Laura Zak admits she's not the most ambitious person in the world.
It's her chill personality, her California glow, her innate inability to white knuckle anything that makes her the ideal person to own and run Ottawa SUP - Ottawa Stand Up Paddleboards – which Zak owns and runs with her husband Josh.
“I'm not an overly ambitious person, but I love running this business,” Zak, 40, says. “I am not a big risk-taker, I'm more down-to-earth manager. Josh is the risk taker. Having a passion for the business boosted my confidence. So much gets thrown at you, you learn to handle it all. Being a waitress before this was a lot of pressure but I now know I can handle more than I realize.”
Located beside the Rideau River at Riverside Drive, in the heart of old Ottawa South, Ottawa SUP rent large fibreglass paddleboards for people looking to spend a couple hours doing something cool on the water. One dude has been paddleboarding the Great Lakes all summer. Crazy.
Invented in Hawaii 20 years ago, paddleboarding is the pickleball of water sports. A detuned, slow-motion version of surfing or skateboarding, the paddleboarder stands on a board and paddles, working their core and soaking up the sunshine and the envy of pedestrians. It's as close to surfing on Venice Beach you'll ever get in Ottawa. If you can mop a floor, you can paddleboard.
“It's not as hard as you think,” she says. “Paddleboarding is low-impact fun. Anyone can do this. We've had women as old as 70 out on the river.”
Launched in 2015 for about $20K, Zak and Josh started with 12 boards (designed by Josh). They now have more than 50 boards and inflatables, serving as many as 100 renters on their busiest day – Saturday or Sundays.
Opening on the May 24 weekend, Ottawa SUP goes seven days a week until Thanksgiving.
Serendipitously, she secured a space right beside the Rideau River and Paradis Kitchen so that inner city types who don't live on a lake could paddleboard after work and on weekends.
Naysayers thought the pair were crazy to open in Ottawa South and asked why they weren't out at Meech Lake or Constance Bay.
“Not everybody can travel 45 minutes to get to the lake,” she says. “It's hard to get out on the water when you live downtown. So we're bringing boarding to the city. Our busiest time is after work at 6 pm when people have finished work.”
The water-sport business runs in the Zak family. Her brother, Kelly operated a surf shop in Costa Rica and after moving back to Canada, a paddleboard shop out of their mom's place on the Trent River in Peterborough.
“He knew paddleboarding was going to be big because he saw how popular it was in Costa Rica,” Zak says. “People drove all the way from Ottawa just to go paddleboarding.”
Seeing an opportunity, Zak and her husband Josh – an industrial designer by trade – moved to Ottawa in 2015 to launch the business. At the same time, Zak's mother and her partner opened their own paddleboarding business in Constance Bay.
Zak's initial year was way more successful than she could have imagined, and then took off during the COVID pandemic.
“It was one of the only things you could do,” she explains.
To my great surprise, one of the items she sells at her tiny snack bar is a waterproof phone case for your cell phone. Apparently, 70% of her renters want to take photos of themselves on the river for their Instagram posts. Apparently, many of those social media influencers drop their cellphones into the river.
“Before a renter goes out on the water, we tell them 'Don't bring anything you're not willing to lose,'” she laughs. “If you were to drain the river, you'd find a lot of cellphones, GoPros and prescription Ray-Ban sunglasses.”
Apparently, people still want their digital connections even when they're tripping on the Rideau.
More information is available at www.Ottawasup.ca.