Mike's Story

Mike paddling infront of San Francisco with his dog

Hello from Alameda, and thanks so much for visiting Mike’s Paddle. I’m Mike Wang, and in 2013 I decided to leave my professional career as a Finance and HR manager at UCSF and start my own business. Before this point, I had been working in offices since graduating from college, and doing a lot of paddling on the weekend -- mainly kayaking and rafting. But I had developed severe back pain from all of the sitting activities in my life: I was sitting in offices and meetings, sitting at home watching TV, sitting in my car to drive to rivers and oceans, and sitting paddling in kayaks and rafts. I was just sitting all the time! I realized that I needed to make a change, which started with standing up - and Mike’s Paddle, a full-service Stand Up Paddleboard shop, was born.

Originally from China, I have traveled the world in search of great water, and was first introduced to paddling on a frozen lake in Beijing when I was a child. I love all water-based activities: kayaking, rafting, stand up paddling, surfing, and now eFoiling, and have over 16 years experience in kayaking, canoeing and SUP.

SUP combines my passion for paddling with my drive to stay on my feet to keep my back healthy. I love that SUP is a sport anyone can do, and that I get to share my love for it by teaching it to others.

Paddling has taken me to many parts of the San Francisco Bay, California coast and Sierra rivers, as well as beautiful international locations in Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, Canada, Mongolia, Mexico, Hawaii and China. After all my travels, however, my favorite paddle is right in my backyard: Ballena Bay of Alameda.

I am certified as a PaddleFit Coach Level 1 to Level 3 and American Canoe Association (ACA) SUP Instructor Level 1 and 2, as well as Level 3 Whitewater, First Aid and CPR.

How It All Began: One Volunteer, Seven Boards

In 2014 we created the only paddle shop in the Bay Area dedicated to only Stand Up Paddleboarding. I started the shop with one volunteer -- Ryan Takemiya -- and seven boards. Our original location was next to the harbormaster’s office here at the Ballena Bay Marina, which required a short walk to a small dock provided by the marina and built by my now friend Dave Burdick. I worked 12 hours a day on the weekends, starting at the shop at 6:00 am to put boards out and get gear ready for lessons and rentals, and leaving around 6:00 pm after everything was put away. I taught lessons in the morning and ran rentals in the afternoon. It was hard but very rewarding! When in 2015 we had a grand opening weekend with about 30 people on the water, I knew we had hit the right spot in the wonderful Bay-side town of Alameda!

Planting the Seeds of Community

We were already busy that first summer, so I started a volunteer instructor program in order to get more help teaching classes. Our focus, unlike many other paddle shops, was -- and still is -- teaching people the right skills so they can enjoy their time on the Bay. The Bay can be a tough and unpredictable place for beginners to paddle, so our focus on safety and technique really developed our paddlers into a strong, skilled and dedicated community. Our instructor pool started growing, so I became an instructor trainer for the American Canoe Association so my instructor trainees could receive formalized, accredited training and certifications. This investment in people soon paid off: in one year I trained 12 instructors and was able to staff Intro to SUP classes every weekend during the peak season. 

Almost Calling it Quits

I knew getting through the winter was going to be difficult, but I didn’t quite anticipate the steep drop off we experienced. We essentially had no customers, because no one expected to be able to paddle over the winter, despite Bay Area winters being pretty mild compared to many other places in the country. That year, in between storms, we had long stretches of sunny and windless days with temperatures of up 70 degrees during the day. Yet in January/February, the business was in trouble and I was counting pennies each time I had to pay rent or run payroll for my only employee at the time, Allen Yip. In March, I had no cash in the bank and my credit cards were maxed. Thinking I might not be able to continue the business, I applied for a job back at UCSF HR. I was one of the two finalists for the position and the other person was hired -- but getting that close to having a job again was so depressing to me that I had already decided: even if they offered the job to me, I was going to decline it. Somehow, I was able to get enough cash flow going with a meager few rentals and winter memberships, and once I started selling boards in the spring I had enough to make it to the summer season. I haven’t looked back since and I now know I never want a job again.

