Riding the current

Paddleboard maker capitalizing on outdoor lifestyle

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“I lean on the green side of things in my personal and business life,” Luke Hopkins says.

He keeps chickens, grows an organic garden and repurposes shipping boxes. The boxes that carry manufacturing materials into his Blacksburg plant are the same ones that hold his products when he ships them out.

Hopkins is one of an increasing number of entrepreneurs in the Roanoke/New River Valley region who have tapped into a growing market for outdoor activities.

Since 2008, Hopkins’ company, Stride, has been designing and building paddleboards, which resemble giant surfboards. Hopkins’ models are more than 10 feet long and nearly 3 feet wide. Riders can stand up on the boards to paddle around lakes and bays or even through raging whitewater. Hopkins has ridden one of his boards through the New River Gorge. The Lower Gorge packs 21 sets of rapids into 10 miles, including five that are class IV and four that are class V, which are high rankings for difficulty.

NewsA typical surfboard might get dinged up on rocks, but Hopkins’ boards are inflatable — made of the same type of material as whitewater rafts. The boards have nylon fabric inside two layers of rubbery skin, so they’re flexible. In addition, there’s a plastic coating on the outside that makes the board resistant to scrapes. The board’s fins are made of urethane. “You can hit it with a sledgehammer and not hurt it,” Hopkins says.

To test the boards’ durability, Hopkins intentionally ran over an inflated board with a 12,000-pound van without doing any damage. In an unintentional test, another board blew off the top of an SUV at highway speed and was run over by another vehicle. No damage.

Deflated and folded up, the board fits into the backpack that comes with each board. “You can fly with it,” Hopkins said. “You can hike a mountain with it.” He has at least one customer who carries a board around in the back of her Honda Fit.

Hopkins says he and his crew (one full-time and four part-timers) have been building and selling about 200 boards a year. He expects to do better this year. Boards cost from $999 to $1,299 each before accessories are added. Those accessories include dry bags and fishing rod holders, tackle boxes and a cutting board. For people who don’t like all that standing, Hopkins offers optional seats that turn the board into a sit-on-top kayak.

The paddleboards are sold in stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado as well as Virginia. They’re available online, too. But Hopkins likes it when people call to order a board directly from his factory. That makes it easier to customize the board’s look and utility. When he knows how and where a customer plans to use a paddleboard, he can make sure the board is tailored to that use.

There’s an optional waterproof gun case for the camouflage model called the Blast and Cast. Hopkins and his friends use those boards to sneak up on ducks and geese.
Firing a shotgun while kneeling —  or standing — on the board is easier than you’d think, Hopkins says. He shot three geese from a board one day in the middle of February.

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