Words and photos: Dave Adams
It all started with an idea while paddling my favourite standing wave in an old Jester surf kayak. Hours on end, carving back and forth on a tiny wave, the thought crossed my mind; could I surf this on my 9.6ft longboard? There was always a bit of doubt though, so I never actually bothered to try…
About ten years after that I first saw modern stand up paddle boarding on TV. Instantly, my mind went back to the days of riding that wave. SUP had to be the perfect craft for river surfing I thought. After searching the web I realised that folk were already river SUPing in the USA and I needed to get involved.
Time for action
A year later I bit the bullet and purchased a Red Paddle 10.5ft inflatable stand up. iSUPs seemed to make sense for river environments as they are pretty bombproof and resistant to rock dings.
My maiden voyage was on a cold November day – the iSUP was very easy to inflate but it was pretty tiring. I donned a drysuit and buoyancy aid and hit the weir for the first time.
My friend Ian, who was there to film, recommended that I should have a paddle around on the flat first. No way, I thought – I just couldn’t wait to surf that standing wave, so I dived straight in.
My first attempt was fairly successful although I didn’t really know if it would work or not. I had no clue where or how to stand and really was just feeling my way along. I fell back on my kayaking and surfing experience and hoped the two would gel together.
And gel they did. That was the moment that I became a fully-fledged UK river SUPer.
Tools for the job
The all round shape of the Red Paddle iSUP worked well on the wave. Its flat bottomed planing hull was just like a traditional longboard but with more volume. It wasn’t, however, great in white water but was OK for running small rapids.
More advanced stuff, like ferry gliding or eddying in and out, proved trickier. (The rails of a standard all round SUP get ‘snagged’ in the changes of forces between aerated water and the green water).
Another consideration was safety gear. The first bit of additional kit I purchased was a helmet. (A good quality kayak helmet is perfectly adequate). A leash is also a good idea – but you must use one in the correct way. It soon became apparent that a standard surf ankle leash would result in drowning if it got snagged on debris, branches or rocks.
After some further thought and research, I adapted an old kayak towline and belt that had a quick release system that could be easily pulled with one hand whilst under force.
I was now fully geared up and ready to tackle a bigger play wave. The famous Hurly Weir is an amazing wave on the Thames near Henley – it’s renowned as the best kayak freestyle wave in Europe. Anything from 30-60 cubic meters per second of water, surging through concrete gates, makes for the perfect nonstop wave.
Hurley Weir has a huge amount of water moving around, with powerful currents and big boils. The shape of the Red Paddle SUP struggled to cross the eddy line and get me onto the wave when I first tried. Minimal success, after the first attempt, although I did get one short ride, which was enough to inspire me to take things a bit further.
After a bit more research I found Badfish SUP – boards designed purely for white water and river surfing. I managed to get my hands on one of only two in the country – a Badfish Mountain Valley Paddleboard MVP. The Badfish MVP is shaped more like a kayak and has loads of volume and amazing secondary stability. This means: the more you lean or edge over, the more stable it gets. I tried it out on my local wave and it was great, but I still really wanted to conquer Hurley Weir!
Back to Hurley
It wasn’t long after, I made the drive to Hurley again. It was the first time the weir had been an option because of low water levels. That meant all the kayakers were there getting their freestyle fix. The first time I was at Hurley on the Red Paddle 10.6ft we had it to ourselves, so all the extra paddlers added pressure. I had to make a success of it as there were about 30 folk watching!
I needn’t have worried because the Badfish MVP paddled like a dream. It crossed over the eddy line and instantly I was charging 60 tonnes of water per second. I stayed in place for about five minutes; no hard turns just gentle trimming and feeling my way around the wave. Success! I’d got Hurley Weir truly nailed!
(I have since used my MVP on some graded rivers – the Tryweryn in North Wales, the Washburn in Yorkshire and the Dart in Devon).
Onwards and upwards
My next purchase was a Jackson Kayaks SUPercharger. Made of plastic, it really can take the abuse that British rivers throw at it. The SUPercharger is heavier than the MVP although not as snappy, but it’s my ‘go to’ as it’s so robust. I save the MVP for Hurley Weir where it doesn’t come into contact with rocks as much.
During the last few seasons I have river SUPed loads, including some places I never thought possible. White water stand up is still in its infancy in the UK but could be huge when more folk cotton on to what’s possible. Get your kit sorted and keep safety in mind. Don’t attempt anything you’re uncomfortable with and make sure your skills are up to the challenge. This way, you’ll enjoy your river SUP time as much as I do.
As stand up paddling continues to progress, who knows what the future holds, and river SUP further highlights the sport’s diversity.
You can keep up to date with Dave’s river SUP shenanigans by visiting his forum http://ukpaddlesports.freeforums.org/ Want to know more? Read Ian Smith’s excellent series of articles on his introduction to white water SUP in ThePaddler ezine at: http://joom.ag/H2jX