."

"It's the best core workout you can get," agrees Barton. But for many SUP enthusiasts, the sport offers more than just physical benefits. It's also about the mind.

"The freedom you get from SUP is hard to describe," says Barton, explaining that the feeling of the open water, where there is much to explore, had him instantly hooked.

Jessie Benson, a local SUP fitness instructor and the founder of FloYo SUP yoga, agrees that it fosters a mind-body connection. "The second you step onto a board, you encounter a whole new sense of focus. Your body has to be perfectly aligned for even weight distribution, and the moment your mind begins to wander, you will be off the board and into the water. It is one of the few activities where I am completely in the moment and 100 percent connected to my body."

SUP's role as an exercise for the mind and body makes Bliss on the Bay an especially good fit as a fundraiser for HopeWell Cancer Support, says Ashman. "We were looking for the right local beneficiary," he says. At HopeWell, "we found incredibly good people doing incredibly good work."

"We offer support programs, exercise, meditation, expressive art and social events — all at no charge," says HopeWell's development director, Lily Burke. "We believe that Baltimore offers the finest medical institutions in the country. What HopeWell offers is everything those medical institutions don't specifically address."

HopeWell serves about 1,000 people each year, says Burke, and many take advantage of multiple programs. All of the organization's activities and resources are funded by philanthropy, and events like Bliss on the Bay are crucial to HopeWell's work.

Burke says the values of SUP and Ashman's overall philosophy regarding watersports align with HopeWell's approach to treatment. "I think Hal really understands the mind-body-spirit connection," she says. "That's why he chose us."

This year, Ashman hopes Bliss on the Bay will draw a large crowd of racers — and lots of spectators who might be inspired to try the sport.

"The beauty of SUP is that it's really fun to watch," he says. "You see regular people doing something new and challenging and being bold enough to take it to the finish line. That's inspiration everyone needs all the time. Our mission with this event is to get more people on board — literally and figuratively. We want to see SUP grow."

Plus, he's excited about the opportunity to raise money and promote HopeWell's programs, saying, "It's great to do a SUP race but even better to promote health and wellness."

Bliss on the Bay

Bliss on the Bay will take place beginning at 8 a.m. May 31 at Hammerman Beach in Gunpowder Falls State Park (7200 Graces Quarters Road, Middle River).

The day will include races for elite and recreational stand-up paddleboarders, as well as a children' race, Corporate Challenge and All-Star Challenge. Following the races and awards ceremony, Ultimate Watersports will host its 14th annual Paddlefest, a free event that includes clinics and demonstrations for SUP, SUP Dog ("paddling with your pup") and SUP yoga.

Fees range from $10 to $350 and registration closes May 28. Proceeds will benefit HopeWell Cancer Support. For more information and to register, visit

Stand-up paddleboarding in Baltimore and Annapolis

The best way to learn stand-up paddleboarding is to take a lesson, says Hal Ashman of Ultimate Watersports. He also notes that SUPing is easier than it looks — even without lessons. "Start in the flat water," he says. "As long as you're on the right-size board, it's a very easy experience."

SUPs are available for rental or sale at several locations around the region:

• Annapolis Canoe & Kayak (311 Third St., Annapolis; 410-263-2303;

• East of Maui (2303 Forest Drive, Suite E, Annapolis; 410-573-9463;

• Paddle or Pedal (Quiet Waters Park, 600 Quiet Waters Park Road, Annapolis; 410-271-7007;

• Stand-Up Paddle Annapolis (Severna Park Yacht Basin; 454 Severn Road, Severna Park; 443-829-2266;

• Ultimate Watersports (Gunpowder Falls State Park; 7200 Graces Quarters Road, Middle River; 410-335-5352;

For people new to the sport and veteran stand-up paddleboarders, Dundalk SUP enthusiast Bryan Barton recommends the website, an informational site with chat rooms and plenty of recommendations for those interested in the sport.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad