Words: Tez Plavenieks
Pics: Tez Plavenieks, Dave Adams and Stephen Hale
Heading north towards Oxfordshire along the A34, I couldn’t help the wave of irony that was washing over me. For much of my teens and twenties I’d expended much effort in getting to the sea. As a surfer all I wanted to do was be near the beach – and taking up windsurfing only heightened this desire. And now here I was, motoring away from the coast on a firing forecast, to hit up a river…
For those who’ve read SUP Mag UK and followed us online, you’ll no doubt be aware of Dave Adams (aka Wavecloud/UKPaddlesportsDave). Mr Adams comes from a paddle sports background – he spent many years sitting down driving kayaks – and took up SUP after realising the potential the sport has for anyone living next to rivers, canals and other inland waterways. Between him and partner in crime Stephen Hale, the pair have been quietly pioneering river SUP in the UK – certainly the white water/moving water end of the spectrum at least.
Having been wanting to get a taste of this myself, I decided to hook up with Dave and Stephen during a wet, windy and murky May Sunday to check out what all the fuss was about.
Oxfordshire sits slap bang in Middle England. Rolling countryside, abundant greenery, a bunch of residents with a (generally) conservative attitude and a plethora of fantastic country pubs sums up this part of the world. Oh and possibly the UK’s most recognisable river, and a bunch of tributaries, sluice through the county – the River Thames.
Having navigated the hour and a half journey, I found myself parked up next to a densely thicketed area of thistles, nettles and long grass. Not sure what to expect, having no real previous river running experience, I tentatively got my gear ready while Dave and Stephen chatted away about the various put ins in the surrounding area.
Stephen had also brought along his young son, Will, who was a proper eager beaver and keen to get wet. As I watched this grom suit up my anxieties evaporated – after all, if a young lad like this could handle the spot then surely it’d be no trouble.
Trapesing through the brush and undergrowth with boards in tow, it was just a short hop to reach a muddy bank leading to yet another offshoot stream that was flowing into the tributary we’d be playing in.
Having unceremoniously slipped off the bank in the mud, I found myself navigating overhanging trees, grass and generally trying not to get tangled up with overgrowing shrubbery. Following Dave, we rounded a bend and came out into a wider piece of open water. There was a decent amount of flow forcing itself between two old world bridge pillars. To the right was a river eddy that was standing depth, while behind us featured a strainer – a small silt island that split the river in two and forced the flow either side.
Upon reaching the opposite bank’s eddy, Dave went through a few points – where to attach the leash, how to approach the standing wave and actually get on it, how to bail if dumped off and a couple of other safety points.
It doesn’t matter whether you come from other areas of SUP or watersports, the fact remains: even on relatively mellow-moving rivers such as this one, respect should be given and understanding attained. After all, things can still go wrong and therefore due thought and consideration need to be given.
Dave and Stephen are certainly well tuned into to this standing wave and therefore have the most applicable kit for the job in hand. While general iSUPs work, it’s actually much better to be using specific gear. In this case we had the use of a Jackson SUPercharger, Red Paddle Flow and Boardworks MVP Badfish. Having never used white water specific SUPs before, I was keen to give these a go.
Also, as a bit of an experiment, I’d brought along a Pendleboard 9.6ft half inflatable/half rigid stand up. Although this is designed primarily for open ocean wave riding, I was intrigued as to how it would work at this spot.
Dave was positively frothing at the prospect of being able to try something new and Stephen was keen too. More how the Pendleboard fared in a moment…
At this point special mention must be made for Will Hale, Stephen’s son. He shows absolutely no fear and was constantly stoked to be joining in with his dad’s paddling antics. A little on the wee side of the height scale, Will’s dad set up a rope system between the bridge pillars. This gave the opportunity to use the line, as you would when wakeboarding. Will wasted no time getting stuck in with his bodyboard and was soon having no end of fun. You can see this in the accompanying video at:
Having watched Dave, Stephen and Will attack the standing wave with gusto and without fear, I finally managed to get stuck in. Dave recommend I take the SUPercharger to start with as it’s a forgiving board built with this kind of thing in mind.
Climbing aboard the Jackson is unlike anything I’ve used before and as I headed towards the drop in I felt quietly confident.
Riding standing waves, as I learnt pretty quickly, is all about positioning. It’s not good enough to simply attack the fastest part of the flow and hope that your brute force will win out. A more subtle approach is needed – setting a line from an eddy and ferry gliding into position. Once on the wave, you need to employ deft foot technique, rail control/trim and minute paddle strokes to keep riding and not get dumped out the back. There’s a tipping point – one I found all too frequently – whereby the rail of your SUP gets caught and you spin away from the sweet spot. It’s no good fighting this as Mother Nature will always prevail!
Having gained confidence, it was time to switch things up and during the course of the next few hours we swapped kit and scored numerous rides – too many to count. Even with little white water experience it was a steep learning curve and, at least at this put in, any proficient rider will be up and running quickly. It was great to use some different gear to my norm and get a feel for this side of SUP.
Dave and Stephen have been riding this spot for an eternity. Both highly skilled paddlers, they both make it look easy and while initial sceptics may scoff at how mellow the whole experience is it’s worth pointing out not to knock something until you’ve tried it.
Dave was the first to have a bash with the Pendleboard 9.6ft. He was initially concerned that it wouldn’t offer as much stability as you generally need for standing waves and river running. After a few tentative paddle strokes, however, all these concerns were brushed aside. In fact, so much so that Dave fell in love with the board quicker than you can blink.
For a SUP designed specifically for open water paddle surfing, it performed extremely well in the river on a standing wave. The quad fin set up was perfect here and the lively feel made for an engaging but fun ride.
Having popped my river surfing cherry, I can now say I’m hooked – line and sinker. As much as my normal SUP exploits revolve around open seas, I would happily head inland to white water if the chance arose again – which I’m sure it will.
There were a few lessons learned though –
- Don’t use your top spec carbon paddle – rocks and hard shallow bottoms can and will take chunks out of your blade.
- Small fins are your friend – and when I say small, I mean REALLY small. The smaller the better for shallow river bed clearance.
- Wear a PFD/BA – non-salinated water is nowhere near as buoyant as seawater and a floatation aid will help you no end if things go awry.
Thanks to Dave Adams, Stephen and Will Hale, Palm Equipment, SUPSkin, Red Paddle Co, Leashlok Hawaii, K4 Harness Mount, Aquabound and Boardworks and Jackson Kayaks for helping make this feature possible.