Words: Fran Blake
Pics: Fran Blake, Red Hat Photographic
With a love of SUP racing, windsurfing, cycling and pole dancing (!!) Fran Blake is the ever popular right arm of Nik Baker and his K66/Fanatic UK distribution company. With injury marring event attendance in recent months – and indeed the opportunity to paddle full stop – Fran recently underwent a second bout of surgery to right the wrongs. With her imminent return to SUP on the cards Fran tells us her story.
I first saw iSUP around 2010/11. To be honest I thought to myself: ‘Why would you ever want to do that?!’ My first ever paddle on a SUP was in July 2012 at Beachlands, Hayling Island, with my Osteopath friend Nick Cowx who’d been treating me for years for sporting injuries. He kept nagging at me to try SUP, so I did.
I was hooked well and truly from the beginning. I guess I’m a bit of a water baby. I started windsurfing when I was 16. Back in my twenties I’d paddled Dragon Boats pretty seriously, travelling to Asia to compete for the UK team at the Worlds in Hong Kong. After that I moved to Australia and lived in Sydney for six years where I got into outrigger paddling. Getting on a SUP was an eye opener. I couldn’t believe what an awesome opportunity I’d missed during non-wind windsurfing days. I competed in my first race at the NWF (National Watersports Festival) in early September 2012 – about six weeks later.
I always deny I’m competitive. I’ll admit I like to push myself, against myself. But I guess from the first time I paddled a race board I knew that was for me. At that time I had just completed a year of cycle road racing in the Surrey Women’s Team which was a fantastic opportunity. But with no age grouping and having to really work hard to compete I guess I found SUP racing a whole lot less dangerous, plus really enjoyable and rewarding. I don’t mind solo training and for me chucking the board on the truck and hitting the water is pretty simple. Not a lot of fuss and you’re out there. Bliss! Teaching people new to the sport is something else I really enjoy. This followed on from the racing and so I set up SUP4LIFE. I’d love more opportunity to teach SUP fitness but realistically in our climate it’s fairly limited. Paddle surfing is next! I’m working on this. It’s definitely something I enjoy, but I have a long way to go. I definitely want to have a good crack at it.
I’m a bit of a cycling nut, both road and mountain biking. I’m definitely now also a Strava bore, but I do find Strava is a great motivational tool. The bike work is important for cardio and I know gives me leg strength. I find during races my legs work really hard. A bike training partner of mine came to one of my SUP races and couldn’t believe how much I was panting. The two sports are very closely linked in my opinion and complement each other very well. I teach spinning and practise Yoga also. And I’ll get back to swimming once my shoulder improves. I used to love pole fitness, but not sure my shoulder can take it anymore! We moved to Hayling Island for the windsurfing, which has for most of my life been my true passion sport. If you don’t live near the beach you miss too many opportunities to get on the water.
My shoulder injury, and getting it put right, means I’m only just back paddling proper. I’m teaching on Fanatic Fly Air Premium 10’4s. They’re a great board for beginners and an all round neat bit of kit. I have a Fanatic Falcon Flatwater 12’6 X 24″ and use Fanatic Carbon Pro paddles. I sold my Fanatic Allwave and Open Ocean Falcon 12’6 x 24″ just before Xmas last year. These are due to be replaced very soon. When my husband George is not on the water I pinch his Fanatic Fly Wood Edition to go and catch waves off the SUPer Bank at Beachlands. I am lucky enough to have quite a collection of Fanatic windsurfing kit and North Sails. And I live in ION apparel and wetsuits – as you can imagine.
I have some favourite kit from back in the day. My Falcon Open Ocean 12’6 x 24″ race board was a gem! Alex Mullaney has it now. We’ve both won Battle of The Thames on it, so it’s still a great board, despite its age.
Part time I work with Nik Baker helping to run UK sales for Fanatic, North Sails and ION. Part of my role involves keeping our team riders across SUP, windsurfing, wake boarding, surfing and kitesurfing happy. The business is based in Worthing, but I now work mostly from home on Hayling Island, or any coffee house within 10 miles. This frees me up for teaching SUP, plus teaching a bit of spinning and looking after our two girls – Holly (16) and Carla (13). Nik and I are talking about me increasing my responsibilities. I love working with Nik. I know he wants me to move to Worthing where K66 is based, but I’m not leaving Hayling. Sorry Nik! I think there’s so much more I can do to help with the business and we’re working on that.
