Paddlebording: a beginners guide
Updated: Apr 5, 2021
A SUP is a perfect way to go on a slow adventure but where do you start as a beginner?
When I started paddleboarding about 6 years ago, it was definitely a niche sport and I used to attract a good share of curiosity, being regularly stopped by people wandering what I was doing and if it was difficult. During the 2020 lockdown, SUP attracted an unprecedented deal of attention, with retailers recording an increase in demand in the order of 300%, shops quickly running out of stock and hundreds of new paddlers in the UK rivers and sea.
Dozens of new clubs, schools and groups started to populate my social media feed and I see lots of beginners asking for advice. Being a relatively new activity, there are lots of different voices and advice available online but sometimes they can also be quite confusing, so I though: "why don't I contribute to this debate?!" Here is my advice for anybody wanting to join the SUP movement!
Get some lessons
One of the main drawing to SUP is probably the fact that it is incredibly accessible and, differently from most other watersports, it doesn't require hours of learning: all you need is a few minutes of practice before you are actually standing up and paddling! While this is great for attracting new people, the downside of being a self learner is that you might lack basic knowledge of equipment, safety or you might develop a bad technique which will prevent you from improving or it will make you a very inefficient paddler (the fact that you are standing up and paddling doesn't mean that you are doing it correctly).
My advice on this is very simple: get a few lesson to begin with to have a basic knowledge and understanding of the sport. The added benefit is that in this way you will also build your own SUP community, find new people to go on a slow adventure on water and in general have access to direct experience and knowledge that are much more valuable than any tutorial you might find on the web.
While I personally don't consider paddleboarding a dangerous activity, the safety aspect of it should not be underestimated. After all, when you are in water and even more if you are on your own, there is always an element of risk attached to it and being properly prepared is always good practice. As a matter of fact, last summer there were a few close calls on the Thames caused by inexperienced paddlers which required emergency rescues.
A PFD (personal floating device) and basic knowledge of the location where you are paddling are a must, while the use of a leash (ankle or waist) will depend by the body of water you are paddling in. Not all the locations are the same and the same river can be very different depending on which section you are navigating (for example in case you will be passing through white waters or sections without exit points). Even the time of the day can be a big factor because of the tides, so you need to be aware of whether the river is tidal or not. Wind will also be something to consider and you should definitely not venture on water of very strong as it can be really dangerous, whether in the sea or on a river. I'm not saying you should complete a full risk assessment every time you go out but doing a basic research it's useful and important.
Water Skills Academy has been running some really useful webinars (also available on their YouTube channel) on several topics including SUP safety and the GoPaddling website is a great source of information about all UK rivers.
Boards: so many and so confusing!
Which board do you recommend? I'm thinking of buying X board, what do you think?
These must be the two most asked question on any paddling group; with some many new boards and brands popping up it is definitely confusing but, to be honest, you are never going to get a definite answer to these questions.
Just like when you buy a pair of trainers, it really depends by what sort of use you want to make out of it as different boards perform differently according to the conditions; in addition to this, your height and weight will also determine which board is more suited to you.
Hard board v inflatable? Personally I am 100% for inflatable unless you are into racing (in which case you will need a specific carbon fibre one). The performance between inflatable and hard board is nowadays similar but for me easy of storage and transport are a must (I have 3 inflatables in my bedroom and I regularly transport them on the tube, can't really do that with a hard board!)
As a general rule of thumb, a beginner board will be wider and with a fairly rounded nose; this shape provides more stability to the board than a narrower one with the downside of being slower (being less streamlined and with a large footprint).
All Arounder or Touring? As the name says, an "all arounder" is definitely more versatile but will not perform as well as a touring one on distance as their construction and shape make them a bit slower. A touring board will have some specific features (like for example 2 or more bungee ropes to carry luggage and gear) dedicated to long distance trips, which you won't find on other types of boards.
Between all the tutorials you can find on YouTube, I found this one to be very clear and useful, explaining all the factors that you should consider when buying a board.
The importance of a good paddle
This topic is not very discussed but nevertheless quite important, especially if you are considering going out on long sessions. Basically the paddle represents the transmission between the engine (you) and the board and it transforms your effort into movement: putting it in this way, you can understand why this is quite an important part of your kit.
A heavy paddle will make you tired pretty soon and make your experience not particularly enjoyable; the weight is determined by the material used for its construction. Normally they will be made of aluminium, glass fiber or carbon (or a mix of these two elements); more carbon means a lighter paddle but it will also make it more expensive.
When buying a new board, it will normally come with a basic paddle with an option to upgrade to a better (lighter) one, which is something that at some point all paddlers are likely to do. A paddle can be made of one, two or three pieces which basically means in how many parts you can divide it when not in use; a one piece paddle will perform better but can be a pain to transport as you will be basically going around with a long stick with you and it's definitely not very friendly if you travel on public transport!
The blade (the part of the paddle that goes in the water) will also come in different shapes and sizes but it's not something I would necessarily worry about, unless you are into a specific discipline and personally I don't think it makes a huge deal of difference for an average user.
Where can I go paddling
As a beginner, your choice will be very much between sea or river and maybe lakes or canals. My personal experience is very much on rivers and canals, with the occasional excursion on lakes or in the sea. If paddling on the sea, you are likely to be more exposed to the elements so it might be slightly more difficult to balance in the beginning but it's not necessarily a bad place to start.
Rivers and canals are my favourite as they give more the feeling of traveling from one place to another, with a nice stop by a pub. Canals can be also very fascinating, meandering through cities and towns offering a completely different view from what everybody else around you will get. The best source of information for location, access and all the basic information needed to plan a slow adventure on a river or canal in my opinion is paddlepoints; let's say that if a location is not listed there, there is probably a very good reason! Something to be aware of is that to access pretty much all waterways in England, you will need a licence which sometimes can be purchase on the day but it is definitely cheaper and better to get an annual one either from British Canoeing or Water Skills Academy (and you will get insurance too).
To finish, just some final quick tips:
Stay away from super cheap boards: without wanting to sound snob, it's better to invest a bit more in the beginning than buying something from which you will be hardly getting any use or joy. The market is now full of unknown brands so, for your first board, I would probably suggest buying from a retailer to get advice and guidance.
Try before you buy: another benefit of buying from a physical store is that you should be able to try a few boards before committing to buy any. Or otherwise you can contact your local sup club and ask to try some, they will have a few brands and types and more than likely they sell them too.
I would buy something a bit more advanced than your current level: especially if you are just starting, chances are that you will improve quite quickly and a beginner board won't suit you after using it a few times.
Second hand is a good option too (all my kit is second hand!): good boards tend to keep a good value but you can still save a bit or get something more advanced for less money. SUP schools are a good place to get second hand kit: they look after their gear and at the end of the summer season they normally get rid of their stock to replace it with new models the following year.
SUP surf and foiling are super trendy at the moment but, having never tried, I don't know great deal about them so I have not included them above; I should definitely give them a go this coming summer!