Bill Bailey: the calm stand up paddle boarder

Words: Bill Bailey

Pics: Billboard SUP

Many will know Bill Bailey from the telly box as the Metallica loving comedian, actor and ready wit who graces many a prime time panel show and has appeared on the odd film screen as well. But did you know that Bill is a keen stand up paddler, champion of SUP in the heart of London and the namesake behind expedition SUP brand Billboard SUP? SUPM caught up with BB to find out more.

I first got into SUP a few years ago when I was on my way back from an Australian tour. We stopped off in Bali and my son was getting some surf lessons, so I was messing around on a paddle board. It was totally the wrong board to start on. It was a narrow race board, very unstable and I fell off quite a bit. Luckily the water’s warm in Bali so it was a good place to learn.

When I got back to London, I went for some lessons and this time on a much more stable board. I was quickly up and paddling, and that was it I was hooked.

I love being on the water, there’s a sense of freedom, of tranquillity you get from being outdoors, and amongst nature. You can glide around close to wildlife without disturbing it too much, you are usually somewhere fairly peaceful, and it’s a good workout.

I often paddle on the Thames as it’s so close to where I live. I love how easy it is to make use of the river with a paddle board. Since I’ve been paddling, it’s amazing to me how many places there are to launch from. There are so many little ramps and draw docks up the Thames and the surrounding waterways that are perfect for getting a board in. You just have to watch the tides and plan your paddles accordingly, but you soon get the hang of it.

The Thames is a busy river with lots of users of many different kinds. There are many rowing clubs up and down the stretch I paddle in, so you have to watch out for them. They are going fast and backwards! So you have to make sure to stay out of their way. Sometimes the wash from the larger pleasure boats can be a problem, especially if they are going against the tide, but again you get used to   positioning your board straight into the waves, or else just kneeling down till they subside.

Paddling the Thames is a way to get a unique perspective on this ancient waterway. You get a sense of the history of the waterways, the old docks, and the ramps that are visible at low tide where the horses were led to take off the loads from the barges. You see all manner of wildlife – water birds, fish and recently even dolphin! The Thames is much cleaner than it’s ever been, and evidence of this is there’s even a colony of seals in Teddington.

I started off with a Red Paddle 10’6’’ inflatable board, and after trying out a few different options I got hold of a Fanatic carbon fibre paddle. This was a good all purpose combo for a novice.

Now I’ve tried all kinds of different boards and paddle combos, but the Billboard Heron, and the glass-fibre Billboard paddle suits me best!

I try and get out to paddle when can. On tour in Australia and New Zealand last year we got out on the boards quite a bit, as the weather and water conditions were often perfect. We paddled in a lake in Darwin in Oz which we were assured was croc-free!

A solo paddle is a great way to meditate on the water, without distractions, but I also like the camaraderie of a group. I’ve met all kinds of interesting people paddling from Olympic athletes to environmentalists.

I think SUP has the potential to grow even bigger, particularly in cities as more people realise you can keep an inflatable board at home at get easy access to waterways.  Also it’s a great fun way to stay in shape for families, and kids pick it up straight away.

I took my board on the European tour a couple of years ago, and I think there are some amazing paddles to be had just in cities. Paddling across Stockholm harbour amongst all the pleasure boats and ferries was a little hairy, but a great experience. I’d like to do more of these urban paddles as you get this unique perspective on a place.  Paddling gets you up close with the history of an old city, which usually had its origins around the water.

I was one of the founders of Billboard. I am the Bill in Billboard!

I had just started paddling the Thames a few years ago with Paul Hyman from Active 360 and my friend and neighbor Soren Knutsson. Paul had the technical know-how and a huge experience of teaching SUP, Soren came from a design background and I was the guinea pig, making suggestions.

I am so chuffed with the way the board has developed. From me standing on a paper cut-out in my office, to paddling this huge magnificent beast of a board under the bridges of the Thames is just brilliant. All credit to Soren who has overseen the whole process, improving the design and checking the manufacture, and getting the paddles, bags and pumps made to the highest spec. It looks very cool. And Paul is on boards all the time providing the in-depth technical expertise. It’s a brilliant board which I love being on.

After the first prototype we made a few changes.  The rear of the board was tapered more to give better tracking and also to bring down the weight a little. The fin is a little larger and better shaped and the carry handles were firmed up to be more comfortable. There’s now a pressure release valve in case you’re paddling in the tropics and the air in the board expands too much.

Because you’re just gliding along silently, paddle boarding is a brilliant way to get close to nature. It’s easier to see birds and other wildlife when you’re hardly making a sound. When I was out paddling the Brent River with Soren, I saw a kingfisher fly right in front of me. This was the first time I’ve seen that in all the years I’ve been in London, and I’m sure that was down to the board’s stealth!

I think the Big Ben Challenge is a fantastic idea. Paddling through the heart of London is a truly wonderful experience. I hope this leads to a new approach to the Thames, where it can be opened up more for recreation and watersport. It is such a brilliant resource and I think at the moment it’s being underused.  Paul Hyman and Active 360 have been running events on the Thames for years, and at the same time highlighting the problems of plastic pollution, so the more profile these events get, the more the river can be improved for all users. The future is SUP!

You can see SUPM’s review of the Billboard Heron inflatable expedition SUP here –


Huge thanks to our advertisers

Leave a Reply