Our Buzz Active site at Cuckmere Haven was named last year as one of the top five places in the UK for beginners wanting to try stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) – a relatively new water sport which is growing hugely in popularity. And that recommendation came from Bluefin, one of the country’s leading designers and makers of SUP boards.
So I decided the time had come to try it out and under the watchful eye of the instructors from Buzz, East Sussex County Council’s non-profit organisation providing outdoor activities for all ages. Through Buzz Active we run nationally accredited courses, taught by qualified instructors, for individuals, groups and families, for children from 6 onwards, for schools, and groups with special needs.
They would have their work cut-out with me, however.
Here’s how I got on.
Celebrity fads come and go and barely a week goes by in which the pop, TV and movie glitterati are not being photographed indulging in the latest trend, hobby or fashion. A current craze among the publicity hungry stars is SUP – stand up paddle boarding. A simple “celebrity SUP” web search brings back a host of pictures of the rich and famous adorned in lycra, board shorts or unfeasibly tiny bikinis paddle boarding their way across a lake or on a calm sea (warning – beware the pictures of Orlando Bloom and Katy Perry). Where celebrities go, we often follow, although not always with the same amount of glamour and poise.
I was told, though, that SUP was not likely to be a flash in the celebrity-fuelled pan but, as an excellent form of exercise would be here to stay. How could I refuse, therefore, an opportunity to try my hand at an activity that looks so simply graceful and easy to execute. How difficult could it be?
The first challenge was my wetsuit – acquired in younger more slimline years. Firstly I had to get into it; secondly I had to be able to breathe. Fortunately at that particular moment at the Buzz Active centre at the stunning Cuckmere Haven, there were no passers-by likely to be traumatised by the sight of a grown man appearing to do the Houdini strait-jacket escape routine in reverse.
Buzz actually provides wetsuits for anyone on a lesson who wants one, and perhaps I should have swallowed my pride and accepted a larger fit. Buoyancy aids are also supplied. You don’t have to wear a wetsuit but before deciding to take to the board in swim gear take the advice of the Buzz staff – the sun may be shining but the water can be cold.
Finally poured into my wetsuit and grateful that the manufacturer has developed a material of sufficient strength and flexibility to withstand the considerable pressure exerted on it by my middle-aged contentment, I was introduced to my board. Attaching the safety leash to my ankle I wanted to feel like one of those incredibly cool surfer dudes who exude handsome laissez-faire. The fact that I’m very obviously not cool, a surfer, or a dude made pulling this act off impossible. It was hampered, too, by the fact that my second wetsuit challenge – breathing in it – was difficult when I tried to do anything other than stand up still and straight. It being a warm day, I made the decision at this point to ditch the wetsuit. This was going to be difficult enough as it was.
An activity for everyone
I actually need not have worried about fitting in and trying to look cool. A quick glance around showed plenty of other SUP newbies looking more nervously tentative than confident. I was not alone. There was also a welcome range of ages.
More comfortably attired, any shred of dignity I had remaining completely evaporated when, under instruction, I took the first tentative steps into the river water and attempted my first mount onto the board. Apparently I just needed one swift, graceful movement up onto the board, bring the knees in line, get my balance and hold the kneeling position. That my instructor managed it with such effortless ease only added to the embarrassment as I got my left knee too far to the edge, didn’t achieve the central balance required for stability and consequently plunged head first into the river.
The second attempt was much more successful, although a certain amount of unnerving wobbling had to be brought under control before I could achieve any sort of delicate poise. I will spare you the theatrics involved in getting me from the kneeling position to the heroic upright stance, but suffice to say it was not a smooth operation.
Once you are up, though, as long as you don’t make any extravagant or sudden movements, the whole activity becomes really quite enjoyable. I had been schooled in the art of pulling the paddle through the water, basic steering and even reversing, but for the time-being remaining upright without looking like I was about to head at speed towards the river bed was the main objective.
For the next hour or so I paddled my way up and down the meanders of the Cuckmere river in the warm spring sunshine. With the backdrop of the South Downs, being watched by curious herons and little egrets, and the constant trill of skylarks overhead, the location and the moment were truly glorious. I can’t claim to have got anywhere near the kind of effortless boarding with which our charismatic stars glide across the water, and anything other than slow forward movement was a challenge of man v balance v board, but I began to see the serious appeal of boarding, especially in such an amazing setting.
Relax and enjoy
Like all of these kinds of activities, it is more challenging than the pros make it appear. Part of the art, as you smile and wave at onlookers on the bank, is hiding the fact that with every pull of the paddle your whole body goes through a muscle-straining re-balancing exercise which is just achieved before you need to submerge the paddle again. But as time went on, and my “water legs” adapted, I eased and relaxed into the task. I even persuaded my little canine companion, Mollie, to join me for a short while – suitably attired with doggie buoyancy aid, of course.
As with anything really worthwhile, at first paddle boarding is not easy. Unless you have the acrobatic skills and balance of an Olympic gymnast do not expect to standing on your head on the board in the middle of the river on your first outing – yes they do yoga on SUPs. Expect to use complacent muscles that may have lain dormant for some time and to revisit balancing lessons you last tried to master when you learnt to walk or ride a bike.
Have a go – you’ll love it
As for me, even a couple of unplanned departures from my board could not dampen the sense of satisfaction and in-the-moment glow of contentment that filled my spirit that day. The stunning beauty of the location may well have skewed my conclusions and it may well be that SUP on a lake on a wet February day in Basildon may not be quite the same, but SUP is to be whole-heartedly recommended and I am well and truly hooked.
If you’re tempted to give it a go, and I would urge you to do so, I would seriously suggest a lesson or two with the wonderful people at Buzz. The techniques are not complex but with a bit of simple professional guidance and training you’ll find your whole SUP experience so much more rewarding and enjoyable. Simple things like how to hold the paddle, how long the paddle should be, which way round, how to draw that paddle through the water, how to use the paddle to turn, where to stand on the board, how to carry the board, and (importantly for me) how to get back on board after a watery plunge, are all things that are important to get right.
What’s SUP was the question and the answer was “I am” (well, for the most part). And I most definitely will be again – I’ve even bought my own board. See you on the river.
For more information about SUP and other activities and courses on offer visit the Buzz Active website.