Dom Moore traces his finger along a sea chart of the Cornish coast, pointing out sea depths, ancient shipwrecks and potential risks along the route we’re about to take. This isn’t your average stand-up paddleboarding tour. Instead of simply following a guide for a couple of hours, I’m helping to plan my own route, factoring in changing tides and wind conditions, and identifying exit routes should things go wrong.
Ocean navigation is part of the two-day Atlantic Expedition course offered by Surf Sanctuary, a surf school run from the Headland Hotel in Newquay. Designed by Dom, the school’s owner, its idea is to equip people with the skills to be safe and self-sufficient in open water. Interest in paddleboarding has surged in recent years – and since the easing of lockdown, board sales have soared, according to paddleboard brand Red Paddle Co, which reports online searches up 100% in the last two weeks of May.
“It has exploded in popularity recently – on rivers, lakes and the sea – and has introduced to the sport a new wave of people who wouldn’t normally take up watersports,” Dom tells me as we glide on our boards beside the rippling cliffs pushing out into the Atlantic from Fistral beach. “The main hazards stand-up paddleboarders need to factor in on the ocean are the wind and the tide. But you can also use them to your advantage.”
Today, we are using the tide to help us round Towan headland. When the wind picks up, Dom tells me to drop to my knees to reduce wind resistance, so my arms don’t tire so quickly. He reminds me to engage my core and keep my arms straight (but not locked), keep my chin up and relax my toes to improve balance. Though the course is ideal for anyone looking to advance their skills, it’s also open to beginners. The first day is usually spent practising techniques on the flat River Gannel, and most beginners soon learn how to stand up and balance. It’s the perfect post-lockdown, socially distanced activity: out in the fresh air and away from crowds. For those wanting a gentler option, Dom also offers two-hour tours on either open sea or the river.
Our 5km route is taking us from the old lifeboat station near Little Fistral beach towards the shelter of the harbour and back again. We paddle further into the clear water as gulls wheel overhead. On the cliffs, pink tufts of thrift erupt. I almost wobble off my board when two grey seals pop their glistening wet heads up beside me before retreating beneath the waves. We push out towards the Cribbar, a notorious reef that, when conditions are right, produces huge waves popular with pro-surfers. Thankfully it’s only “lumpy” today: I soften my knees and manage to keep my balance.
Paddling quietly along, you experience the coastline from a different perspective. I glimpse parts of the sea-edged wilderness that can’t be seen by walkers on the coast path above. We glide right up to the Tea Caverns – ancient caves, not visible from the land, where 17th-century smugglers would hide tea and brandy.
I have paddleboarded before on the River Gannel south of here, and the contrast is stark. Though rivers have their own perks, including tranquil water and more varied surroundings, paddling on the wide, open expanse of the ocean makes me feel small and exposed – yet thrillingly connected to nature. The added challenge of waves forces me to focus more, to balance and move in time with the rhythm of the water beneath my feet.
The repetitive nature of paddling is almost meditative. I soon find a rhythm, feeling the push of the water against my paddle. “Paddleboarding allows you to slow down and to journey inwards,” Dom says. As I step off my board at the end, I feel more calm and reflective. It seems this slowed-down travel offers a form of escapism we all crave right now.
• Surf Sanctuary’s two-day Atlantic Expedition course costs £195pp, including equipment, snacks, drinks, tuition and guiding
Six other places in England to try stand-up paddleboarding
Burgh Island, Devon
This tidal island, which provided the inspiration for two Agatha Christie novels, can be circumnavigated in around an hour, and paddlers can explore its caves and admire its famous Art Deco hotel from their board. Hire a board at Discovery Surf (from £20) on Bigbury beach and paddle in either direction round the island
Derwentwater, Lake District
The Lakes may be synonymous with walking, but paddleboarding is another way to explore its serene landscapes. Lake District Paddleboarding offers several guided tours, including one of Derwentwater, a short walk from Keswick (from £45 for two hours). The three-mile-long lake is flanked by rising hills and has plenty of sheltered bays and islands to explore
Mersea Island, Essex
With its calm, shallow waters, Mersea Island is a great place to try paddleboarding. Time your trip for high tide to avoid the mudflats and head towards shingle beaches or the 19th-century Oyster Packing Shed (currently closed, but slated to reopen in August). Advanced paddlers wanting a challenge could circumnavigate the whole island (in 4-5 hours). Mersea Island Watersports offers SUP hire (from £15 for an hour) and private lessons (£70 for two hours)
The Thames, London
Get a fresh new perspective on London by gliding down the city’s rivers and canals. Active360 operates from Kew, Richmond, Paddington and Brentford Lock and has SUP hire (£30 for two hours) plus private lessons (from £89 for 90 mins) and group sessions for up to five people (£49 for 90 mins)
Hunstanton faces west so is one of the few places on the east coast where the sun sets over the sea – adding a dramatic backdrop for an evening paddle. The huge inlet that is the Wash is protected from swell and waves, so sea conditions are usually flat. Hunstanton Watersports has SUP hire from £15 an hour
Worthing, East Sussex
Worthing is perfectly placed for both river and coastal exploration. Brighton Kitesurf & SUP Academy offers guided river trips (£50 for 3-4 hours) on the River Arun, which glides past Arundel Castle. There are also SUPs to hire (£70 a day) from its base on Lancing Beach, for paddles out into the Channel
Essential kit for paddleboarding in the UK
Board, paddle and leash
There is an increasing number of boards on the market. Wider boards are more stable for beginners; inflatable boards are easy to transport (and inflate). Red Paddle Co has inflatable boards from £859, including adjustable paddle and leash (to attach it to your foot). Its Ride 10’6’’ is a good all-round board. For something more affordable Decathlon’s Itiwit beginner touring board costs £299.99.
Staying warm is crucial, especially for longer SUP tours. Winter wetsuits (5/4mm or 4/3mm thick) are advisable for most UK trips, though summer wetsuits are suitable in warmer conditions. Unbranded suits from Needs Essentials suits are good value and high quality (from £150), while brands such as RipCurl, O’Neill and C-Skins offer decent winter suits for around £150-250.
A waterproof bag is vital for stashing your valuables. Aquapac does a good range: its waterproof travel case (£14.99) is see-through and has a handy neck strap for quick access to your phone, keys or wallet. Red Paddle Co also has a waterproof dry pouch (£64.95), with a padded interior to protect your phone.
Safety, first aid kit and food
If you’re SUP touring independently, take a form of communication with you (phone and/or radio), plus a first aid kit (in a waterproof bag, £10 from Aquapac) and spare rope that can be used for towing or as an emergency leash. Don’t forget to carry water and snacks/energy bars.