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Discovering the spirit of the Waccamaw River and Conway’s rich history with local paddleboard makers Island Inspired
“Watch your head and paddle toward the widest opening,” Cate Sutz says with a smile. The rising sun casts shadows and rays of light through the cypress trees around us. She glides her paddleboard between the bents of a railroad trestle and then glances back as three of us paddle behind her. We follow like a line of ducklings and continue on our way.
We are paddleboarding the Waccamaw, a 140-mile blackwater river system that meanders through downtown Conway, on an early morning guided trip. Cate just finished a quick lesson on paddling techniques and basic safety precautions, and now we are headed along the Blue Trail, the South Carolina portion of the Waccamaw that includes some of the smaller distributaries that extend from the main branch of the river. At times the water is shallow and the passages narrow, making a standup paddleboard an ideal watercraft.
With me are two middle-aged women, both new to paddleboarding as well. We stand atop our Island Inspired paddleboards, handcrafted by Cate’s husband and business partner, Todd Sutz, and remark on the beauty of the river, wishing we had our cameras with us.
“Take a picture with your mind,” Cate responds. We laugh, and the women beside me joke that their minds aren’t what they used to be. Although my first impulse is to grab my phone and pull up Instagram, it’s refreshing to be floating on 12 feet of foam, fiberglass and epoxy, free of modern technology.
I submerge the blade of my paddle and propel myself forward. Limbs of moss-laden oak, river birch and tupelo extend overhead. The water is dark from tannins left from decaying vegetation. There’s a gothic feel to the scene, and as we paddle past the historic riverfront homes and out of earshot of cars on their morning commutes, I wonder what life on this river was like in ages past. I try to imagine life in the 1800s with barges shuttling lumber, tobacco and rice. I sink my paddle again and dig deeper, envisioning this river as the central thoroughfare for Kingston, the original colonial name of Conway.
We are the only ones on the river this morning, and the tranquility is magical. Because the Waccamaw is such a slow-moving river, it’s hard to tell the difference between paddling upstream and down, making it a suitable destination for novices.
I ask Cate if she sees many paddleboarders here, and she tells me that other than a few kayakers and fishermen, it’s fairly quiet. “The Waccamaw may be the best-kept secret for paddleboarding,” she remarks. Most people associate it with saltwater and the inlet.
In fact, most guided paddleboard lessons and rentals are at the beach. Some of this may have to do with paddleboarding’s origins in Hawaii. “Like surfing and other watersports before it, it was born and developed in the islands before making its way to California,” Todd says. Although it’s related to surfing and big wave culture, the large boards and soft padding on top are well-suited for flat-water cruising.
Compared to canoeing and kayaking, it’s a more intimate way to connect with the river, the closest you’ll come to walking on water. Chris Heafner, a local educator and outdoors lover, recently hung up his kayak in favor of an all around-style paddleboard. For him, paddleboarding the river is easier and more convenient. “Most kayaks weigh at least 40 to 50 pounds. My paddleboard only weighs 23. I also think it’s more comfortable. Sitting down for long periods of time is harder on my back than standing, though you can also sit and kneel on a paddleboard if you want. It’s also extremely versatile. I like the rivers, but I can take this in the ocean if I feel like surfing.”
Island Inspired makes a variety of board sizes and shapes, the most popular being the 10-foot, 6-inch All-Around model that works well in virtually any environment: rivers, lakes and inlets and can even be used to catch waves. Additionally, they also make a high performance surf stand up paddleboard, a racing model, a new yoga-specific board and flat-water and touring models. One of my fellow paddlers this morning is on the All-Arounder. It’s her first time on a paddleboard, and she tells me it’s much easier than she anticipated.
Todd Sutz attributes the sport’s rapid growth and recent popularity to the relatively small learning curve. “You don’t need to be an extreme athlete to paddleboard. The first time you go out, you have a blast, and the learning curve is less intense than surfing. You can get on the water any time—you don’t need to wait for waves. It’s always available.”
We’ve turned our boards around and have begun paddling downstream. The Blue Trail opens up again at Kingston Lake, a tributary to the Waccamaw joining Smith Lake and Crabtree Creek. It’s a picturesque moment as a fish surfaces and sunlight dances across the ripples.
Cate tells me that Island Inspired uses the stillness and tranquility of this place to share their latest model, the Yoga Go paddleboard. As the sport has grown, so too have the uses for the boards. The Yoga Go paddleboard adds width and volume in addition to a pad that is nearly the size of a yoga mat. We move across Kingston Lake and it’s easy to see the appeal. I watch insects zigzag across the surface of the water and I dream up an idea for a fishing paddleboard, complete with a seat and rod holders. When I share my idea with Todd and Cate back at the Island Inspired shop, I’m not surprised to learn that they can build it. As custom board makers, they love the opportunity to work individually with people to bring ideas to life.
Before heading back, we make a hard left and paddle up the main branch of the river for a while. The river is wider here, but there still isn’t a soul on the water, so I take the opportunity to surge ahead and see how fast I can go. Cate offers to race if I want to, but I’m not sure how much stamina I have in me. After an hour and a half of easy paddling, the short burst is more tiring than I imagined. We circle back at the old trestle bridge and bring the boards back to the launch at the Riverwalk where Cate loads them back into the Island Inspired van.
It’s just barely 9 a.m. and my work clothes are packed in a bag in the back of my car. I tell Cate how rejuvenated I feel, ready to face the rest of the day, and her expression reveals the same. “One hour of peace can change your day,” she says.
It’s easy to see how paddleboarding can appeal to so many people. It’s as relaxed or extreme as you want it to be. And with the ability to paddleboard from a standing, kneeling or sitting position by adjusting the length of your paddle, it’s an extremely inclusive sport.
The Island Inspired Board Company shop is located on S.C. 544 between Conway and Myrtle Beach. The shop has a small retail area in the front with bright orange walls and a colorful inventory of their own surf and paddleboards. Balanced atop two stands is one of the new Yoga Go models with a tie-dyed mandala on the nose, a design made in collaboration with a local artist Wendy DeMello of Carolina Grass Stains.
There’s little inventory other than the boards and paddles, but the real draw are the large glass windows that look into the back rooms where Todd is busy shaping and sanding works in progress.
Todd Sutz grew up in Conway and fell in love with surfing at a young age. He devoured surfing magazines and began learning the art of shaping and glassing surfboards as a teenager in Myrtle Beach, working for three years as an apprentice for a local maker. Feeling the pull of Hawaii and the big waves of Pipeline and Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, he left South Carolina and landed a job in one of the surfboard factories in Oahu.
“I really had to prove myself in Hawaii. My time there let me master this art by working with the best in the industry. Hawaii, the people, and the waves were my inspiration, and it’s there where I met Cate and started to build boards of my own under the Island Inspired name.”
Today, Island Inspired is back in his hometown, where he and Cate raise their three children. Island Inspired is continuing to grow, including a new emphasis on high performance competition boards. The slogan on the back of the van reads “World Class Boards Made in the Carolinas.” It’s clear they are invested in the community and are passionate about sharing the inspiration of being on the water with as many people as possible.
“Paddleboarding is finally starting to grow on the Grand Strand,” Todd says. “It is very popular in Wilmington and Charleston, and now Myrtle Beach is catching up. Anyone can do it. Some will say, ‘I don’t have any balance, or I’m too big for it’—you just need a big enough board. People are surprised.”
Island Inspired (www.islandinspired.com) offers two-hour paddleboard tours for $30 per person. Carolina Waterman (www.carolinawaterman.com) also offers two-hour tours on the Waccamaw River for $50 per paddler.
Written by Dean Blumberg