By Kelly Hollands
I caught the SUP’ing bug in June 2020 after a few good friends of mine had taken up the sport a few months earlier. My husband was worried that it might end up being a ‘5 minute wonder’ and that maybe we should stick to cycling and running in our spare time. For this reason, we didn’t splash out (excuse the pun) on extremely expensive boards. We instead purchased two Aqua Marina Vapour 9’6” boards which came with aluminium paddles, leash and a pump. I think we paid around £300 per board. Within our first outing we were hooked!
As someone who wasn’t able to work at all from March to August 2020 (thank you Covid), I quickly went from exercising in my garden, to taking to the local rivers as well as the Thames estuary (that thankfully is on my doorstep) 4-5 times a week. I honestly believe SUP’ing kept me sane during the pandemic.
I never realised just how much I would enjoy being out on the open water, listening to the gentle trickle of water, the peace and tranquility as I paddled along. Not to mention seeing some AMAZING wild marine life. I didn’t have any lessons with a professional, but a friend gave me the basic tips and within 15 minutes of being on the board, kneeling, I was standing and gaining confidence with each stroke. Did I fall in? No! My first fall actually came months later on a SUP group outing trying to learn a ‘Step Back Turn’.
SUP’ing not only helped me mentally, but on every outing spent with friends, we would end up screaming with laughter when someone lost their balance and toppled in, or slipped on a muddy bank when mounting the board and landing head first in the water. I even took my 71-year-old Dad out SUP’ing as my Mum and daughters walked alongside on the river bank. It really is a sport for all the family.
SUP’ing builds excellent strength in the muscles and joints whilst being extremely gentle on them at the same time. It’s a very low impact sport, but you can easily increase your heart rate and make it more intensive on your cardio by having some bursts of fast paddling.
Where to paddle? I am very fortunate to live 5 minutes from the Thames Estuary and just 30 minutes from some amazing stretches of stunning river. For learning, the river is best as it’s non tidal and often has banks and pathways running alongside it for quick ‘in and out’ access. The wildlife that can be seen on the rivers include fish, colourful dragonflies, butterflies, swans, ducks and otters, if you are lucky. On the rivers you will have to contend with locks, canal boats and other SUP’ers and kayakers on a narrower stretch of water, but it’s nothing to fear.
My favourite places to SUP in Essex are the River Chelmer starting from Hoe Mill Lock to Papermill Lock and from Sandford Lock to Chelmsford town centre. Papermill Lock has an amazing tea room and seating area with gorgeous views of the river and canal boats. This stretch of river has a lovely width and a path running alongside it so it’s perfect if you have a non paddler who wants to come and enjoy the amazing scenery.
The River Stour from Cattawade to Flatford Mill is also a lovely paddle, but this doesn’t have a path running alongside it. It’s also a lot narrower with lots of twists and turns.
The open sea takes a lot more planning. You will need to check tide times and wind speed and direction. I wouldn’t advise taking to the open waters until you are confident on the river, but once you are, it’s so different to the river and I’ve found, a different experience each time. There’s the thrill of the ‘chop’ for starters as you ride the waves on days when it’s a little windy with stronger tidal currents. You get to see completely different marine life as well as seals if you’re lucky. I’ve been extremely lucky many times to see the local seals and have even had one on my board on numerous occasions.
I paddle on the Thames Estuary, either from behind my house, from Two Tree Island in Leigh-on-Sea or from Chalkwell. I’ve paddled underneath Southend Pier along to Shoeburyness and also navigated the whole way round Canvey Island in 4 hours. This trip was especially memorable as it was a particularly calm day with gorgeous sunshine. It was just under 14 miles in distance and was definitely something I will always remember.
Another amazing thing about being on the water is seeing the breathtaking sunsets and sunrises, especially if you’re on the sea. The vast expanse of space with no buildings, trees or people makes for the most amazing, unspoilt views.
There are many SUP clubs around which are free to attend and full of friendly people.
The key things to always take when paddle boarding are:
This safety device is attached to the board and then around your ankle or clipped to a safety belt around the waist, depending on the type you have. If you do fall off, this means you’ll always stay with your board.
A PFD – personal flotation device
Otherwise known as a life jacket or a life vest. Whether you’re a confident swimmer or not, it’s good to wear a PFD. If you do fall into the water and get into difficulty, this device will keep you afloat and help you to retain energy until help arrives.
A mobile phone inside a waterproof case
I always paddle with my phone in a case around my neck. I never paddle alone so I use my phone mainly for taking photos, but if ever I did get into difficulty, I know I can always call for help. It’s also a good idea to have the app ‘what3words’ on your phone. You can give your exact location to the rescue/help team to make it easier to find you. Especially important if you’re out at sea.
If you’re planning on continuing to SUP through winter, then you’ll need to invest in a wetsuit. I wear a sleeveless one so it’s easier to move arms and then wear a thermal base layer and an Aquafleece. You will also need a very warm pair of wetsuit booties (mine are 7mm and keep my feet toasty) as well as a pair of neoprene gloves.
I’ve since upgraded my board to a Red Sport and I can promise you, if you take the plunge, you’ll get the SUP bug on your very first outing!