Located steps away from Puget Sound, Surf Ballard is a surf and stand-up paddle shop near the Ballard Locks and Salmon Bay.
On our August visit to Seattle, we were lucky to find a Living Social 50% off deal for this business and knew that we wanted to have our third adventure on the board. Our first experience was in Vieques, Puerto Rico and we recently did it in Austin, TX on the lake as well – all wonderful experiences.
Normally $40 for two hours, this special made it $20 each. To make it even more convenient, I secured our reservation online. Weekend times were not available so we did a weekday afternoon. This ended up being a really laid-back choice as I think the weekends would be too busy for our tastes.
Stand-up paddleboarding origins date back to Ancient Polynesia but popularity really began in the 60s when surfers began using it as a way to take photos while on the water and to cross-train when the surf was down. It is easy to learn (unlike surfing which I tried on our honeymoon in Zihuatenejo, Mexico) and beginners can usually catch on quickly. The paddleboard does not need to ride a wave, so paddling takes place in the open ocean, harbors, lakes, rivers or any large body of water.
Stand-up paddle boarding is a great way to gain a unique perspective of the coastline, and standing over the water also gives great views of marine life. It is a fantastic core workout, though good arm strength is also needed, but it is a sport that is accessible to many ages and fitness levels. At the same time, weather factors can certainly make it a more challenging sport. Based on our experience, Surf Ballard is a site that is best for an intermediate paddler. There are a few reasons that I believe this, including the strong winds, but it certainly depends on the person and they do offer beginner lessons.
Surf Ballard is classic surf shop, in addition to being the home to the Washington Surf Academy and WASUP yoga (yoga on paddleboards), as well as renting SUP boards and wet suits and booties. For paddleboarding, generally the dress would be comfortable attire that is able to get wet, but having the wetsuit option helps extend the season for boarding. On this lovely summer day, Dave wore swim trunks and I wore a tankini top and swim shorts. Based on past experiences, we were planning to go barefoot (better balance with toe flexibility) but the shop provided surf booties because there is walking on rough terrain.
Their location is an ideal launching point into the beautiful Northwestern waters, but they are not located right on the water. Once you are fitted for a wet suit (if desired) then you are taught how to properly carry the board and walk across the street, down a path, down steps and to the beach. As the tide was low, we had to walk out on algae, shells and rocks to get to the water. This is an important expectation to have, but if you can not handle carrying a board, then it might be concerning for you to handle the challenges of paddle boarding too.
As we had experience, we went right out to the water once we reviewed the map. The female worker warned us that there were strong winds and to be aware when going against it. The usual options would be go right to the Shilshole marina, left to Ballard Locks, or straight ahead toward Discovery Park light house. She strongly advised against straight as it was more open with nothing to shield the winds making it hard to come back. We decided to go toward the marina because baby seals were recently spotted in the area.
Generally, we have found boarding leisurely and calming, but the water currents and wind were much more aggressive than our other two experiences. On the advise of the shop girl, I paddled out on my knees to make it easier going against the wind. Otherwise my body acted as a sail, working against my arms. It was much more challenging for my arms and bumpy on my balance than the smooth Caribbean and lake waters. However, it was gorgeous.
For us, the topography is just so different from anything that we experience in Texas. After passing through the marina (which was thankfully not busy on a weekday), we ventured down by a beach shore park area. Salmon Bay has gorgeous scenery between the marina and the parks. The shop had provided a sealed bag for our iPhone to help us keep time… and I bravely took it out of the waterproof case to take photos. For this, I sat down like a kayak. As we had paddled out against the wind, now the wind was blowing us back and it was much more peaceful and easy-going with the currents.
The fitness level needed for paddleboarding is determined by the wind and the currents, so it might be good to check the weather before going to Surf Ballard. However, the sport is still versatile because you can stand, kneel or sit. Because I had the camera, I did variations based on difficulty- standing when smooth, kneeling when rough and sitting to relax and enjoy. Dave stood most of the time and fell in a few times. In these dark, deep waters I would say it would be best to know how to swim but we were provided life vests as well.
For our first time paddling in Puerto Rico (read article here), we had a tour — so we had instruction for four hours as we toured. This really helped us improve and work on our skills, and made it really easy for us later to have confidence. On the other hand, at Surf Ballard I saw many boarders struggling on the water, most likely first-timers. You leave the shop and you are on your own, but these waters are not easy. This is also why I think a bit of skill and physicality will make the experience better. They do show a video (view it here) but personalized instruction on the water is best if you have time for a lesson. Still everyone was having fun – even if they were falling into the chilly waters.
As the wind guided us back toward the entry point, I checked our phone for the time and we had another 15 minutes in the marina area. As we were paddling, Dave was startled by what he thought was a huge fish that swam underneath his board. Come to find out, it was a little baby seal! The little guy popped up his head right beside us and played around our boards for a few minutes. It seemed curious about what we were doing, and again swam under Dave’s board as he looked down into the water. It was absolutely fabulous! I wish I could have captured a photo, but I was too wobbly in the choppy waters.
When we had about five minutes of time left in our reservation, we headed back to the shop where they took our boards and offered us a hose for our sandy feet and an outdoor shower. Shopping temptations took over and I purchased a coffee mug and a T-shirt with their logo.
As I checked out, I noticed a small crowd of people at a food stand. Lucky for us, it was Paseo — a Cuban pork sandwich stand that was on my list of places to go (see the reviews). This was a surprise perk and the sandwiches were delicious. You should seek it out even if you do not paddleboard. There is also Ray’s Boathouse nearby as well, but we needed to head back into town so we missed out on a drink with a view.
In researching Surf Ballard, I did see the Yelp reviews. While it gets a good rating overall, it surprised me to see common negative feedback that all related to a grumpy owner. We only dealt with a very lovely surf girl, so we did not get any of that experience. At the same time, we were also on-time which seems the biggest problem. I imagine that weekends are more stressful. We had checked for availability, but the boards were all reserved. So we went on a weekday when there were a lot more reservations free. Furthermore, we are independent since we have done it before so we just needed the boards and went.
In addition to terse ownership, it seems like some were not ready for the exertion needed. At this site, you do need to walk and carry your board. It appears that this bothers some – it did not really affect our experience, but it is good to know in advance. I think if you follow the rules and arrive on time that you will be fine. Just don’t be high maintenance. It is surfing after all.
Overall, our experience at Surf Ballard was one of the highlights from the trip and wish we had time to do SUP Yoga (video here). But I think we will be back – so maybe next time!
I hope the seal visits us again.