The Race Begins

In the spring of 2015, we started a race program. It was so much fun training instructors and athletes in how to race and downwind on SUPs. Even though racing is a small part of the paddleboarding community, it provides an avenue for people to enjoy intense focus and goal-setting in paddling. Many people use SUP race training as their preferred form of developing and maintaining fitness. We had six students: three became dedicated racers and the other three became instructors! Soon I realized there was a great community in racing and fitness. I became a PaddleFit instructor and went to two World PaddleFit Games in the following years, managing to come in second in one of my events! Back at the shop, I ran regular Saturday PaddleFit classes teaching people how to be fit while paddling. I started Team Mike’s Paddle shortly after and now have developed over 50 racers. We had weekly training and went to local, national and international races. Through Mike’s Paddle I developed over 30 instructors, and we now have an unmatched community of strong and dedicated paddlers who are mentoring the new generations coming up. This community has turned into the Ohana Paddle Club, which officially launched in July of 2021.

Namaste on the Water

In 2014 we partnered with Leela Yoga (now Breathing Room) to start our SUP Yoga program. Aviva Levine, now one of the current owners, was one of our original SUP Yoga instructors! We also began running our first SUP Yoga Instructor Certification courses that year. In 2015 I discovered SUP Asana East Bay. I didn’t have the necessary yoga background to train SUP Yoga instructors and they were looking for a new location, so we decided to partner. Working with Malia Hill, Kate Carpenter and Rick Carpenter, we gathered a large following of SUP Yoga students and teachers. We created an official partnership with Boga Yoga boards and regularly held classes of up to 15 students. Working with Sari Geltzer, our yoga coordinator, we developed our own SUP Yoga teacher training with certifications from PaddleFit and the ACA. Since then we have provided regular SUP Yoga classes, local retreats and international retreats. Our Croatia SUP Yoga retreat was one of the best yoga experiences that our customers rated!

Paddling 'Round the World

In 2016 I realized that investing in international travel was a good strategy to keep revenue coming in over the lean winter season. It was always one of my goals to travel the world paddling (I had already been doing it with whitewater and sea kayaking), so SUP and travel just went hand in hand. I pioneered a SUP Surf trip to Taiwan with just two participants and learned a lot. In that year, with the help of Victoria Anweiler (currently Programs Director for Mike’s Paddle), we branded SUP Caravan and took our first trip with just three clients to Croatia with our dynamite local guide, Marko. What an amazing paddle trip that is! The island of Molat is one of the gems of the world. Victoria was instrumental in partnering with me and creating this new travel company. We both took on all aspects of the company (sales, operations, guiding) and had many fun and challenging experiences along the way. With just five years of experience (one of them being 2020, the pandemic year), we developed three great locations (Baja, Croatia and Costa Rica). We are looking forward to traveling again once the pandemic is under control.

Starting Them Young

In 2016 I attended a professional PaddleFit coaches conference. I asked Brody Welt, Head Coach for the National SUP Team: how can I develop a better adult racing program? Brody’s answer? Focus on kids. It seems counter-intuitive to focus on kids in order to develop an adult program, but it was sage advice, and we did just that. Our summer camp program originally started with myself, my brother-in-law Andrew Tan and Estevan Espinoza, who is still with us and serving as a Retail Associate and SUP Instructor. We taught kids how to paddle in the morning and then would play all kinds of games on big inflatable paddle boards in the afternoon. In the first year we started camps, we had three weeks of one week camps. Now we have eight weeks of summer camps and nearly 300 kids in the program. This astounding success came at the hands of Victoria Anweiler, my partner in SUP Caravan (mentioned above) and former program director of Alameda Sailing. She brought her many years of experience and helped me develop the best kids paddling program in the Bay Area. Summer camp brought many families to the shop, and many parents became paddlers because they wanted to be on the water with their kids. As our camper kids became more proficient in paddling, they wanted to do more fun things like surfing, downwind, and racing. Victoria developed and led our first Leadership Program with 12 kids, eight of whom graduated and moved into our Internship Program. Now, we have typically three to five interns or junior staff (the next step after an internship) working at the shop on any given weekend. The Leadership, Internship and junior staff programs have given kids an opportunity to prove to themselves -- and others -- that they have an enormous capacity to learn and perform the essential duties of retail and summer camp jobs.

