So You Want to YOLO Board, SUP with that?

Mimi and Marci Key West YOLO SUP_2SUP? YOLO?

SUP and YOLO are not texting slang – they stand for trendy ways to scoot across the water on a surf-style board while burning maximum calories.

SUP simply stands for Stand-Up Paddleboard and YOLO for You Only Live Once, which confuses people so even YOLO Board founder Tom Losee calls the sport SUP.

For as many years as stand-up paddle boarder enthusiasts scooped their way across dark-water dune lakes near Grayton Beach in Northwest Florida, I have yearned to YOLO board. On many trips to the area, I’d cycle the path next to the main beach road, 30-A. Bike flying like a kid, I’d cruise past Western Lake on the edge of Watercolor, east of Grayton Beach, my favorite hangout. Looking out toward the Gulf of Mexico, high dunes tufted with sea oats and vines separate the lake from the Gulf. A thin line of pines with blossomed tops and skinny dark trunks embroiders shadows on the skyline and promises the smell of sunscreen, saltwater and sweat.

The sight of the spindly trunks silhouetted black against the sky signals a slower pace, a time to reflect. Shoulders un-crunch. Cells phones magically find the off button. Senses re-engage with the mystery of the freshwater/saltwater estuaries formed by the merging of dune lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. A beach anywhere can relax, but the dune lakes make this area unique both for recreation and biodiversity.

Western Lake tucks inland, flows under the two-lane road deep into Watercolor subdivision, where the houses start at well above $500,000.

One night a few months into our temporary relocation to the area, I discovered an open-sidewalk fund-raiser featuring a silent auction. A YOLO board lesson for two remained unbid upon, which I instantly changed. My phone rang the next morning and a deep-voiced woman on the other end explained where I could bring my cash or check. I’d won two YOLO board rentals, which I mistakenly thought came with lessons.

Lessons turned out to be more like 5 minutes of instruction, a wave of the hand and a call of “good luck” from good-looking young Brodie at the dock in the Watercolor ‘subdivision,’ where water lilies smother the edges of the blue-black lake like Monet paintings gone wild.

Before we left our place to head over to the Boathouse at Watercolor, I debated removing my make-up – especially the non-waterproof black mascara I’d applied that morning before work – before embarking on this adventure. I left it on. After all, if make-up and fire-breathing costumes were good enough for the lead actress in The Hunger Games, then make-up would work for me too. (Maybe I wouldn’t fall in; maybe I was tempting fate.) Besides, the end of April after a run of spring breaks end remains one of those times when locals reclaim the roads and beaches. In Northwest Florida the tourist season barely fills four full months, now and then dipping into May and October, trendily called the “shoulder seasons.” We might not encounter any high-strung competitive social-climbing fashionista tourists on the lake. The tennis court, maybe, but not the lakes. On the way to work that morning, I’d noticed that Highway 30-A which runs parallel to the beach for 17 miles, remained the provenance of local license plates. No traffic jams. I felt relatively safe venturing out in my shorts, baring pale-skinned cubicle-trapped legs, and a red and black Speedo one-piece circa 8 years ago.

I am not athletically gifted. My husband, Chris, was as curious as me to try out the gentle paddle sport and I was confident he wouldn’t fall off his but I felt no such confidence in my skills. I love to snow ski, which is where Chris and I met. In fact, we bonded after a wicked flip and fall on my part and an emergency trip to the medics. Hence, my track record with gravity-defying stability exercise: Gravity 5, Me: zed.

Then too, 19 months of studying, writing, sitting in class hardly served as preparation for the ‘core workout’ and stability-challenging stories I’d read about YOLO boarding. Still, I wanted to try before we moved away. My brain seized with a case of FOMO or ‘Fear of Missing Out.’ (I’ve suffered from this malady all my life, since middle school and felt instant relief once the disease was gifted with both a name and an acronym. I feel so chic now that I suffer from a disease common to millions of digital natives, snapping selfies and roaming from event to event.)

We arrive. Three vehicles grace the parking lot, a delivery truck awash in retro-styled YOLO boarder images, a mini-Cooper with a Walton County, Florida, license plate and another non-descript get-to-work car. Perfect.

