Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to Happiness: Stand-up paddleboarding

Bill Bailey / 21 February 2017

Bill Bailey on why stand-up paddleboarding feels like we are meant to do this.

I’m standing upright on the river, afloat on the sunlit water, a paddle in both hands, trailing it in the river to keep my balance. As I direct my gaze at the watery sun, low in the grey, Tupperware sky, a heron flaps lazily overhead.

I’m wearing an assortment of mismatched clothing: trainers, running leggings, cycling shorts, a long-sleeved surfing top, a buoyancy aid and a Santa hat.

This is my Christmas paddleboard along the River Thames. From our entry point at Kew Bridge, the slowly turning tide nudges me downstream, gently assisting each stroke.

Our curious fleet of waterborne oddballs easily outstrips those determined souls who are out braving the chill along the riverbanks. The sounds of paddleboarding are calming. The small vibrations in the board as the light surface chop-slaps along the underside. The dip and pull of the paddle. The startled pointing from the riverbanks that follows partial recognition. ‘Isn’t that him off that show? He’s sort of walking on water. It’s a Christmas miracle!’

Stand-up paddleboarding, to give it its full title, or SUP, is generally thought to have begun in Hawaii in the 1950s. A surfer, wishing to catch some last waves at the end of the day, grabbed a boat oar and paddled out over the surf.

These days, paddleboarders are a familiar sight on most surf beaches and indeed on any stretch of water from lakes, rivers, canals and estuaries to coastal inlets. Along with the Zen-like calm of paddling upright on flat water, there are significant health benefits to the pastime.

The mere act of balancing engages all manner of muscles and that mantra from the gym, the ‘core’. I once engaged a trainer at the gym, who told me very sternly that she was going to ‘challenge my core’.

Over the course of the next few minutes, I didn’t feel that it was just my un-toned midriff that was being challenged, but my sense of self, who I was, what I was doing with my life. Why are we here? Is there an afterlife? What is the best home broadband package?

SUP has been around for a while, but as I discovered, a lot longer than you’d think. I was on a trip down to the far south of Tasmania, to Melaleuca. This is an extraordinary place, remote and stunningly beautiful, a place of pristine wilderness, mirror-calm lakes and unyielding bush. It’s home also to one of the oldest aboriginal communities, the Needwonnee people, and evidence of their coastal life remains in huge piles of shells. Walking in near silence on boardwalks surrounded by buttongrass, we diverted down a side path which led to a promontory that extended into the lake.

And there on the jetty was something ancient but at the same time familiar. An aboriginal raft made from tree bark, in the exact size and dimensions of my paddleboard. This, I realised, must be a 40,000-year-old paddleboard, surely among the world’s first. An aboriginal fisherman must have picked up his paddle and slid the bark vessel silently into the limpid water.

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‘Where are you going?’

‘Just off to challenge my core.’

Said no one, ever.

As we arrive at our destination, the slipway at Putney, the long rays of the sun ignite the odd starburst on the water and reflect on the London-bricked banks.

For me this is happiness in many forms. Being in the outdoors, on the water while attempting to keep fit.

SUP challenges your core, but without the accompanying self-doubt.

It is joyous. It feels right. That’s it! It actually feels like we are meant to do this.

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