By JEN WIECZNER
After decades of windsurfing, kite boarding and surfing, Bill Babcock fell in love with stand-up paddling -- a sport a bit like canoeing while standing on a surfboard -- because it was everything the other sports weren't. He can do it on any type of water, it doesn't hurt his 65-year-old joints, and it requires just a board and a paddle. "It seems almost too simple," says the retired advertising executive. Of course, simple doesn't always mean cheap. First came the fancy boards (the $3,500 Bullet has a built-in steering system); then the specialized accessories (like his $200 speed tracker). Ultimately, Babcock estimates, the tab for his hobby hit a high watermark of more than $20,000.
Remember when an afternoon in the water required nothing more than a swimsuit and an inner tube? These days, the beach has become just another venue for gearheads to show off their latest toys. And while you might expect to see the usual crowd of tanned Mountain Dew chuggers out there polishing their boards, this time around, their hair is gray, not sun-bleached. Indeed, the current fleet of beach paraphernalia has been designed to go easy on creaking bones and let even the most safety-conscious boomer dip a toe into the world of extreme water sports. Makers of personal watercraft (think Jet Skis) are now offering machines with cruise control and suspension systems for a less spine-jarring ride. Not sure today's love handles can squeeze into yesterday's wet suit? The latest suits have stretchier fabrics and welded seams that fit even those without surf-god bodies. And stand-up paddle companies build boards large enough for the balance-impaired, says Doug Palladini, president of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association: "It feels like standing in your living room with a paddle in your hands."
Of course, there's a business rationale behind this go-easy approach. The silver set may not water-ski or surf like they used to, but experts say they do have one advantage over younger beach bunnies: disposable income. Today's gear is pricier; the average stand-up paddleboard, for instance, costs $1,000 -- nearly twice as much as a standard surfboard. (That didn't stop sales of the jumbo boards from spiking 115 percent last year.) And tricking out a personal watercraft can nearly double the price. "The only people who have the money to get these things are those in the older demographic," says Tim Rosenhan, president of the Trade Association of Paddlesports. For an industry that suffered a gnarly wipeout in the recession -- sales at surf-focused stores fell nearly 16 percent from 2008 to 2010 -- the deep pockets in boomers' board shorts have never looked better.
But for would-be wave riders, there's more to consider than surging equipment prices. There are less obvious costs, like lessons (about $100 an hour) and personal-watercraft insurance (up to $700 a year), and some new features may seem cooler in the showroom than they do on the water. (Do you really want to stow an iPhone in that kayak cell holder?) Experts also caution that, even with equipment far safer than it used to be, people who underestimate the dangers of hitting the surf could find themselves out to sea without a paddle.
Juan Otero loved paddling his kayaks out to fish off the Rhode Island coast, but paddling back was a different story: He would sometimes find himself still heading home long after dark had fallen. Then he splurged on a "mean, no-worries-at-all fishing machine": a $2,000 kayak with a built-in motor. Now, not only does the 59-year-old make it home for dinner, but he expects to be able to chug out to his angling spot for decades to come. "Just put that little rascal on and he takes you back home," says the North Kingstown, R.I., shellfish company manager.
After years of focusing on paddlers looking to shoot Class V rapids or brave ocean waves, the kayak industry is steering toward those who prefer the river mild. Fishing kayaks have been a bright spot for the struggling industry: Outdoor stores sold more than $27 million worth last year, up roughly 50 percent compared with 2010, according to researchers Leisure Trends Group. These kayaks tend to focus on comfort -- think cushioned seats and back support -- and makers say they're easier to handle than the sportier models. The sit-on-top versions are especially popular with the older anglers, says a spokesperson for manufacturer Ocean Kayak, in part because they're less likely to tip over. Of course, a kitted-out fishing kayak can cost more than twice as much as a basic model. And it's not just the craft that could capsize paddlers' budgets -- after all, who wants to hit the water without a sonar fish finder ($200), waterproof GPS ($450) and carbon-fiber paddle ($475)?
Just because you're not 25 anymore doesn't mean you've outgrown the need for speed -- though your body might beg to differ. The personal-watercraft industry has been hustling to scratch boomers' adrenaline itch with models that have power steering and other extras -- big news for a business that only recently started offering brakes. Maker Kawasaki says it added lumbar support to its Jet Ski seats at customers' behest, noting that the most expensive models (about $15,000) have a feature that raises the bow out of choppy water for a smoother ride. These tricked-out versions are the "yachts of personal watercraft," says David Petina, an industry analyst with the Freedonia Group, a market research firm.
But experts point out that while the machines have gotten more comfortable, that doesn't necessarily mean they've also gotten safer. After all, the craft have no outer shell to protect riders, and they can hit speeds of nearly 70 miles per hour. In 2011 nearly 800 people were hurt riding one, according to the Coast Guard -- more than six times the number injured on kayaks or canoes. The makers say it's up to riders to operate their machines responsibly but admit that risk is inherent in the sport.
When stand-up paddling began gaining popularity in the mid-aughts, much of the industry laughed it off (some still call paddleboarders janitors, in reference to the sweeping motion of the paddle). But then came the recession. Suddenly, retailers were more than happy to accommodate shoppers asking for the bigger, more expensive boards. What's more, the sport can be done on lakes and rivers, opening up new markets. "We've got to ride this stand-up paddle thing -- it's what's going to keep the doors open," says Shea Weber, of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association. Last year, major retailers sold more than twice as many paddleboards as they did in 2010, buoying the industry to about $19 million.
But as anyone familiar with the skiers versus snowboarders rivalry can attest, the relationship between two sports that occupy the same turf can be...prickly. As stand-up has become more popular, the tension between surfers and paddlers has risen, and a few places have started regulating where stand-up paddling is permitted. (Some California districts are enforcing these rules with fines of nearly $500.) The Coast Guard has also classified the boards as "vessels," meaning that, in many cases, riders are technically required to have a life jacket and flashlight.
Still, for water-sports fans like retiree Babcock, tolerating surfers' gripes and following a few rules is a small price to pay for a day on the ocean without the fear of coming home with banged-up shoulders and knees. "It's kind of a geezer sport," he says fondly.