Rob Bennett drew perplexed looks when he introduced stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Norman five years ago. He had to pull out a photo album to show people what it was.
Stand-up paddleboarding has been around for centuries in river cultures across the globe. It became popular in Hawaii in the 1960s as an offshoot of surfing and was established as a sport and industry in California in 2007 before gravitating eastward.
But few on Lake Norman knew about it until Bennett moved from Miami to a condo on Lake Davidson. Now it’s the lake’s latest craze.
He was talking about the paddleboards and I thought he meant ‘paddle boats.’
Bill Russell, president and CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce
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At least 8,000 children and adults have taken lessons from Bennett at his My Aloha Paddle & Surf shop in Cornelius in the past five years, and he hosts annual competitions that have raised a total of $25,000 to $30,000 for local charities.
None of which surprised Bennett, who’d seen stand-up paddleboarding’s popularity on trips to Hawaii.
Bennett, 48, was an executive for the national phone companies of Switzerland and Finland and later an industry consultant. He enjoyed watching all the stand-up paddleboarders on trips to the annual telecom industry conference in the Aloha State.
One day it hit him: With calm waters in its numerous coves, why not Lake Norman?
A native of Alexandria, Va., Bennett moved here to be closer to his parents in Richmond, Va. He now lives in Cornelius near his 1,300-square-foot shop, which is in the Water Street Seaport Marina complex off West Catawba Avenue, across from Robbins Park.
The rise of low-cost, long-distance carriers had led to thousands of layoffs in the telecom industry by the time he moved here a decade ago. He decided to make stand-up paddleboarding his full-time job and avocation.
But those quizzical looks.
“He was talking about the paddleboards and I thought he meant ‘paddle boats,’” said Bill Russell, president and CEO of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, referring to when Bennett introduced him to his stand-up paddleboarding venture.
Several other Lake Norman companies also offer stand-up paddleboards, including Moose Paddleboard Co., Swell Board Shop and Hard Core Sports in Mooresville. Hard Core Sports has sold stand-up paddleboards for six of its 16 years, said Cari Steinbrueck, a manager.
Bennett said he knew stand-up paddleboarding would take off here for the same reasons it’s popular elsewhere: no athletic experience required, families enjoy it, and it’s safe and fun.
Vickie Jordan, 68, of Charlotte, took a lesson with her 8-year-old grandson in July. “Safe, fun, for young and old alike,” she wrote in an online review.
No one has been injured taking lessons from him or after renting or buying one of his boards, Bennett said as he knocked on a wood paddleboard in his shop so as not to jinx himself.
The boards cost $800 to $1,500 and the 10 1/2-to-12-foot-tall paddles $100 to $400 at the shop. Beginner lessons cost $50 in a group setting, $65 individually.
Bennett said people have come from all over the Charlotte region and beyond for lessons, from children to seniors. And his business doesn’t end with the start of school, as the water stays warm into October, he said.
He stresses safety before putting any of them on a board.
He tells them that as they return to the dock, they need to kneel to avoid losing balance and hurting themselves. When standing on the board and paddling in the water, always look up and forward, he instructs.
“We’re the ambassadors of the sport for Charlotte, so we stress safety,” Bennett said.
Russell, the chamber CEO, said Bennett has raised awareness of a sport few in the area heard of, while raising money for such organizations as Davidson-based IGNITE. NASCAR champion crew chief Ray Evernham founded the program to support adults with high functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome.
“Now you go out on the lake and you see all of these stand-up paddleboards, people taking lessons,” Russell said. “They even have yoga classes.”
What it’s like
I was convinced I’d fall into the lake when I took a lesson outside My Aloha, but I followed all of owner Rob Bennett’s instructions and never plunged into the water.
You start by kneeling on the board dockside and slowly rising one knee and leg at a time.
Bennett calmly told me where to keep the paddle at all times, and I learned how to steer the board forward and in reverse.
He urged me to relax, but the same fate befell me as many other beginners: In primordial fear of falling, I couldn’t relax my legs, and they wobbled hours later from my putting so much stress on them.
No need for that, because what keeps you steady and improves your balance is looking up and looking forward, Bennett explained.