Reinventing the Paddle: A Small Company Rides the ‘Stand-up’ Wave

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Competitors take part in a stand up paddle race.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and in 1990 that necessity was a wedding gift for Dave Chun’s friends and fellow members of the Kailua Canoe Club in Hawaii, where outrigger paddling is as prolific as running or cycling on the mainland.

Chun, a social worker at the time, had gotten comfortable repairing the club’s wood paddles, which were constantly getting beat up. To build a pair of paddles for the newlyweds, though, he borrowed tools and set up a makeshift workshop on his parents’ back patio.

It was a tedious process but the end result “was pretty good,” he says. So much so that other members of the canoe club starting putting in their orders. Word spread, and soon Chun was spending more time making paddles than he was out on the water using them.

Today, Kialoa – which means long, light swift canoe in Hawaiian – is a 12-employee company turning out some 10,000 paddles a year from a small industrial space in Bend, Oregon, 180 miles inland from the Pacific Coast.

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Though he had no formal training in woodworking or design, Chun sought to make a better paddle. His first modification was size. Up until then, everyone was using the same paddle, whether they were 5’5”and 120 pounds or 6’5” and 220 pounds. Though it might seem obvious now, Chun’s idea to make different paddles for different body types and paddling styles was revolutionary at the time. Kialoa now has two dozen lines of paddles, most available in different sizes and colors.

Another big improvement came in 2001 when Chun started incorporating carbon fiber into his designs. Light, strong and easy to mold into any shape, it was a game changer for the industry, reducing the weight of a typical outrigger paddle to about half what it was when Chun made his first-generation paddles.

Kialoa might have continued focusing on outrigger paddles had it not been for a phone call in 2002 from “this guy Laird Hamilton,” says Chun. The big-wave surfer had been dabbling with a different style of surfing – stand-up paddling, or SUP. Rather than lie down and paddle to breaks, Laird and other surfers were using long wooden paddles to reach and navigate waves. “He said he was breaking all his paddles and wanted me to design one that wouldn’t break,” says Chun, whose first generation of stand up paddles were wood fortified with carbon fiber. Happy with the results, Hamilton ordered more.

In 2003 Kialoa sold 50 stand-up paddles. “We weren’t advertising. It was mostly people who knew Laird,” says Chun’s wife, Meg, who oversees the company’s marketing and strategic planning. In 2005 sales of the paddles reached 250, and by 2009 stand up paddles accounted for the largest share of the company’s business. These days stand-up paddles account for 65% of the company’s total revenue.

It’s not just the Laird Hamiltons of the world who’ve became enamored with “stand-up.” The sport has become popular among people of all ages and on all different bodies of water. Stand-up paddling competitions are attraction thousands of participants, several print and online publications are dedicated to the sport, and wholesale club Costco even sells stand-up paddle boards in its warehouses.

“Regular surfing is limited to the coastline where there are waves. You can do stand up anywhere, even a big pool,” says legendary surfer and board shaper Gerry Lopez, adding that the sport is also physically more accessible than surfing. “You don’t need a tremendous amount of athleticism to get up on and propel yourself along, but you can still get a taste for the surfing experience.”

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It was Lopez, an avid stand-up paddler himself, who initially suggested that Hamilton get in touch with Kialoa more than a decade ago. That introduction was “the gift that came from above,” says Chun. “I had paid my dues in hours of work, but without Gerry, we would not have been involved in SUP at this early date.”

While Kialoa is riding the wave of stand up, it hasn’t turned its back on outrigger. In fact, the company looks to the team dynamics used in outrigger canoe as an analogy for how to run their company. “In outrigger, every person in the boat plays a unique role with no paddler more or less important,” says Meg Chun.

That spirit of laulima is evident in the quality of the product, says Lopez, who could have his pick of paddles from any maker. “When you paddle with a Kialoa,” he adds, “you feel a little bit of magic.”