What's SUP?!

SUP is Stand Up Paddleboarding and it's growing in popularity, as demonstrated Saturday by the Soundsurfer Waterman's Challenge on the Saugatuck River.

Around 120 fit and fun-loving paddlers took part in the 4th annual event, which raised money for diabetes research and several other causes. Four separate races took place, including a 7-mile elite competition that to took paddlers out the Saugatuck River, past Sherwood Point and back.

"There's a real competitive element to stand up paddleboarding now," said Kim Beaumont, owner of Downunder, which hosted the event from its Saugatuck location on Riverside Avenue.

There were 61 paddlers competing for the top $3,500 prize, including Fernando Stalla, a world-class paddler from Mexico.

"The best thing is the community," Stalla said of the burgeoning sport. "The people who do it -- everyone is like a big family -- something like surfing used to be."

"And it's a great physical sport, and you get to do it in beautiful places -- on lakes, on rivers, and on the ocean."

"Anyone can do it on their first day," Stalla said. "It's doesn't really matter how old you are. It doesn't matter how young you are."

"It's not hard," said Brendan Vodola, 13, of Darien.

"I like being on the water and being able to race with other people," he said.

Bailey, a mellow golden retriever who belongs to Mark Herman of Westport, apparently likes it too.

"We've been paddling together for about two weeks," said Herman, who recently moved to Westport from Seattle, where he and Bailey enjoyed aquatic recreation together.

"He used to surf with me when he was younger," he said. "Paddleboarding is a pretty good thing. It's an up-and-comer, so we thought we'd give it a shot."

He acknowledged that getting to know people in the local paddleboarding community has helped make the transition from the West Coast much easier.

"I've been doing it forever," said Ian Knowles of New York, who used to teach through Downunder. "It's just a natural extension of my passion for the water, I guess."

Eric Pasquale of Fairfield knows that feeling, which led him to establish the Soundsurfer Foundation four years ago.

"I started doing it and I really liked it," he said, "so I figured this was a good opportunity to get something going."

Pasquale's daughter Garbiella, now 10, has Type I diabetes, which inspired him to organize this fundraising event, which he said will bring in $15,000 to $25,000 each year, depending on turnout.

"The first year it was on the beach in Fairfield," he said, but then he partnered with Beaumont's business on the Saugatuck. Saturday's event also helped raise money for other charities including Al's Angels, FOCUS and Harborwatch.

"We're raising funds for children with diabetes, as well as the environment," Beaumont said.

"It's worked out great," Pasquale said.