Pandemic Paddleboarding

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Pandemic Paddleboarding from Marconi Sailing Club

In the last few years, paddleboarding has blossomed in popularity. Requiring only a board, paddle, leash and a buoyancy aid, It’s a fairly straightforward way of getting out on the water and exploring the rivers, lakes and coasts in a low-impact way. Over the past year, the pandemic has made us all slow down and take in our local surroundings, so it’s easy to see how paddleboarding has become such a popular sport. At Marconi we’re lucky enough to have the perfect spot for paddling, with plenty of creeks, bays, spits and islands to explore. 

By late April 2020, the initial shock of the pandemic had subsided and a lockdown ease was on the horizon. Sailing wasn’t going to be on the table for us for quite a while, but I was itching to get out on the water somehow. I’d been considering buying a paddleboard for a few years – despite having taught it to hundreds of people over the years as an instructor, I’d never actually owned my own board, and this felt like the perfect opportunity. I picked up an 11’6” turquoise inflatable touring board in the Spring sale, with the obligatory matching paddle. 

Practicing Paddle boarding at home

When it arrived we took it down to the club the first weekend we could and christened it in the Blackwater, just as the tide began revealing the mud. It was at this stage I regretted buying a board with a white deck… 

Getting the paddle board ready

There’s a theory that humans have a “blue mind” – that our brains instantly feel calmer when we’re near, in or on the water (though arguably being on the ECPR start line has the opposite effect). Less than halfway to Osea island and the stress and uncertainty of the past months dissolved with every paddle stroke. Floating alone on a silent river, I could finally breathe and it felt so good. Maybe it was evolutionary psychology, maybe it was because the jet skiers weren’t back yet, but I returned to the Marconi shore feeling much more calm and peaceful.

Beautiful River Blackwater

After being fairly disparaging about paddleboards (“why stand up when you can sit down in a kayak?” “Just let the wind do the work!”) Tom decided he didn’t want to be left out, and after a quick spin on my board, picked up another sale bargain a few days later. It turns out our timing was perfect – by July they were like hens’ teeth, as the rest of the country discovered what a great sport it is.

In the coming weeks of summer we made a point to go for an after-work paddle whenever we could, packing a picnic dinner and loading the car with our bundled-up boards. We both know the river pretty well (apart from my accidentally finding a spit with an SB20 keel once – sorry 😬) but being so close to the water, and travelling at walking pace, we could enjoy our surroundings in a new way. At high water we explored the tidal inlet at Osea and crossed the causeway, hugging the shore all the way round.

Paddle boarding on the River Blackwater Paddle boarding on the River Blackwater Paddle boarding on the River Blackwater

On a low-water evening we watched the sunset from the wreck near Goldhanger, to a soundtrack of egrets, hovering over beautifully clear water. On a sailing boat, you usually panic when you can see the bottom! The Blackwater feels like a different river depending on the state of the tide, and we’re lucky to explore her many faces.  

SUP - Stand Up Paddleboard - River Blackwater - Marconi Sailing Club

On another occasion I took a solo trip to visit the seals at Lawling Creek. Even though I kept a very respectable distance, they still aren’t keen on paddleboards for some reason – maybe they look too much like sharks from under the water…

Over camping fortnight we lent the boards to my parents, who enjoyed going out for morning paddles with the Nickalls family. Mum isn’t a huge sailing fan, but she really enjoyed getting out on the water on a paddleboard – it’s only taken 28 years! We also squeezed the boards onboard our little boat when we went sailing up the coast, and managed to fit in some paddling on the beautiful River Stour. Family bingo was complete when the rest of Tom’s family had a go too (we did wash the boards down between uses to keep Covid-safe!). 

Paddle boarding at Marconi Sailing Club

So it turns out that paddleboarding is the perfect pandemic sport. It’s socially-distanced, relatively easy to pick up, simple to set up and pack away, low-maintenance and you can fit an inflatable board in the car (or boat). With increasing home-working and staying local, it’s easy to nip down to your nearest bit of water to unwind after a long day. At Marconi we are particularly lucky to have launching at all states of the tide, and there’s always somewhere to visit and explore. It’s a great way to keep fit and keep your mind clear, and you can choose to go at a steady pace or put the hammer down. 

Standing up is optional

Best of all, they really come into their own when there isn’t enough wind to go sailing or windsurfing! As the lockdown grinds on into the Spring of 2021, we can at least look forward to discovering more of our local area by paddleboard. Whilst the club is closed, possibly a trip up and down the Blackwater canal, or a jolly around Maldon at high tide…?

If you are keen to start paddleboarding, my top tips are:

  • Go on a course or do some 1-to-1 training with a qualified instructor. This is tricky at the moment, but will hopefully become easier as and when restrictions are eased.
  • Start with shorter trips to build up your stamina – you will find muscles you didn’t know you had! Stay well within your levels of skill.
  • Know the tides and weather in advance, and plan accordingly. On a tidal river, paddleboarding can start to become hard work when the wind picks up. 
  • Always take a VHF or phone in a waterproof case, and tell someone where you’re going (the RYA has a free Safetrx app for this). 
  • Hard boards perform better, but inflatables are more practical for most. Cheap new boards off eBay will inevitably disappoint, but there’s a buoyant (sorry) second hand market for good boards on Facebook marketplace, used SUP groups etc. New, good quality boards are getting cheaper all the time. I’d always opt for a longer touring board on the river, as it will track better and you’ll be able to glide faster over the tide. 
  • A nice paddle is worth the investment if you can.
  • Wait until it warms up a bit – the river is COLD this time of year. You will probably fall in when you’re learning!

A huge thank you to Rhiannon Hitt for the article.

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Andrew is Marconi Sailing Clubs webmaster. He sails a Tornado Sport Catamaran and Sprint 15.

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