As a lawyer I worked in the legal profession for 25 years – UK and Australia. I really thought I’d never escape. Encouraged by George I took the plunge to give the security of that job up and got a life in 2011, promptly taking up sport full time! I retrained as a SUP, gym and spinning instructor in autumn 2012, having no real plan as to what I was going to do with any of it!.
Frustration and a very supportive husband made me finally realise I needed to quit the rat race. I was totally over unit based charging and every minute of the working day having to be accounted for. I worked the last 14 years defending the NHS in medical negligence. A truly depressing experience. You could never really say that you’d done a good job.
Stand up paddling has so many great attributes. It’s not too challenging to learn and this is its huge appeal. Unlike other sports that I’ve been involved with, there’s no steep learning curve. It’s fun to progress and once you’ve mastered the basics you realise its depth and all the different aspects it offers. You might want to train to race. master SUP surfing, just catch your first wave, tour or simply enjoy getting your feet wet and the whole Zen feeling it offers. It’s relatively cheap to get into and once you’ve got some kit the water is free. The SUP community is so friendly too, it’s easy to meet people who are all out there basically enjoying themselves and having fun.
Will SUP be as big as cycling? Hmmm, maybe…Cycling has grown massively in the last few years. Events like SUPBIKERUN which Fanatic sponsor are fantastic fun and have been really instrumental with introducing SUPers to biking again and vice versa. So who knows?
Cycling Rule #12 already is easily transferable to SUP. You know, the one where the correct number of boards to own is n+1? It goes like this – while the minimum number of boards one should own is three, the correct number is n+1; here n is the number of boards currently owned. This equation may also be re-written as s-1, where s is the number of boards owned that would result in separation from your partner. (Work that one out! – Ed).
I started having serious shoulder problems mid-2014. I’d played county squash for 20 years which had taken its toll on my body, together with all the previous paddle sports I guess. I’d had shoulder investigations way back in 2000. At the end of the 2014 season I remember a race in Bournemouth where I couldn’t even chase my own shadow. The pain was pretty intense, so I thought I’d be sensible and rest it. I ended up having a steroid injection in March 2015. That was magic. No pain for two months and I decided no paddling and to rest more still. However, at my first SUPBIKERUN event in May that year I felt my shoulder give way halfway through the mountain bike leg. After completing the event (what great events these are) it was a long, painful drive home from Exmoor. That led to further consultations. These confirmed a tear in my rotator cuff. Despite work to try to get this resolved there was no improvement. Pretty much a year after my last SUP race I had surgery, just before Xmas 2015. Unfortunately, I developed a frozen shoulder after the surgery, which I’m still working hard to recover from. I had further surgery on June 1, 2016. And I now have a real hope of seeing massive, faster improvement. There’s still more work to complete before I’m competitive again but I have not lost my desire to race.
Right now I just want to be able to paddle again properly! Then I can set goals. I’ve given up other sports I loved due mostly to a back injury and I’m determined that I can return to the water again to compete at some level.
Hopefully some time abroad will help with my rehab. George is heading out to Rio to work on the Olympic and Paralympic Games, so there’s a plan hatching to have a break after that in Jericoacoara (Jeri), Brazil. I need to get properly fit for windsurfing and SUP by September.
Other than Jeri in Brazil, I want to take our girls Holly and Carla somewhere where they can learn to windsurf in a warm steady breeze and do loads of SUP, maybe a spot in Greece or Turkey. Cornwall is bound to also be a summer destination but as much as I love being away I still love home. Beachlands, Hayling. SUP Simple!
To my parents and parents in law, wider family and especially George, Holly and Carla I’d like to say thank you for your support and putting up with my selfish sport training, competing and goal attainment for the whole of your lives. And to my regular cycle training partners Kate and Muzza who put up with ‘Radio Fran’. Also to Nik Baker for first sponsoring me with both fantastic Fanatic and ION kit and then giving me a job I love.