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Paddle Boarding Finds Its Stride At Hollywood Beach

paddle-1Starting the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, Edgewater residents will have another chance to view Chicago’s skyline — from stand-up paddle boards on Lake Michigan.

Wicker Park residents Amy Leffingwell and Michael “Westy” Westenberger founded Chicago Paddle Co. in 2012. In May 2013, the couple opened for business on Kathy Osterman Beach, also known as Hollywood Beach, after being approved as a Chicago Park District vendor.

“We’ve been at the beach in Edgewater for three years now,” Leffingwell said on Tuesday. “And we just signed another three-year agreement with the park district.”

Stand-up paddle (SUP) boarding is a full-body exercise where “you stand on top of a large, surf-like board, but it is different than a surf board. You propel across the water with a single paddle. You don’t have to bend over. For our rental business, we use adjustable rental paddles. We can adjust the height of the paddle of anyone who comes to paddle with us.”

There are various types of stand-up paddle boards for racing, every-day recreational use, and travel. Most standard recreational boards are about 12 feet long, around 30 inches wide, and weigh roughly 30 pounds.

Chicago Paddle Co. also sells stand-up paddle boards, paddles, and storage space for people who own their own gear at Osterman Beach. The company offers stand-up paddle boards for one-hour or two-hour rentals to children ages 8 and older as well as adults.

“One of our paddle members who paddles almost every day we are open and sometimes twice a day is 66,” Leffingwell said, adding that she and Westenberger have had older patrons, but this man is a regular. “He’s in amazing shape.”

The sport allows you to use every muscle, she said, and it’s a lot of core work. Stand-up paddle boarders use their legs and hips, and much of their backs and shoulders. It’s a great sport for cross training.

Every stand-up paddle board rental includes a 10-minute land-based instruction lesson on safety, how to go to a standing position, how to turn, and how to stop.

The company also offers longer stand-up paddle board lessons as well as a variety of group stand-up paddle board events.

“We run it almost like a gym studio,” Leffingwell said. “We have a full class schedule on the website. We have a stand-up paddle group fitness program, where we do stand-up paddle yoga. We do pilates on the boards. We have a stand-up paddle board core fitness class, which is a resistance bands workout class on the boards. And then we also do stand-up paddle board socials.”

paddle-2These are longer guided tours up to Loyola University and back. These “socials,” she said, are 75 minutes long, and it takes about 30 minutes each way, plus the instruction at the beginning of the class. But most people will take a lesson before they come back and rent, take a fitness class, or join a social. The company also offers a Ladies Night Social, just for women, and on Friday mornings, it has a Sunrise and Coffee Social paddle.

“It’s probably our most popular paddle,” Leffingwell said. “It’s beautiful.”

In general, no matter what class people take, stand-up paddle boarding is a great way for people to experience Lake Michigan on Chicago’s lakefront, she said.

“It’s pretty limited access for people to get out on Lake Michigan unless you get out on a boat,” she said. “We think it’s a pretty healthy, active way for people to experience getting on the water in Chicago.”

Leffingwell added that safety is the company’s paramount concern. Every person who rents from Chicago Paddle Co. is required to wear a personal flotation device, which the Coast Guard mandates, as well. The seasonal business is open weather-permitting. Generally, it closes if there is a red flag at the beach indicating a beach hazard like wind, lightning or fog. If the waves are too choppy, it will also close. Renters learn how to handle bigger waves in the 10-minute land-based instruction, too, “but … we aren’t going to put anyone out there if there are unsafe conditions.”

All of the company’s seven instructors are certified in stand-up paddle safety, first aid, CPR, and water rescue technique. Most of the staff is lifeguard-certified, though the Chicago Park District also has lifeguards on duty at Osterman Beach. “But we are responsible for every single person we put on the water ourselves,” Leffingwell said. “We constantly are monitoring weather apps and oftentimes we tweet with the weathermen directly. We make weather decisions. If we see a storm coming, we close well before we put anyone out on the water.”

“As the sport grows, obviously more and more people are buying their own gear, and anyone can go paddle on Lake Michigan whenever they want,” she said. The company recommends a lot of safety tips for people who are going to paddle by themselves, “but as far as our business, we don’t usually send that person out by themselves.”

Chicago Paddle Co. has a designated paddle area, and renters will launch from the very south end of Osterman Beach. They then paddle north to Lane Beach Park and back, which usually takes about one hour by the time they receive the land-based instruction lesson and get their boards on the water.

“We log every person in, so at any given time, we know how many people are on the water,” Leffingwell said. “We can always see everyone who is on the water, (unless) they are on a tour with an instructor.”

Since it can get pretty hot in Chicago in the summer, the water warms as well, getting to between 75 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit by July. She doesn’t recommend wearing wetsuits because, for the most part, stand-up paddle boarders are on the board, not in the water. Wearing a wetsuit would be too hot, she said. “It’s really more about the air temperature than the water temperature. People generally wear their swimsuit or something they would wear to the gym or yoga class.”

The company is open seven days a week, weather-permitting, and its busiest days are Saturdays and Sundays. With more than 25 boards, “it’s just all day long,” Leffingwell said. “We’d like to get more people to paddle during the week. It’s a good time to paddle, the beach is quiet, (and) there’s no line or anything like that.”

Chicago Paddle Co. will remain open until at least Labor Day weekend.

“We just thought (Osterman Beach) was a really big beautiful beach,” Leffingwell added. “What was most important to us was it was a neighborhood and community (beach), a beach of locals. So it’s important to us to be on a beach in Chicago (where) we could, over time, build a community. We still have tourists that will come paddle with us, but the majority of our customer base are people who live in the neighborhood who paddle with us every summer.”


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