It’s a serious case of Instagram versus reality. I’ve seen Jennifer Aniston and Orlando Bloom effortlessly doing headstands on paddleboards floating on the water. But now it’s my turn and the situation looks a little different. I’m standing on a paddleboard on the Thames in Richmond, nervously thinking about the tide and the breeze, putting all my energy into not falling off. Experts say paddleboarding reduces anxiety but my housemate and I are having the opposite experience.
Our instructor James Brennan, founder of The London Stand Up Paddle Co, tells us we have nothing to worry about at the start of our Ride The Tide lesson: 90 per cent of people don’t fall in on their first outing and 99 per cent of beginners will be standing up within the first 30 minutes of getting on a board.
There’s about to be a surge in paddleboarding this summer, which is to be prescribed by GPs to help wellbeing. According to experts, taking to a SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) has such proven benefits it is being recommended by doctors as part of a £50,000 “social prescribing” project to improve physical and mental health. Pro-paddlers say it makes the perfect post-pandemic activity, proven to have muscle-building, social-bonding and meditative effects (whilst also being cheaper and more accessible than most water sports).
Getting out on the water for a morning glide might sound like an activity for Cornwall this summer, but many of the country’s top paddle-spots are closer than you think. From London’s most idyllic waterways to the sport’s surprising fitness benefits, this is your SUP starter guide.
What is it?
Stand up paddleboarding involves standing on a board with an oar and moving through the water. Paul Hyman, founder of water sports academy Active360, says many people find it more relaxing than other water sports because standing feels like a more “natural” position. It’s also more accessible. Sessions can cost as little as £25, equipment is minimal, and you can get a proper trip in a first session. “You can get people standing up, going in a straight line and being able to take part in a trip in one session.”
Clearly, Brennan and Hyman are onto something. According to industry insiders, popularity has surged over the last couple of years to make paddleboarding British Canoeing’s fastest-growing area. The Watersports Participation Survey found uptake almost tripled during 2018 and Covid hasn’t put a dampener on the capital’s SUP spirit. In fact, Brennan says there was an “explosion” of interest coming out of lockdown last summer and despite two months of the 2020 season and all formal paddleboarding events being cancelled due to lockdown, Hyman says bookings were still up on the previous year.
“It’s difficult to be enraged or stressed about something when you’re on the water,” says Brennan - and after the first 15 wobbly minutes I’m inclined to agree. After my legs stop shaking and I get over the initial anxiety of falling in, a sense of calm kicks in. “It basically takes everything else away because you have to be engaged with your paddle and the water,” he explains.
Regular boarders report a “spa-like trance” after outings and Hyman says many beginners are “blown away” by the wildlife and sense of open space on their first outing. Herons and swans are common on Thames sessions and sometimes they even spot a seal.
The upside of SUP being a relatively new sport is there’s also less hierarchy, says Hyman. Participants tend to feel less intimidated than they do of other water sports and Shilpika Gautam, holder of the Guinness World Record for the longest journey on a SUP (2,641km), notes the “tight-knit community of folks” she’s met through the sport. After the best part of 13 months locked away in our homes, “that combination of being active on the water in a beautiful natural environment and meeting other Londoners in a Covid-safe way will help many people recover from lockdown,” says Hyman.
The rewards of paddleboarding go beyond its meditative benefits. According to Brennan, a SUP session makes a much more effective workout than other paddle sports thanks to the fact that it’s a full-body workout. “You’re using all the major muscle groups - you’re using your core a lot and your lower back gets really strong because you’re twisting,” he says, as my fellow paddleboarder Emily raves about the toning benefits. After a year of Sunday SUP sessions, her core is stronger and this is the first summer she’s excited to wear sleeveless top.
Hyman notes that it’s these toning benefits that attracts high levels of female participation to the sport compared to others. 63 per cent of paddleboarders and 19 out of 24 of his instructors are women.
Even better, you can choose how much of a workout you want paddleboarding to be, Brennan continues. A recent study found novices could expect to burn 60-125 calories in a 30-minute session while experienced paddlers are estimated to burn 150-199. And the challenge of Thames paddles is you’re adding in the resistance of the tide, too - after our breezy 10km tidal paddle, I can feel it in my shoulders, core and thighs the next morning.
Paddleboarding might be beginner-friendly, but safety is still crucial when you’re taking to the water: lifeboat crews say emergency calls to rescue paddleboarders have soared since the sport took off and Londoners must be particularly wary of the strong tidal currents on the Thames.
Whether you’ve got your own board or not, it is sensible to have a bit of beginner coaching, says Brennan - even 90 minutes with an instructor will teach you all the basics and prevent bad habits. His company, The London Stand Up Paddle Company, runs sessions from The White Cross pub in Richmond, a popular spot for paddleboarding fans. Active360, Back of Beyond Adventures and Secret Adventures all run SUP sessions there, and Active360 also has locations at Paddington Basin, Kew Bridge, Brentford Lock.
Further west, Blue Chip SUP School runs small-group Sunday sessions in Walton-on-Thames, while Regent’s Canal and the Royal Docks are popular spots out east. Wake Up Docklands offers tours of the historic Royal Victoria dock and paddleboard ‘yogalates’ classes, and Paddleboarding London’s classes take beginners down the canal past Camden and Regent’s Park, perfect if you want a smooth, non-tidal glide.
For extra wellbeing points, Active360 runs reduced-price river clean-up paddles called Paddle and Pick, while global non-profit organisation Planet Patrol hosts free litterpicking paddleboard sessions across the capital from Richmond to Islington. Check the app or website for details of your next local clean-up.
Blow your pocket money on a blow-up
Most Londoners like to go for an inflatable board to minimise on space and Brennan says his number one tip is choosing a brand that’s been in the water sports industry for at least 10 years. His top two suggestions are O’Shea, founded by pro-windsurfer Farrell O’Shea, and Starboard, which sells premium boards and is leading the way on sustainability in the sector. To help you pick, Starboard’s site has a board selector tool based on your type of use, storage space and distance.
For space-saving points, Red Paddle Co’s stylish Compact 9’6” board claims to be the most compact in the world, packing down to half the size of other blow-up boards on the market. The £899 Ride 10’8” model is dog-friendly if you fancy taking your pandemic puppy for a glide and fits inside a (large) all-terrain backpack when deflated so you can pedal it to the canal if you don’t have a car.
If you are buying your own board, you’ll need an Environment Agency waterways licence for non-tidal areas and Brennan recommends the Water Skills Academy as the best site for trusted, thorough safety and skills information. To check which waterways you’re allowed to paddle, check British Canoeing’s site gopaddling.info.