With the Puget Sound, a bounty of lakes and rivers, and secluded islands begging to be investigated, exploring the state of Washington by its waterways offers a unique perspective compared to inland outdoor adventures. 

Stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, has been increasing in popularity for several years now, but since the pandemic hit, the demand for the watersport has exploded. The meditative sport, which originated in Hawaii, is a combination of kayaking and surfing.

Some of the reasons for its rise in popularity: the barrier to entry is relatively low, it’s accessible for most people of varying athletic abilities and you can do it just about anywhere there’s flat water.

“Beginners wonder about being able to stand,” said Rob Casey, owner of Salmon Bay Paddle in Ballard, and founder of the Professional Stand Up Paddle Association. “If you can walk down the street, your balance is fine. A lot of people get intimidated and think they can’t paddle, but with practice, you’ll improve your balance and your fitness.”

Stand-up paddleboarders and boaters enjoy a sunny day at Andrews Bay just off Seward Park in Seattle. Next week is National Safe Boating Week. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times, 2020)
Here’s how to stay safe on Washington waters

Getting a proper board that’s fit for an individual’s height and weight is key to staying on the board. Casey says falling into the water is normal, and the important skill is knowing how to climb back onto the board.

“We recommend that people take a lesson because paddleboarding is not as easy as people think it is,” said Casey, who teaches lessons from the Elks Lodge in Ballard.

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For those looking to purchase their own paddleboards, Casey emphasizes the importance of talking with someone knowledgeable, like an instructor or someone at a rental shop. He cautions against purchasing the cheap, inflatable paddleboards that pop up in big box stores because the quality and durability just isn’t there, he says. Working with someone knowledgeable will ensure you select a board that properly fits your height and weight, is durable, and is right for the sort of paddling you want to do. 

Rob Sendak, manager and boating law administrator for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission’s Boating Program, suggested that interested paddlers take the free paddlesport exam available at boatered.org.

Unlike motorboat operators, people riding human-powered watercraft are not required to possess a Boater Education Card, and therefore many paddlers don’t understand the rules of the water.

When looking for potential put-in spots, Sendak suggests avoiding boat ramps and instead searching for access points available only to human-powered vessels.

“You don’t want to battle for space on a small boat ramp with someone trying to get their 20-foot motorboat in the water,” he said. “Besides, it’s just way easier to get onto your watercraft from a beach launch compared to a dock.”

Paddlers can find human-powered access launch points in hundreds of locations across the state, including most state parks. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Seattle Parks and Recreation also have maps on their websites indicating put-in spots.

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Both Casey and Sendak stressed the importance of wearing a proper life jacket.

“The water is cold here in the PNW, and it is cold all the time,” said Sendak. “If you fall in the water and don’t have protective clothing and a life vest, you have about 10 or 15 minutes before your body starts reacting negatively in that water. Wearing your life vest is the absolute No. 1 thing that will help mitigate risk.”

When selecting a life jacket, look for bright colors and opt for a passive flotation vest compared to an inflatable flotation device.

“The waist belts don’t always work; when you’re panicking, you don’t always remember or know how to pull the tab,” said Casey. He added that if you travel with an inflatable one, TSA will remove the air cartridges and you may not realize.

Just as important as the life jacket is a leash. The leash attaches around your ankle and keeps you tethered to your paddleboard.

“When you first hit the water, it’ll shock your system, and you’ll take a breath,” Sendak said. “You only need a half a cup of water to drown. The life jacket will keep you afloat and the leash will keep you attached to that board. It is your lifeline.”

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NRS, based just over the border in Moscow, Idaho, is a well-known and recommended brand for paddleboarding gear, including life jackets and leashes.

Where to paddleboard in Seattle and beyond

Casey suggests that beginners start out with very short distances, up to a half-mile, heading upwind first. He checks with apps like WindAlert and Windy to know what the wind is doing for that day. Beginners should stay under 12-13 knots of wind.

As your skills progress, you can do day trips or even overnight paddle camping trips. There are endless options in Washington, and with the right gear, paddleboarding can be a year-round sport.

Casey is the author of two paddling books and Sendak served as the director for the Washington Water Trails Association. Between the two of them, they know of some pretty sweet paddling destinations.

Day trips

You can paddle on Lake Union and Lake Washington, the Sammamish River and all throughout the Puget Sound. Keep in mind that midday weekends in the summer on lakes will have a lot of motorized boat traffic. Early morning is best. 

Cornet Bay and Bowman Bay in Deception Pass are great for advanced paddlers who want to experience some tidal rapids. Salmon Bay leads classes in this area or you can rent equipment from Anacortes Kayaking.

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Overnight trips

Once you’ve got a few paddles under your belt and feel comfortable going longer distances, overnight trips are a great way to explore the state from the water and discover regions only accessible by watercraft. It’s a bit like backpacking, but rather than carrying your gear, you propel it on your boat.

For a quick overnight from Seattle, Sendak recommends Blake Island. Depart from Lincoln Park in West Seattle, right next to the Fauntleroy ferry terminal, where it’s a straight shot to Blake Island. Paddlers can camp at one of the Cascadia Marine Trail campsites on the west end of the island.

Another favorite multinight destination is the San Juan Islands. Many islands in the San Juans are only accessible by boat and a lot of them have human-powered watercraft beaches and campsites. Visit the San Juan County website to learn more.

Some places to rent paddleboards in the Seattle area

Other resources

The Washington Water Trails Association is a nonprofit organization that has partnered with various government agencies, land managers and outfitters to produce several paddleboarding trip itineraries throughout the state.

Government websites, including state, federal and municipal, show put-in spots for watercraft.

Correction, Thursday, July 8: Due to a source’s mistake, this story previously stated that you can take a paddle boarding trip through the Ballard Locks if you call ahead. You cannot paddle board through the Ballard Locks. However, you can take a kayak through if you contact the Locks 24 hours in advance with approximate arrival time and number in your party.