Surfers: get up, stand up
It’s a hot and humid afternoon in London’s Docklands. I’m looking out on the flat water of the Royal Victoria Dock. Away in the distance is the Excel Centre. In front of me is… a beach.
“Ready?” The speaker is Jason Bergin, a professional watersports coach. Jason’s Urban-Recovery business works all over London; today he’s at the WakeUPDocklands centre in Docklands. Lean and fit, he is standing on the white sands that have been imported to the western waterside of the dock, clutching what looks like an oversized surfboard.
But it’s not a surfboard. It’s a stand-up paddle board, a watercraft first practised by Hawaiians and now popular across the globe. Stand-up paddle boarding, otherwise known as SUP, is the world’s fastest-growing water sport. But as a lifelong surfer, I’m troubled. Here I am, about to have a lesson with Jason – a certified British Stand Up Paddle Association instructor – but surfers don’t SUP. Not at my local break in Cornwall, anyway. To take to the water on a stand-up paddle board is to cross to the dark side – like a rower switching to kayaking.
Dave White, who has provided an array of SUP boards for our session, isn’t having any of this. “SUP is great fun. It’s a brilliant workout and you don’t need waves to do it.”
Jason agrees. “People who look down on SUP are daft,” he says. “What does it matter what kind of watercraft you use? Whether it’s a kiteboard, windsurfer, canoe or waveski – or yes, a surfboard – anything that gets people in the water is good.”
There are many surfers who feel that SUP is about as cool as trainspotting. Converts like Jason, though, are winning me over. Mick and Allie, two friends with whom I surf regularly in west Cornwall, have taken to riding SUP boards at Marazion beach – when there’s no surf. My surfing buddy (and deputy coroner of Cornwall) Andy Cox has taken to SUP now that a shoulder problem prevents him from conventional surfing. And no less a figure than Laird Hamilton, the world’s leading big-wave surfer, is a passionate advocate of SUP.
“It’s a way of bringing surfing back to its individual essence,” says Hamilton, who has ridden a SUP board at Jaws, the much- photographed big-wave break on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
As I watch Jason Bergin demonstrate SUP technique on the sands of the Royal Victoria Dock, Hawaii seems a long way away. Instead of palm trees, the dock is fringed by cranes, hotels and offices. Cable cars float above – the Emirates Air Line, which crosses the Thames from the Docks to Greenwich. The sky is leaden. It’s breezy, too, but Jason is undeterred. He stands atop a SUP board and arches his body forward, clutching a paddle.
“Push the blade vertically into the water, and pull through,” he says. “Keep it in the water until it’s level with your feet, which should be in the centre of the board. Then take it out, lightly rotate it as you do so, and repeat. Swap hands from time to time and keep the paddle close to the board to go in a straight line.”
Turning the board is, apparently, easy. “Either reach out with the paddle and push it into the water in a semicircular motion, or peaceful and serene place to be. It offers a magical escape from the hustle and bustle of modern city living.”
As the wakeboarders scurry back and forth, Dave points out that SUP boards are easily transportable. Those that he has provided are inflatable. “They deflate to backpack size,” he says. “I’ve taken mine all over London, on the Tube and on buses. The joy of SUP is that you can do it anywhere, so long as it’s safe. You don’t need the sea.”
The sea, though, is where it’s at for a taste of SUP, Laird-Hamilton-style. Watergate Bay, on the north Cornwall coast, is as good a place as any for a taste of stand-up paddle boarding on waves. Its Extreme Academy offers lessons in everything from kitesurfing to surfing and, since 2010, SUP. Sports manager Carl Coombes is as much an advocate of SUP as Jason.
“SUP provides a fantastic core workout, but it’s also a great way of surfing,” says Coombes. “On a stand-up paddle board you can catch waves much earlier than you would on a surfboard. Rides are longer, too. It’s a great sport for surfers who might have health issues that prevent them from traditional surfing, but it’s also just great fun in its own right.”
There is yet another dimension to SUP. “Yoga on stand-up paddle boards is increasingly popular,” says Jason. “Doing yoga on the water is really special, and there is an added challenge in getting the balance right.”
At the age of 48, I’m not sure about yoga and SUP, but I have paddled across the Rubicon.
Jason Bergin’s introduction to SUP starts at £30 an hour, or private lessons can be arranged from £50 an hour. Flat water locations around London are available in addition to SUP wave clinics in south Wales, Europe and worldwide (urban-recovery.com)
SUP lessons at Watergate Bay Hotel’s Extreme Academy cost £40 for a half day. All kit is included (extremeacademy.co.uk)
Alex Wade is the author of two books on surfing: Surf Nation and Amazing Surfing Stories
Oar inspiring: stand-up paddle boarding at Watergate Bay in Cornwall; Alex Wade with instructor Jason Bergin at Royal Victoria Dock, above