On the Water

Standing invite

Paddleboarders see Boston Harbor from new speed, perspective

Michael Emery of Somerville did some stand-up paddleboarding in Savin Hill Cove near the University of Massachusetts Boston. Michael Emery of Somerville did some stand-up paddleboarding in Savin Hill Cove near the University of Massachusetts Boston. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / August 20, 2011

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In Dorchester Bay, just south of the University of Massachusetts Boston, is a cove named for nearby Savin Hill. It is a quiet little spot, sheltered from the wind that always seems to be howling across the peninsula and the John F. Kennedy Library and the university at Harbor Point.

In the cove is a little boating outfit, a branch of the company Boating in Boston, and for the last couple years, many people have embarked from their dock aboard the slowest new fad in watersports.

Stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, is what it sounds like: standing up on a large surfboard and using a long paddle to propel yourself through the water. Paddleboards can be used to ride waves and also to make good abs better. With the tide and the wind in Dorchester, they can move at about the pace of a baggage claim belt.

At the boat dock, you can rent one for $20 an hour from a laid-back guy named Brendan Koeniger, who offers one instruction: “You may want to start on your knees.’’

On the way out of the cove, the wind and waves slush the board gently out to sea, slow and quiet. On the right is the gas tank that may or may not have Ho Chi Minh’s profile painted on it then Marina Bay in Quincy. The left is guarded hard by the brick-wall geometry of UMass. They all pass slowly.

The learning curve to paddling while standing is not steep, and the body quickly learns that the movement is more of a core turn than what a canoe paddle requires. It may take a bit for the wobbles to leave the knees - at first, pushing off feels like you are slipping on ice, about to smash your head - but the worst that can happen is a fall of a few feet into cool water. Once both of these concepts are understood, the body can relax and find a pace.

Moving like this over water is its own perspective. It is not walking on water so much as standing on it; the head is away from the water, with a higher viewpoint. The sport is Hawaiian and ancient, but reemerged when surfing coaches used it to see over large groups and spot better waves.

As the cove opens out past the peninsula and meets open water, Thompson Island comes into view, then the giant eggs at the water treatment plant in Winthrop. To the north, the skyline of South Boston emerges: Castle Island, the upper floors of a ridiculous cruise ship at Black Falcon Terminal, the pink power plant on L Street.

They all appear slowly, with enough time for you to actually think of what you will see next in Boston Harbor. Soon you realize you will be able to look back west at the John Hancock towers, old and new, and then there they are.

And that is when Koeniger, on the pump boat, speeds up to you to say: “Hey, maybe you don’t want to go any further. I have no problem with it if you do go further, but - ’’

He gestures toward the obvious, to the wind that had pushed the craft up to the speed of reading as it moved past the peninsula was now pushing against it at the speed of mud.

As if to complete the insult, there is a large windmill, dead ahead, raging.

What was a glide on the way out is a slog on the way in. Things that were pleasant in passing seem now to linger malevolently. The gas tank seems impossibly far away; the bricks of UMass do not not move. Waves that on the way out pushed like a parent behind a swing set now seem in confederacy to toss the board.

But slowly, very slowly, brick by UMass brick, it is possible to make it back into the protection of the cove, to feel a good slow again, a glide slow, and the feeling that a stroke of the paddle is actually doing something.

Koeniger pulls the boat out of the water. He says a lot of people just come with a Groupon and a bathing suit to get wet and try it once.

But, he said, there are a couple of regulars - including a group of UMass business students working on a green surfboard start-up - who are strong, can go to the islands, can go long against the wind.

“But you build up to that,’’ Koeniger says. He is laid-back about it, just saying it in case you come back.

Billy Baker can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @billybaker.

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