Paddleboarding comes to Pittsburgh area

By Gwenn Barney

If you build it, they will paddleboard.

At least that’s what Sandy Steffan bet on when she… If you build it, they will paddleboard.

At least that’s what Sandy Steffan bet on when she opened Pittsburgh’s first paddleboard provider. So far, the gamble has paid off.

In the month since its opening, people from around the area have flocked to the Northeast Paddleboard Co. in McKeesport to try out the sport that involves standing on a hollow flotation device almost identical to a surfboard and propelling oneself along the surface of the water while standing up with the help of a paddle using swimming motions.

“I thought Sandy had a great idea,” Sandy’s father, Bud Steffan, said. “But I didn’t think it would catch on this fast.”

In recent years, the sport — which originated in Hawaii during the 1950s — has grown in popularity among celebrities and athletes. Owen Wilson, Robert Downey Jr. and Pink are just a few of the celebrities who have taken to the boards recently, and baseball player Alex Rodriguez has been known to travel with a personal paddleboard.

To get a good visual of the paddleboarding in mind, think of a gondola ride, only with a person paddling with a long oar on a surfboard instead of a boat.

Steffan first discovered paddleboarding last February while on vacation in southern Florida. She went on a paddleboarding trip led by Gold Coast Aquatic Adventures and fell in love with the sport. In April, after two months of daydreaming about paddleboards, she made a second trip to Florida to learn the ropes of running a paddleboard business from the same paddleboard provider that had offered her her first experience.

After returning to Pittsburgh, Steffan spent the spring turning a piece of the Boston Waterfront in Boston, Pa., into a mini-Florida paddleboard oasis. With the help of family and friends, she refurbished an old horse barn and pavilion, decorating both in a beach motif complete with hammocks, Hawaiian grass and an extra-large Margaritaville sign.

Of course, it’s not a beach without the sand, and Steffan made sure she brought plenty of it to the Keystone State. She installed 36 tons of the material on the company’s property.

Typically, the boards are used for either long-distance paddling or racing. Steffan is planning to host a race at The Boston Waterfront sometime in the near future.

However, the creative patrons of Northeast Paddleboard Co. have already devised myriad other ways to use the floating boards, beyond simply paddling down a river. Steffan accomodates almost any request paddleboarders present when it comes to enhancing the paddleboarding experience.

She has attached flashlights to the boards for night paddles, something she says has been popular among her teenage and young adult customers, who often remain on the water until the 2 a.m. weekend closing time.

Although the younger group opts for late nights, avid fishermen tend to plan their paddleboard trips for times when more fish are biting. They strap their bait and food onto the boards and head out for a fishing experience that brings them closer to the water than any boat could.

Once a week, Steffan even accommodates a group of women from the local gym who perform yoga on the boards as they float down the river.

“It’s the most versatile non-motor watersport,” Steffan said. “The possibilities are endless. You can really do anything on it.”

It might, in part, be the sport’s versatility that brought 130 participants to the paddleboard company in the last month.

The company currently holds a fleet of eight paddleboards and is looking to acquire three more in the near future. The cost to rent a board is $30 for two hours. To keep large groups occupied while they aren’t on the water, the company offers beach volleyball rentals for $5 per person per hour and beer at $3 a bottle.

In addition to running the paddleboard business, Steffan also holds two other jobs — one with a domestic abuse agency and the other as a bartender. The large amount of work hasn’t left Steffan much time to actively promote her new business, but luckily the draw of a paddleboarding adventure seems to market itself.

“People are coming to do it one time, and they’re bringing more friends back with them the next time,” Steffan said.

Still, she plans to release a deal through this week to hitch even more Western Pennsylvanians onto her paddleboarding bandwagon.

The Northeast Paddleboard Co. is located along the Youghiogheny River, next to the Boston Waterfront Restaurant in McKeesport, Pa. It’s about a 20-minute drive from Pitt’s campus.

The paddleboard company has thrived from the relationship it has created with the bordering Boston Waterfront Bar/Restaurant. On Sundays, the restaurant offers live music, DJs and a pig roast to keep paddleboarders full and happy after a long day on the river.

“It’s fit in so well,” Boston Waterfront owner Sandy Peppler said of the paddleboard business. “Our customers have had an overwhelming response to the paddleboats.”

Brad O’ Boyle, a resident of Elizabeth Township, is one newly minted paddleboarder who has taken to the sport since first visiting Northeast Paddleboard Co. on the Fourth of July.

“I was [really skeptical] at first. I said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to get me onto that thing.’ But I tried it and now I can’t get enough of it.”