Surfers: get up, stand up

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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