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Fast-growing stand-up paddleboarding a 'magical' experience, on display at Baltimore Boat Show

The Baltimore Boat Show goes retro this week. Wade past the rows of sleek cruisers and sporty runabouts at the Baltimore Convention Center and you'll find exhibits more in tune with earlier times: floating boards and paddles. Think Huck Finn, raft and pole.

The props are simple for stand-up paddleboarding, a growing sport that has caught the fancy of a range of outdoor enthusiasts, from anglers to fitness buffs. You can exercise, fish or lounge on paddleboards, in the ocean, bay or river. There are paddleboards built for racing and others that can swing a hammock; paddleboards made for kids and those with rubberized grips that can hold your dog. There are even inflatable paddleboards that can be rolled up as carry-on luggage.

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"You can be 10 or 70 and really enjoy the sport," said Carleen Birnes, of Severna Park. She owns a fitness center and leads yoga classes on paddleboards on the Magothy River. At the boat show Birnes, 42, will demonstrate her skills on a 10-foot, 4-inch board called "Good Buddy" in a portable pool that's 30 feet wide, 60 feet long and 3 feet deep. Feel free to take part.

"We did this last year and people paddled [in street clothes] and no one fell in," Birnes said. "They're intrigued by it. The board is like a floating exercise mat."

How big is stand-up paddleboarding? Three years ago, Birnes began teaching SUP to a class of 35. Now she oversees 10 instructors and 1,400 clients.

"It would be boring to work out in a gym," she said. "Getting on a treadmill and staring at a TV screen is soul-sucking. Exercising on water, surrounded by nature, how cool is that? In summer, I lead a sunrise class where we paddle out into the Magothy before dawn and watch the big golden sun come up. It's a magical, spiritual experience; the stress just drains out. You feel like you're one with the world and that you could paddle all the way to China."

Sometimes, Birnes said, "Fish jump right in front of us. I was paddleboarding in Monterey Bay [Calif.] recently and was surrounded by dolphins and seals no more than six feet away. It freaked me out a little."

Ron Gossard, who manufactures paddleboards in Ocean City, will display his wares at the boat show. In five years he has seen the business swell.

"Our sales probably increase 20 percent a year, and the audience is getting wider," said Gossard, 41. "You don't need waves or running rapids to do this, just a body of water five inches deep and you can go anywhere. It's easier than surfing; your sense of accomplishment comes quicker. You can race these boards or go out on calm days, check out the scenery and feel like you're walking on water. It's quiet, there's no loud motor and, standing up, you have a great periphery of nature.

"The mental part is a huge contributor. Once you get the bug, your whole day revolves around this. If I don't get in a couple of paddles a week, I get grumpy."

Interest in the sport nearly tripled to 2.8 million participants between 2010 and 2014, according to The Outdoor Foundation. Paddleboards are longer and as much as 1 1/2 feet wider than surfboards. Most are carbon-based or fiberglass, weigh less than 30 pounds and sell for $700 to $2,000. Paddles run from $100 to $600. There are jousting competitions in which entrants use paddles like lances to try and knock each other off their boards. Lacrosse can also be played on paddleboards, complete with floating goals and webbed heads that attach to the handles of paddles.

Neil Macindoe was on the cusp of the boom.

"SUP has exploded in the seven years I've been doing this," said Macindoe, 47, of Cape St. Clair. "Then, I was the only one on the Magothy. Nobody knew what it was. I'd be paddling in the middle of the Chesapeake and the marine police would come by and ask if my windsurfer had broken its mast. Now it's rare when I'm out there that I don't see other paddleboarders, as many as 50 or 60 on a pretty summer evening around Annapolis."

Hardly a day passes, even in winter, that Macindoe doesn't exercise on his board.

"Unless the water is frozen, I'll be out there in a wet suit," he said. A federal investigator, he finds SUP cathartic.

"I can have the worst day ever, then go out and paddle and everything goes away," he said. "An hour on the water fixes any kind of stress. There's something about being in a standing position rather than sitting in a kayak or canoe. You're working your whole body, see much more and feel in tune with the water. I've seen stingrays and things that I wouldn't have seen if sitting. I'll paddle up in creeks, sneak up on fish ... and almost hit them with the paddle."

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