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Take me to the river….

This column first appeared in the Western Mail in July 2021

It feels as if I’m writing this from the inside of a McDonalds Apple Pie. Or a small volcano. FOR THE LOVE OF BEELZEBUB, CAN SOMEBODY PLEASE TURN DOWN THE THERMOSTAT?

Every year, I curse former me for neglecting to buy a fan. Because by the time the heatwave rolls around again, and I remember that I really should get one, they’re harder to find than Matt Hancock’s moral compass. 

Luckily for me, I’ve taken up a hobby that’s helping keep me cool as the mercury soars skyward. 

Because I SUP now. 

SUP, which stands for stand up paddleboarding, is very much the adult version of loom bands or fidget spinners. It feels like, suddenly, everybody is at it. You can’t walk along the Taff without encountering a woman floating beatifically along on an inflatable board, like Queen Boudicca in a Neoprene wetsuit. I am mainly describing myself there, of course. Because for the past few weeks, I’ve been escaping to the water every chance I get. I’ve been studiously ignoring the counsel of mid-90s R&B sages TLC (who advised sticking to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to) and merrily launching myself into choppy seas, winding canals and any body of water that it’s legal to enter. I wonder if my sudden enthusiasm for pretending to walk on water is a reaction against the limitations of lockdown. Having exhausted every local walk I could imagine (or copy from the Instagram feeds of people more imaginative than me in most cases), I was running out of pavement to pound. So, the logical next step was to take to the river. It’s a whole new way to travel and an entirely fresh perspective on the world around you. 

You know how there’s a particular breed of man that hits middle age, starts flirting with younger women, and buys a flashy Audi or a big hulking motorbike? I feel as if I’m going through the equivalent crisis, only instead of a souped-up German motor, I’ve gone down the ‘very rigid lilo’ route instead. It’s cheaper and less likely to end in tears (unless you count the time I couldn’t get back on the board and the frustration leaked out of my eyes in liquid form. But I’ve come a long way since then). I’d go so far as to describe myself as an “overly confident enthusiast” by now; such are the hours I’ve been putting into this aquatic endeavour. 

And I’m not alone. The popularity of this water sport has soared over the past year, and it’s particularly popular with women, I’ve noticed. I did an unscientific straw poll of friends that have also taken up the hobby, and the consensus is that SUPping is very much the anti-surfing. It’s not all about speed and strength – anybody can SUP, no matter your fitness levels, as you can take it at a pace that suits you. As soon as you’ve learned the basics – how to stand up, kneel and get back on the board if you fall off – you’re good to go. And trust me, I have all the balance and coordination of an inebriated baby giraffe, so if I can master it, anybody can. Paddleboarding is also a relaxing, meditative way to while away a few hours while getting closer to nature. I’ve encountered some amazing sights on my paddles; majestic herons, grebes doing courtship dances, leaping fish, petrol-blue dragonflies and swans tending to their cygnets, to name just a few. I’ve enjoyed breathtakingly beautiful trips along the Monmouth and Brecon canal, across Cardiff Bay at sunset, arriving back by the silvery moonlight, and at Caswell Bay on the Gower at high tide. Side note; paddling in the sea is much harder than rivers or canals but undeniably more fun for adrenaline junkies. 

SUP originated in Hawaii in the early 2000s as a less intimidating alternative to surfing, although the art of propelling yourself through the water with a paddle while standing on a floating structure likely dates back thousands of years. 

It’s a great core workout, even though it doesn’t feel like it when you’re pootling along at a snail’s pace because it involves engaging all of your core muscles to balance on the board. So, it’s low-impact, immerses you in nature and is great for your fitness; what’s not to love?

As the temperature has soared over the past week, I’ve been racing home from work and heading to the water. There’s nothing more relaxing than gently scooting along, feet trailing in the cooling water. Because that’s the other great thing about SUP – the standing up part is entirely optional. I spend as much time sitting or kneeling on mine. When you do stand for long periods, eventually you start to suffer from a form of Jesus complex (it’s the sensation of walking on water that does it) and when that happens, it’s time for an extended sit down.

We like to get our dog Joni involved in as much fun as we can, so she’s now the proud owner of a comedy shark’s fin life jacket. She’s usually scared of water, but from the safety of an inflatable board she appears to enjoy being navigated through the waterways of south Wales while growling at seagulls. The beautiful idiot. 

If I’ve convinced you to give paddleboarding a go, then it’s worth checking out what lessons and SUP hire is available locally. I started my SUP journey with one lesson at the Cardiff International White Water Centre, which was an excellent way to learn the basics before heading out solo. And remember, you don’t need to go fast. The secret is to breathe, gaze out at the horizon and enjoy the sensation of floating along gently.

See you on the river, perhaps?

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