Freestyle Kayaking in the UK | Why Do the World’s Best Kayakers Flock to the Thames?

It's dirty, disgusting and flat. So what brings the world's best to the tiny Thames Valley village of Hurley?

An unknown kayaker playing in the weir. Photo: Thames Valley Freestylers

Freestyle kayaking involves surfing pulling unbelievable tricks in a plastic kayak that is shorter than most sets of skis.

To do this, freestylers need huge river waves – the sort that are found on the White Nile in Uganda or the massive Ottawa river in Canada. But not all the world’s best waves are in such exotic locations.

Strangely the dirty, polluted and largely flat waters of the River Thames play host to a massive freestyle kayaking scene, one that attracts pros and amateurs from all over the World.

“Words can’t explain how great Hurley is, you just have to get there yourself!”

How does that happen in a river not exactly famed for its rapids or waterfalls? The answer lies in the weirs across the river Thames, where the UK’s Environment Agency controls the water levels to prevent flooding.

Massive concrete gates are opened allowing upstream water to pass at a controlled speed. These often create large waves downstream of many Thames Valley weirs.

It is these glassy green waves, with their reliable, consistent flows that can run for 8 months a year, that have made the Thames Valley the ideal location for freestyle kayakers. Some of the world’s best freestyle kayakers have simply called it “perfection”.

Yes it sounds unbelievable, but there’s world class white water just 45 minutes from Central London!

An aerial view of the Hurley weir. Photo: Thames Valley Freestylers

Local talent Brandon Hepburn calls Hurley weir near Maidenhead home, and has paddled it 3-7 times a week each season for the last decade. He has since made it onto the GB freestyle team and into the European championships.

“When you live so close you start to take it for granted,” he told Mpora. “[But] then you get international paddlers from all over the world coming to our little spot, and it gives me huge pride of where I grew up.

“The Hurley Classic [competition] is my favourite event in Europe, and brings freestyle paddlers, coaches, slalom paddlers and loads of spectators from all over the world”.

Brendon Hepburn at Hurley Weir

The visitors aren’t the only famous faces though. These waves have produced some impressive graduates of their own.

British paddler Bren Orton who has gone on to compete in the ICF Worlds Freestyle Competition and White Water Grand Prix. Bren attributes training at Hurley weirs with gaining precision in landing moves, and learning how to generate as much height as possible out of wave tricks.

“There’s a really special vibe to the crew that live and surf there”

Like everyone who has paddled on the Thames weirs he’s outspoken about the positive and friendly atmosphere of a local kayaking community that’s built up around the weirs.

Bren Orton in his custom carbon play boat. Credit: Dale Mears

“No where else and in no other sport will you see professionals in mid-competition have a jam with 6 or 7 kids, coaching and sharing tips and tricks”, he said.

“There’s a really special vibe to the crew that live and surf there, always friendly, welcoming and super motivated to get up and go shred before and after work.

“The fact that some of the old boys that competed in the original classic are still out there surfing is so cool especially when you factor in that there’s also 10-year-old kids coming down to paddle with the pros and have a go at their first competition.

“You would never catch surfers doing this.”

Bren Orton at Hurley Weir. Credit: Dale Mears

This atmosphere extends as far as official ‘paddle with a pro’ session during the biggest annual competition held in the Thames Valley. Novice and junior paddlers are able to get coaching and wave time with the biggest names in global kayaking.

This year’s Hurley Classic event, which celebrated a quarter of a century of the competition, saw Nick Troutman take the win. The Canadian pro had travelled all the way from his native Ontario to compete.

Nick Troutman at the Hurley Classic

He told Mpora: “I had heard about the Hurley wave and the event since I was 13 and had always wanted to travel to England, surf Hurley and compete, though it had never worked out.

“It’s a well-known event and has always looked like so much fun. This fall I had the opportunity to come out and I jumped on it.”

It’s testament to the reputation of both the competition and the wave itself that Troutman was so stoked with the win.

You might think in a city of 8.3 million people, it’s inevitable that there would be a community around even a relatively niche sport like freestyle kayaking.

After all, there are large and active groups of surfers, mountain bikers and even skiers and snowboarders in London, despite the fact that it is hours away from surfable waves and nowhere near the mountains.

However to learn of a world renown freestyle kayaking scene, with kayakers travelling from all over the world to visit London, was very surprising.

But what’s different about the kayaking scene is that it’s not just a bunch of eccentric English enthusiasts – the dirty, grungy waters of the Thames attract people not just from all over the UK, but from all over the world.

Uganda. Ottawa. Hurley. Yep, this rad little wave is right up there with the biggest and best of them.

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