The Final Piece

Retail was always the last thing that I wanted to develop in the Mike’s Paddle business model because I didn’t want to push folks to purchase boards before they had the proper safety and paddling skills. In 2019 we realized that our paddling programs -- classes, lessons and tours -- were so successful that we were approaching our peak capacity for how many people we could put on the water. The only area left to develop was retail. In the past few years I had visited factories in Asia, gone to various conferences and trade shows, and learned the ins and outs of how boards are made, shipped and distributed. It was important to me to purchase boards from brands adhering to good environmental and labor practices in their factories. It’s definitely challenging in this day and age to get good products, have good support from distributors and not have boards get damaged during shipping. Through perseverance and luck, we were able to put all the pieces together and provide a good selection of equipment for our customers by investing in top brands: SIC, Infinity, Starboard, Black Project and NRS. In 2020, I hired Levi Morris as the retail manager and with his help, the shop did well despite the pandemic. Stand Up Paddleboarding provided a safe and socially distanced activity anyone could do, and people realized how much fun they could have on the water in the Bay and on Lake Tahoe. We sold every single used and new board in our inventory. With that success, we were able to invest in a better website focused on online retail, and now we are selling boards to customers across the country. Yet our brick and mortar sales remain strong, thanks to our loyal and ever-growing base of local customers.

Diversity Matters

Serving people of color and those who are disadvantaged was always one of my goals in creating Mike’s Paddle. I have met too many people of color in the U.S. with generational trauma from having family members who drowned or who grew up in urban areas where people of color lacked access to pools or water programs. The Bay Area has both a diverse community and a vibrant water community, with sailing, kayaking, boating, paddling, and too many other water sports to list. We all live close to the Bay and should all have access to it. Very early on, I consciously recruited people of color as instructors and sought out non-profits and schools in order to offer discounted paddling instruction to the adults and kids they served. We have hosted events for organizations such as Healing Waters, The Sierra Club's Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO), Outdoor Afro and East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC). I’m proud to report that to date our instructor and staff pool is 37% people of color (20 out of 53 staff), and I will continue my concerted effort to increase this representation.

Fly With Us

During the pandemic in 2020, I became intrigued by the sport of foiling. It has caught on in many watersports by people adding foils onto existing watercraft: sailboats, surfboards, paddleboards, wind/kiteboards, etc. Electric foiling (eFoiling) takes foiling a step further and makes it very easy for an average person to get the feeling of surfing without spending years learning the traditional way. So with instructor and surf buddy Danilo Bonilla, I decided to create a new company called BayFoils dedicated to all things foiling. We started with just eFoils from Fliteboard (the best designed board on the market) and began teaching lessons in 2021. Since then, eFoiling has been wildly successful! We have taught over 100 people how to foil and continue to repeatedly sell out of our Fliteboard inventory. Thanks to Jordan Holst’s help, we are now able to teach more students, service and repair these high tech boards, and provide excellent service to our new customers. We’re looking forward to expanding and continuing to introduce this awesome new sport to the rest of the Bay Area!

With Gratitude

As I write this in 2021, the pandemic is still not over and the delta variant is rampant. The indoor mask mandate has just been reinstituted. Yet as I reflect on the past seven years since I opened the shop, I feel really blessed to have been able to develop such a wonderful place to work and live in Alameda, and to have been able to do it with the support of so many people. I have to give special thanks to my Mom, who supported me emotionally and financially during the lows and kept me on my toes during the highs. Big thanks also go to my life partner Judy, who has provided unwavering support for my past, present and future endeavors despite some tough years with my being absent from home a great deal. Finally, I thank all of the instructors and staff who worked in the past seven years. I’m eternally grateful to you for doing your best and enjoying what we built together! 

What’s Next?

We are very excited about some new developments in the works that will take Mike’s Paddle to the next level and allow us to bring the joy of paddling and being on the water to an even bigger circle of people. Stay tuned!