The perspective atop a stand-up paddleboard is truly unique — whether it’s looking down at the marine life that lurks below, or taking a look at the incoming swells marching on the horizon.
Kona resident Jenny Kalmbach has had a unique perspective watching the evolution of stand-up paddleboarding — the sport she now calls her profession.
“It has been fun to see it grow and the progression, especially within the last five years,” Kalmbach said. “I remember going around Kona, you would maybe see one other person with a board. Now, it seems everyone has one.”
But it’s not just in the waters around Hawaii that stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, has taken off — it’s the fastest growing water sport in the world.
“As soon as someone tries it they are hooked,” Kalmbach said. “With standup, it is very accessible and it’s not limited just to coastlines or by conditions.
“It’s also a lot easier than surfing and I think a lot more gratifying. Surfing is such a great feeling — and I love surfing — but it is sometimes intimidating for people to get into and hard to get good at.”
Kalmbach moved to Kona in 2005 after graduating from the University of British Columbia with a degree in psychology. Soon after, while working at Kukio Beach and Golf Club, Kalmbach discovered the then-little known sport of stand-up paddleboarding and immediately fell in love.
“It was something new and not a lot of people were doing it yet,” Kalmbach said. “I started paddling for fun and was into the surfing, but was really drawn into the competitive side of it. I grew up playing sports, so I think that’s why I liked entering the races. It was fun to compete and train for something again.”
After racing a few smaller events, in 2008 Kalmbach entered the inaugural Battle of the Paddle — a race that has been unofficially dubbed as the surf race world championship. Kalmbach was a relative unknown in the race, but emerged as the surprising victor.
Kalmbach followed up the win with a first-place finish at the prestigious 32-mile Molokai to Oahu race across the Kaiwi channel.
“Molokai was such an important race for me,” Kalmbach said. “Just experiencing the Kaiwi Channel was huge. I had never been across it before, so being able to come out with a victory was great.”
Just three years after standing up on a board for the first time, Kalmbach was among the sport’s elite.
Since then, Kalmbach has traveled the world on her stand-up board, establishing herself as one of the sport’s most high profile and recognizable racers — even earning Female Paddler of the Year honors in 2011.
“It’s a big community and it’s growing all the time,” Klambach said. “But everyone is very supportive of each other on the water and people are genuinely stoked to see each other do good.”
Destination 3 Degrees
Only three degrees of latitude separate the islands of Hawaii, with notorious open-ocean channels linking them together.
In 2010, using her success in SUP as a launching pad, Kalmbach and fellow elite paddleboarder Morgan Hoesterey embarked on a journey of roughly 300 miles across the channels to raise awareness for the issue of plastic pollution in the ocean.
For the trip, Kalmbach did not use her normal 12-foot 6-inch board she uses in short-distance competition. Instead, she rode her long-distance board, which measures 16 feet long and has a rudder built in.
“It was definitely one of the bigger experiences for me,” Kalmbach said of the journey. “Especially the trip from Oahu to Kauai. It was almost 16 hours on a board. All of it was really a once in a lifetime experience.”
The trip was filmed and turned into an award-winning documentary, appropriately titled “Destination 3 Degrees.”
For more information, or to donate, visit destination3.com
The future of SUP
While the sport has become the staple of any beach-bound vacation, the Big Island does not have an active SUP racing community.
Kalmbach thinks hosting a local event would kickstart the interest in SUP racing and showcase what the sport has to offer.
“It’s a real visual sport, especially with the short-course races that are very popular right now, “ Kalmbach said. “It’s exciting for people watching, because with the short courses the buoys are set up in the surf zones, so you can have 40 or more people trying to make a turn, in the surf, with the boards banging against each other.”
On an international scale, the future seems bright for the future of the sport, and Kalmbach even sees the possibility of it eventually becoming an Olympic event.
“I think the sport has a ton of potential,” Kalmbach said. “I know there is a strong push to get it into the Olympics, but that is of course a big political battle and would take years. I believe it has the criteria to make it an Olympic sport and has a variety of disciplines that it could fit in like distance, short course, or even relay.”
As for her future, Kalmbach is sticking with the Brett Favre approach.
“I keep thinking one more year — I’ll race just one more year,” Kalmbach said. “But I’m extremely happy on how this year went. I’ll try another year and hopefully win something big again. But even when I stop doing races, I don’t ever expect it to be fully out of my life.”