Flat water paddleboards vs open ocean paddleboards what’s the difference?

When looking at 12’6 or 14’ paddleboards, many manufacturers separate them into two main categories, flat water or open ocean.  It can be pretty confusing to determine when flat water ends and open water begins and it can be daunting to try to choose a paddleboard that is going to be viable for the type of paddling you do.

Focus Cali 12’6 and 14′

To determine where you fit in, you first need to assess the type of paddling that you do(or want to be doing) and your paddling goals.


  • Where do you (or do you want to) do most of your paddling – lake, bay, river, ocean?
  • What are the conditions typically like there-calm, glassy, windy, choppy, wakes,  swell, confused chop or wakes, etc?
  • How will you use your board-racing, touring, fishing, fitness, downwinding, or some combination thereof?
  • What factors are most important in the board-for instance, stability, speed, versatility in lots of conditions, etc?


When you have determined the answers to these questions, you can start to hone in on the right board for you.  If you want a board to go fast, be great in flatwater, and race…that is probably the easiest place to start.  A true displacement board will likely be the choice for you.  These boards tend to be narrower than other types of boards (the narrower the faster) so stability can be a bit of an issue with this style of board.  Keep that in mind when shopping.  And demo whenever possible.  A learning curve on a board is not a bad thing, but when you are spending more time in the water than on your board, that is a bad thing.  You might want to try something different.  Width is not the only important factor, the volume of the board and the way the volume is distributed and your size also play a big part in whether or not a board will work for you.

Coreban Edge 14′

If you want a board more for touring or fishing, a displacement style board that is wider and has more volume can be a great choice.  It will still give you the smooth glide of a raceboard, but it will be much more stable, a little speed will be the sacrifice.    “Fitness” is one of those terms that I don’t think means anything in the industry.  Any board can be paddled for “fitness”.

Riviera Voyager 12’6

If you are planning to paddle a lot in open ocean conditions where you are subject to more elements…wind, chop, swell, wakes, downwinding, you will probably want to consider boards with some rocker in the nose.  Rocker in the nose will make the board slower in flat water, but will allow the board to fit in between the swells in the open ocean.  Swell size and frequency vary by location, so consider this when choosing a board.  The shorter the board, the less rocker you need to fit into the swell…and shorter boards will fit into the swell just about anywhere. A 14’ board or an unlimited 18’ board could be swallowed up whole in RI’s conditions, but could be the perfect board for Hawaii.  A little volume and rocker in the tail will help you get on bumps if you are downwinding.  In true downwinding conditions you will also need a planing hull to the tip.

Coreban Dart 14′

If your answers are that cut and dry, congratulations, you just ruled out 80% off all paddleboards made and now you just need to pick from the remaining 20%.  If you are like many of us, things may not be so straight forward.  There are factors to consider like side chop and side swell and how a board will handle those.  Most of the time the conditions are not completely flat or completely “open ocean” conditions so the lines about which board will be best get blurred.  Full displacement boards can be tough in side winds and swell…and open ocean boards can be slow on flat water. So weigh your priorities and the amount of time you will spend in given conditions and go from there.

Ron House Coastal Cruiser 12/6

There is no perfect board.  There will be trade offs with any board you choose.  But if you have a good sup shop in your area, go in and talk to them.  They should ride the boards they sell and should be able to advise you on good options for what you want to do given your size, budget and ability level.  Whenever possible, demo before you buy!

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