Whitewater paddlers are always scouting a fresh challenge: the next class rapid; the next big drop; a new watercraft altogether. So in 2015, when brothers and raft guides Chris and Alex Storgion returned to Tennessee after a summer spent surfing in Florida, they decided to take their stand-up paddleboards down the class III Ocoee River.
"It started as a joke," says Chris Storgion, 24. "We knew we'd swim a lot, but by the fifth or sixth run, we progressed. We got our balance down. Then we started being able to style it."
Whitewater paddleboarding is a relatively young sport. A 2010 article in SUP Magazine compared it to an awkward teenager, "complete with pimples and unknown potential." Eight years later, the sport still seems to be finding itself. Companies are just beginning to design whitewater paddleboards, says Alex Storgion, 26. These specialized boards, he explains, tend to be wider, stiffer and thicker than flatwater SUPs.
"Stability is definitely No. 1," Alex Storgion says.
In contrast to kayaks, canoes or rafts, on a SUP, one's center of gravity is high — which gives the paddler less stability. To compensate, the brothers learned to take a slightly squatted stance on their paddleboards.
"Like a snowboarder," Chris Storgion says. "You wanna lean forward, like you're charging the river. You're constantly putting a different amount of pressure on each foot [to find balance]."
Balance aside, the greatest challenge, the brothers agree, is accepting the fact that, especially in the beginning, you will swim rapids.
"On a SUP, you definitely swim more. You have to have confidence in your whitewater swimming," Chris Storgion says. "Rafts and kayaks are more forgiving. The paddleboard can get away from you really quick." So it helps that paddleboarders often attach their boards to their PFD using a quick-release tether.
For all its challenges, this burgeoning sport has some advantages. It provides a unique perspective of the water and a better view of upcoming obstacles. Moreover, because of its newness — much like a teenager and life experience — there is still a lot of uncharted territory in the world of whitewater paddleboarding.
Both Chris and Alex Storgion have done a number of first descents, meaning the first documented runs of particular waterways, on stand-up paddleboards. The upper Blue River and middle Clear Creek in Colorado, for instance, and the "ledges" on the Tellico River in Tennessee, most famous for Baby Falls, a 15-foot waterfall.
"We were kind of nervous [about the Tellico]. There are some drops, so we were swimming. We made the first two ledges, then we did Baby Falls on our knees so we didn't break our legs," Alex Storgion says.
Whitewater paddleboarding, he says, is just a different challenge. "It's a new point of view of running a river. It's like a magic carpet ride."
Want to give it a try?
Ocoee Paddleboarding, owned by Alex Storgion, offers paddleboard and kayak rentals, as well as whitewater paddleboarding lessons, which he leads on Lake Ocoee.
"Everybody is afraid of swimming at first. It helps to get it over with in deeper lake water before going to the river," he explains.
Learn more at ocoeepaddleboarding.com.