MALIBU, five years ago: The sun is edging toward the cliffs at sleepy Paradise Cove as a cluster of surfers sit idly on their boards, rising and falling with the swells, scanning the endless blue. Off in the distance a lone surfer drifts toward them. They exchange glances. The surfer is standing -- standing -- on an oversized board, using a long, outrigger-style paddle to snake through the water like a gondolier.
Some of the surfers wince. Put the clown in a red-striped wet suit and he might start belting out an Italian love song.
As the figure slowly comes into view, they do a double take. The clown is the brawny alpha dog of surfing, Laird Hamilton. Dipping his paddle into the swells, Hamilton maneuvers along the breakers, occasionally riding them in -- but without ever lying or sitting on his board.
Once in full view, "it looked like the most natural thing in the world," recounts Ray Sheehan, a 56-year-old retired sales executive.
Since then, a small but perceptible shift has occurred in the Southern California surfing community. Seasoned surfers and neophytes alike are now grabbing paddles and taking to the water from a stand-up position. On any given weekend, stand-up paddle surfers can be seen scattered along the coast, particularly at Point Dume and in protected harbors and coves.
Because paddle surfing requires an especially large -- preferably well-engineered -- board, the sport has even fueled a demand for custom paddle surfboards. Renowned surfboard shaper Ron House estimates that of the nearly 200 boards he will shape this year, about 70 will be stand-up style.
Steve Boehne, owner of Infinity Surf Shop in Dana Point, makes about six stand-up boards a week and is selling them faster than he can carve them. "It's definitely the fastest-growing segment of surfing that there is."
Adds House: "I was thinking that this summer would be the summer that it breaks loose.... And that's happening. I think this is just the beginning."
Through the ages, many cultures have practiced the art of standing and paddling, including Polynesians and Peruvians.
But lacking proper boards and paddles -- and not driven to catch fish from them -- California surfers have mainly stayed on their bellies.
Although no one is certain how the style gained ground in Southern California, the person most likely responsible is Hamilton, the big-wave legend known for popularizing countless innovations, including tow-in surfing and foilboarding.
"As far as I know," says Boehne, "the guy who made it a phenomenon was Laird Hamilton. He has persisted with it and done it so much in so many places and everybody copies him. If you want to know about stand-up surfing, you really should go talk to him."
The appeal of stand-up paddle, or paddle surfing, is twofold.
Experienced surfers find that paddle surfing enables them to get out into the surf faster and farther. They can stay out beyond the normal line of surfers and catch the waves before everyone else. As traditional surfers hop to their feet, the paddle surfers are already there.
With a paddle, "you can go on perhaps eight times more rides and three times as far," says Don Wildman, 73, founder of Bally Total Fitness and an avid paddle surfer.
Once the surfer catches a wave, he or she can use the paddle for balance and to turn. After a while, the paddle becomes a natural extension of the surfer.
Other people are using the boards to cruise coves and lakes, quietly communing with the ocean and what lurks below. From a stand-up position, the surfer can see deeper into the water, where schools of top smelt mingle with sculpin, sand bass and the occasional bat ray. Paddling along reefs and dodging kelp beds, stand-up surfers see leopard sharks and garibaldi make way for seals and sea lions.
"It's like standing on a pier," says Wildman. "You notice your environment more. I go out in the morning when this water is absolutely like glass.... You look across the water, into the mountains and get a Zen feeling."
"It's a soulful experience," agrees Robert Howson, a lifelong surfer and owner of Harbour Surfboards in Seal Beach. "It's also a way for surfers to enjoy the water when there are no waves. Think of it like kayaking," he adds. "The beauty is in all the things you can do with it."
Howson sees paddle surfing as part of a natural evolution for many surfers. "Most stand-up surfers are in their 30s to 50s. It's not an 18-year-old thing," says the 42-year-old Howson. "You go to a longer board because you don't have those ambitions. You love the grace of it all."
The sport is also accessible to all skill levels. "On flat water, on a wide board, someone with minimal athletic ability can paddle themselves around," says surfboard shaper House. "On a real wide board, on real flat water, anyone can do it, virtually."
But physically, paddle surfing isn't exactly a walk on the beach. Staying upright requires constant muscular adjustments, making the endeavor a good, complete workout.