Learning how to turn your stand up paddleboard normally comes right after you establish a comfortable sense of balance and gain a degree of control over your paddling technique. There are three basic ways to turn your paddleboard. Two of them are very easy to do and the other takes a little bit of practice.
The amount of effort it takes turn your paddleboard also depends a lot on its shape and length. For example, a longer board with less rocker on the nose and tail that is designed more for flat water paddling will take more effort to turn than a shorter board with substantial rocker that is designed more for surfing. Likewise, a board with a displacement hull that is designed for racing and touring on flat water will be more difficult to turn than a board with a planing hull. Boards with displacement hulls tend to sit partly below the water line so they must push all that water out of way as they turn across it. A planing hull, by nature, sits on top of the water, so it is exposed to much less resistance as it sweeps through its turn.
For now, we will look at the three major ways to turn: side-stroke, back paddle and pivot turn.
Side-Stroke: The side-stroke is the most basic way to turn your paddleboard. If you keep paddling on one side of your board, you will eventually turn. To make a tighter turn, you can use a sweep stroke which is similar to the side-stroke, but you flip the paddle blade on edge when putting it in the water and then sweep out and away from board. You can picture holding a broom and sweeping debris off to one side. In this way, the nose of the board will come around in the direction you want to turn much more quickly.
Back Paddle: The back paddle turn is much the same as turning a canoe or kayak. When you are ready to turn, plant the blade of your paddle in the water on the side of the paddleboard that is facing the direction that you want to turn. Put it in behind your feet down towards the tail end of the paddleboard. Have your feet offset a little to give you good front-to-back stability and then move the paddle forward with long, smooth strokes. Remember, to keep the blade fully submerged, especially with this technique. If your blade is not all the way down in the water you will just be splashing about and your board will not turn.
The back paddle allows you to turn within a much tighter radius than the side-stroke and use far less energy. It is a good segue way skill to master before trying the next paddleboard turning technique- the pivot turn.
Pivot Turn: The pivot turn is the most fun way to turn your paddleboard. It also requires bit more focus and balance skill than the previous methods. You can start practicing the pivot turn from a stationary position or moving forward at speed as you start executing it. It depends on your personal preference and what feels most comfortable to you.
The first thing you want to think about with the pivot turn is sinking the tail of your board into the water. In order to do that you must step back with either your right or left foot and shift your body weight on to that leg. Don’t be shy about it. The idea is to lift the nose of the board completely out of the water, effectively releasing it from any resistance as it begins to turn around. If you are on a longer board you will need to step farther back, or even take a couple of steps back before weighting the tail. But longer boards will support your weight and be more stable. Shorter boards will sink much easier but will not be as stable. Keep your knees bent low! The lower you are to the board the more stability you will have.
Once you step back on your paddleboard, your body will be turned sideways. You will shift your weight onto that back leg and at the same time lean forward a little to offset the angle of the board and prevent yourself from falling back. Your paddle should be in the water this whole time acting as a brace to keep you upright. As soon as you feel the nose of your board lift off of the water make a series of short quick strokes on the side of the board that you are facing. If you sweep out and away from the board it will turn much faster.
As you come around 180 degrees quickly step up with your back foot first and reestablish your normal paddleboarding stance. You may need to take an extra couple of short, quick steps if you are on a longer board to get back to the middle. Once you are back in the middle of the board, you are off to races!
Pivot turns can be practiced over and over in the same spot. I sometimes make myself dizzy trying to see how fast I can spin before falling off the board. Once you have mastered pivot turning on one side try doing with your other foot back facing the opposite direction and have a go at that. You can also do pivot turn using the back paddle technique which works just as effectively.
Learning all three turning techniques lends itself towards expanded skill development, which you can then transfer over to other areas of paddleboarding like surfing and buoy turns in racing. The main point of it all is to have fun and push your skill level at the same time!