Inflatable paddle boards used for racing can range from all around boards or longer touring boards to extremely narrow 12’6 or 14-foot boards with elaborate stiffening systems.
Which board to buy for SUP racing will depend largely on how much of your time on the board will be spent racing in comparison to other types of paddling and whether you can afford to buy a board just for racing and another board for your other paddling activities.
Specialized race board generally come in lengths that conform to race classes. 12’6” is the most common race class, followed by 14’. A 14’ board will go faster, but you’ll be racing against other paddlers on 14’ boards so it will give you no advantage over owning a 12’6” board and racing against other paddlers on boards of equal length.
A 28-inch width board is narrow enough for many racers who don’t want to push the limits of stability. A 26-inch width board will be a bit faster but the balance will be challenging on flat water and even harder in choppy conditions.
Some inflatable race models have added features to increase stiffness such as Red’s carbon fiber stiffening bar and side battens or Starboard’s stringer belts and nose cone. These systems add cost, weight, and added complexity with parts that can be fragile, so consider them in relation to your actual needs and how much you want to spend to get a slight potential edge over your competitors.
Race board shapes can be symmetrically rounded or can have a flat tail with the outline curving toward a narrower nose. Both shaping concepts can work equally well, but avoid getting too narrow at nose if you have any thoughts of paddling with a passenger on board.
A touring board with a little more width and stability (usually 30-32 inches) can also double as a race board, especially in choppy conditions or for heavier riders. A touring board will generally get more varied use than a specialized race board so it is a more easily justified investment.
A single US fin box is pretty much expected on race board because a single center fin has the least drag of any fin configuration and a US fin box can hold various fins designed to the US fin box standard.
Performance can be tuned somewhat by choosing a fin shape and size and by moving the fin forward or backward in the box.
In rough conditions, a touring board with three fin boxes can have advantages over a single fin race board because adding side fins helps with board control in moving or turbulent water.
SUP Race boards are very narrow to increase cut through the water with the intention of increasing speed in a straight line. The pin tail on the Red Paddle Co Elite series is designed for fast turning around buoys but this can make the board more difficult to balance on.
Most of the action while racing will take place at the center of the board while paddling forward and at the tail when doing pivot turns. So for the purpose of racing, the deck pad only needs to extend slightly forward of the middle of the board.
A diamond groove deck surface is recommended for maximum traction if you’ll be racing in choppy conditions. Otherwise, a smoother deck surface may be more comfortable on sensitive feet during longer races or training sessions.
An arch bar and raised edge at the tail section of the deck pad helps keep your rear foot located when executing buoy turns.
Your choice of board construction type will depend largely on practical considerations.
Do you have space to store a 14’ long hard board all year round? Will you be traveling by air to your race destinations? How much additional expense and complexity is it worth to shave seconds off your race time?
While professional SUP races are still dominated by hard boards, there is a growing trend toward races with an inflatable class to allow racers to bring their boards to the race by airplane without having to spend a fortune on crating and shipping a hard race board.
If you are serious about winning races, consider a narrow racing board with some of the latest enhancements. On the other hand, if you want a board you will enjoy on a daily basis and will race occasionally for fun and fitness, go for a more practical touring board that you can also use for racing.
See our best inflatable SUP boards for racing here.
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