story by Catharine Lo
photo by Dana Edmunds
“Focus on the horizon. Balance is a subconscious act,” instructs master paddler Todd Bradley as he teaches me to stand on the ULI, the new ultra-light inflatable stand-up paddleboard. Wobbly-kneed, I head out to sea, dipping the paddle deeper with each stroke. I feel like I’m walking on water as I glide past the tourists on their flimsy, neon pink rafts struggling to stay afloat in the waves off Waikiki. But beginner’s luck runs out fast: I overreach with the paddle, and down I go. It’s too late, though. I’m hooked.
The hybrid sport of stand-up paddling has taken off in recent years, but with the advent of the inflatable board, it is literally blowing up. Although the Waikiki beach boys married outrigger canoe paddling to surfing fifty years ago, Brian Keaulana, Todd Bradley and Mike Fox are now opening it up to people who live nowhere near the water. Their company, C4 Waterman, makes the eleven-foot ULI, a roll-up surfboard that weighs less than thirty pounds and fits in a duffel bag. It comes with a portable hand pump and pressure gauge. The $1,350 price tag is a one-time fee for unlimited access to new playgrounds.
The board has been field-tested in a variety of conditions, from the grinding waves at Makaha to the mangrove swamps of Costa Rica. Made from the same PVC material used in commercial and military inflatable boats, the ULI is remarkably durable. “You can ride it right onto the beach sand, and it wouldn’t do any damage,” claims Jim Weir, the board’s inventor. Keaulana has even used it to tandem surf—that is, to ride a wave while hoisting someone over his head.
“When we were kids growing up, we didn’t care what we rode, we just wanted to be in the water,” Bradley says. This same desire applies even to people who live in landlocked places, hence the tremendous popularity of stand-up paddling, a new watersport that doesn’t require waves or wind.
“Anybody can do this,” says Keaulana, whose family has come to represent the Core Four principles of balance, endurance, strength and tradition. “It’s not about being ‘somebody,’” the revered waterman continues. “C4 is a concept based on the same skills we need for life. Within every person there’s a waterman.”