My 6-foot-3-inch-tall half-marathon running husband bounds out of the car, down the sidewalk and disappears.  Into the fake rustic boathouse, elegantly appointed with a boudoir chaise swing hanging from the ceiling, the last thing one might expect in a place dubbed a ‘Boathouse.’  No night-crawler smell, no captive-cricket chirping, no tobacco-stained floors marred the aura of this interior. Decorators had trod the faux-weathered floorboards.

Inside the high-ceilinged REI-styled boathouse, Losee gave us choices. I might want to try the YOLO Yak, he suggested, a wider-bodied, heavier board that tended to tip less. Decisions. Decisions. The Yak would move slower across the choppy waves than the regular YOLO board Mr. Atlas selected. Mr. Atlas would slide and sail and I’d be stuck digging in trying to move a barge-like board. I wavered between FOMO and FOFOMA (fear of falling on my @$$).

FOFOMA won. We meandered down to the dock, shedding car keys, clothes and flip-flops.

My wide-bodied YAK glowed neon green, a bit scuffed. Brodie showed me how to position myself in a seated position on the dock, feet on the board, then turn into the board, plopping the weight of my upper torso onto my knees in the middle of the board, balanced.

Success! Now for the scooping oar, which he handed me and pushed me off the dock. Sweetie had already scooped his way toward the bridge, off his knees quickly. He strode the waters, scooping left, scooping right, gliding along. Kind of like a Hawaii islander, bronzed, athletic and fearless. I scooped left and right on my knees until I reached the arched pedestrian and bicycle bridge about 200 yards from the disembarkment dock, pale, out-of-shape and nervous.

The sun shone still, but we knew storms headed our way had spawned tornadoes that had killed nearly 20 people in states west of us, including Alabama and Mississippi.

Water chipped and chopped under the bluster of a firm headwind. Brodie and Tom warned us to start with the wind in our faces to determine our strength and ability to steer. That way, when we returned to the dock, the wind would use our backs like sails. Sage advice, but really I wanted to scoop toward the Western Lake skyline of pines – in the opposite direction to see that iconic view from the water.

The key to remaining balanced includes a slight bend of the knees and not leaning into the oar while stroking. When in doubt, drop to the knees with the oar balanced over the center of the board. After about 45 minutes I worked up my nerve to switch to the lighter board, which felt like going from shorter skis to longer skis – the board felt more responsive under my toes and skimmed the water faster.

Chris commented on how much of a lower leg workout he felt, something he hadn’t expected and two days later I wasn’t as sore as I expected to be. Mascara intact, I declare the adventure a success. I would definitely SUP or YOLO board again but it won’t be here, it’ll be further south.

The day after our SUP boarding experience, three days of non-stop rain and gusting high winds struck. Hundreds of homes flooded, roads closed and businesses shuttered. The state-of-emergency weather brought with it as well news of the demise of a real-estate deal that would have put us in a small one-bedroom condo a block off the beach. The sellers refused to make an HOA-required repair, which meant we could not close, although we had waited patiently for nearly 60 days. Our deal sank and with it our dreams of staying.

I’ve always loved this area, but there’s a dark undertow no talks about – a polarized economy with haves and have-nots and nothing in the middle. While hard-core locals intrinsically understand this and accept it, it took us several months to admit defeat.

Chris and I had secured what locals call “our service jobs,” one seasonal that didn’t pay much, the other part-time with healthcare benefits, a job that would have given me time to write. On the Florida panhandle, choices come down to skimming along on a sleek YOLO board of business ownership or fighting the waves on a YAK-sized job that pays $10 to $12 an hour. It’s impossible to make a new start here without a trust fund or the means to buy a business – and my loving parents sacrificed much for me and my brother, but a trust fund was never part of the deal.

They YOLO board in Key West, and that’s where you’ll find us. Except on Sundays.

On Sundays, you’ll find us skimming across the surface of Caribbean colored-waters even in December. Because the weather’s warm enough and we might as well SUP it up while we can.


©Sybil McLain-Topel and, 2014-2017. Unauthorized use or duplication of  material without written permission from Sybil McLain-Topel is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, however, please give full and clear credit to Sybil McLain-Topel and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.







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