Stand Up Paddling on the South Coast | We Went on a SUP Yacht Adventure
Getting a new view on the British Outdoors from a stand up paddle board
Words by Sam Haddad | Photography by Globalshots
Of course the heatwave stopped the morning of the trip. The dreamy Trinidad-style temperatures we’d grown so used to dropped by at least ten degrees, giving way to April showers and a wind that swirled with menace. As I waited at Poole Harbour to board the sailboat that would be my home for the next two days, I pictured a stomach-churning voyage, a scary sleepless night and me trying to stand up paddle (or SUP) for the first time in conditions more suited to Laird Hamilton.
At first, the ride out into the Solent did nothing to ease my fears. The sea was all white peaks and chop, the wind gusted relentlessly, and our giant sail flapped noisily as it powered us forward into the waves. But it didn’t take long to notice how smooth the ride was. Our skipper, Dave Hartwell, explained while casually steering the ship with one hand, things felt stable as we were sailing a catamaran, which has two hulls rather than your usual one (the hull being the main body of the ship).
"The sea was all white peaks and chop, the wind gusted relentlessly…but it didn't take me long to notice how smooth our ride was"
He went on to explain the science of why that is but by then the blue of the horizon and the thrill of the ride were too distracting. I haven’t spent much time on boats that weren’t ferries but as I clambered about the decks trying to spot red squirrels on Brownsea Island and taking in the amazing coastline of Studland Bay from various vantage points I had no idea I would like it this much. It took all the power within me not to go full Titanic and re-enact the “I’m flying" pose on the bow (front) of the boat.
The apparent blingness of the cat might have helped. It felt like an oligarch’s lair, though I was assured it was leagues below anything a billionaire would set an expensive loafer on. Still, at 44 feet long with polished wooden panelling, tonnes of space to sit in and out, a kitchen and four super-roomy en-suite double cabins below deck, it felt indulgent to me. The fact it was a cat and not a regular yacht made things much less cramped, Hartwell said.
This overnight trip was all about taking a break from the everyday and after just twenty minutes of sail-time I already felt the weight of routine and reality had lifted. Though I struggled to see how I was going to learn to paddle board with the sea in this state. I needn’t have, as Hartwell steered us to a spot of shelter in Studland Bay, with a dramatic backdrop of Old Harry Rocks: three chalk towers including a stack and a stump, that made my inner geography geek yelp with glee. Albeit silently.
"After just twenty minutes of sail-time I already felt the weight of routine and reality had lifted…"
We get taken to shore on a small launch boat and our SUP coach Sam Ross, a friendly pro who races in both SUP and windsurfing, gives us the basics. He tells us where to stand, how to hold the paddle, keeping one hand stacked over the other, and urges us to take a few paddle strokes on each side, rather than one and one. And most of all we should enjoy it. As if to help with that the sun starts shining.
Until recently, like many people who surf, I’d been slightly snooty about stand up paddling, seeing the boards and their users as a hazard on already crowded UK surf breaks. I wasn’t mad about the Jennifer Aniston association either. But then I kept seeing clips of gnarly paddle boarders taking on seriously stormy breaks or reading about impressive paddle-related feats of human endurance, such as the time Lizzie Carr paddled the length of the UK to raise awareness about plastic pollution.
And at the other end of the spectrum I kept seeing SUP in beautiful locations where you couldn’t have surfed anyway. Places such as Sausalito near San Francisco, Spain, Stockholm, the river Thames in Oxfordshire… And especially where I live in Brighton and Hove, where you used to see one or two on a hot day. Yet the other lunchtime, during the heatwave, I counted over 30 boards including two families and a woman doing SUP yoga 100m from the shore.
"SUP is a very photo-friendly sport"
Pictures also kept popping up on instagram of SUP in stunning and remote places. It’s hard for a non-photographer/person with a phone to get a good action shot of say someone surfing or snowboarding but SUP is a very photo-friendly sport. Charlie Green, head of marketing at the market-leading SUP brand Red Paddle Co, agrees that attractive photos have helped the sport’s growth.
She says: “In 2009 we sold just 200 boards, but this year we’re selling tens of thousands of boards. The fact SUP is a photo-friendly sport that you can do in remote and dramatic locations has definitely fuelled its growth. We get a lot of impulse purchases, which we think is tied into that as well. Combined with people seeing SUPs more and more in UK coastal spots and inland waters."
Red Paddle Co boards aren’t cheap. Their best-selling model costs £800, but it’s incredibly portable, as it comes in a airport-style wheely bag, yet it easily inflates to a better tech spec than most of the hard boards on the market. Green tells me inflatable boards now outsell hard boards in the UK.
As I get on a board for the first time I still expect it to sag in the middle like a crappy pink holiday lilo but it doesn’t at all. It feels as sturdy as my surfboard, more so in fact as it’s wider, a little longer and far more buoyant and stable. We start off on our knees, and as I do my paddle in I feel like a Hawaiian warrior even though I’m sure I look like a Celtic weakling. And standing up is a breeze, these boards really are so stable, though it does feel weird to paddle facing forwards rather than sideways at first.
After a few loops and figures of eight we get a bit more advanced and practise step back turns where inevitably my hubris leads to me falling in a few times. But I don’t mind, as the water is lovely and warm. A good while later, we paddle back to the cat and spend some time somersaulting off the bow of the boat, before we pull up the anchor. We sail past Old Harry Rocks out to Swanage and then back past Brownsea Island to our evening rest point near Round Island in the super-chilled Wych Channel.
"Standing up is a breeze, these boards really are so stable"
We can’t dock in the usual spot as there are two seals chilling on the wooden platform. So we find a nearby alternative mooring point and watch them watch us with curious yet not-remotely fazed interest.
The sun has stayed out and we get set for another evening paddle. I wore a wetsuit earlier but it’s still wet and I don’t fancy putting it back on, so I decide to paddle in a risky shirt and denim shorts combo. It means I mess about less with step back turns but as we paddle towards the setting sun, with no trace of human habitation save the odd wooden bird-watching hide, it does make the experience feel ridiculously civilised.
We’re 20 minutes in a boat from Poole Harbour yet it feels so remote, more akin to a Nordic archipelago, as we paddle along reedy banks and up the kind of tiny river creeks you could only reach doing this or swimming or in a kayak. But what I realise now and where SUP wins over kayaking is the unique view and perspective standing up gives you on everything. On all this lovely nature, the dark blue water, the dunes and lush vegetation above them.
"We’re 20 minutes in a boat from Poole Harbour yet it feels so remote, more akin to a Nordic archipelago"
It’s June so the light is awesome and it lasts well enough into the evening for us to manage a 4 kilometre paddle before night falls. It’s all so easy and relaxing and best of all, I manage not to fall in. Back on the boat we drink some wine and moon over the stars before turning in. The beds are comfy and the spot so sheltered I barely notice I’m on a boat.
The next morning the sea seems less sheltered so we giggle our way through a slightly wobbly session of SUP yoga. But it’s easily the most beautiful spot I’ve ever done yoga and a nice way to loosen off before our last paddle and some more step back turns before a quick lunch and sail back to Poole.
We return well-rested and enjoyably sea-swept. Ready to face reality with a little more zing in our step. In distance terms our journey was relatively short but it felt like a significant break. And sometimes that’s exactly what you need.
The Watersports Academy run Yacht & SUP Retreats from £250 per person for two days, visit thewatersportsacademy.com
To read more from the Great British Adventure series head here