Fighting the tide of plastic
Words: Paul Hyman
In the April 2019 issue, we interviewed pioneering paddler Paul Hyman who’s been the spearhead of getting SUP accepted across London waterways. Here, Paul talks more about his conservation work and what he said then applies possibly even more so in these times of Covid and single use plastic.
What kind of public awareness is there of plastic pollution in London’s waterways?
It’s a battle fighting the tide of plastic in the London Thames, and key to winning this fight is to raise awareness and behaviour change. Appreciation of nature has to come hand in hand with our responsible use of natural resources. In a big city like London people often don’t see the nature on their doorstep and think they need to travel far to wilderness to experience its beauty. The Thames Tideway is a unique and stunning linear landscape on our doorstep and a migratory superhighway for birds and fish. It’s powerful with strong currents and a tidal range of over seven metres, churning muddy appearance (due to its clay residue).
Yet the Thames presents with a great fragility. It is being spoilt by pollution and irresponsible use. I see the devastation of the relentless stream of plastic in the Thames day after day. Recent studies have found 70% of fish in the Thames contain micro-plastics. Tight controls over toxic waste dumping in the Thames has brought bird and marine life back in recent decades, however the river is facing the threat of growing volumes of plastic pollution. The cause of this relentless volume of plastic is partly intentional dumping, but a lack of awareness combined with carelessness contribute a vast percentage of the total stream of plastic waste.
Londoners and tourists enjoy taking a stroll down the river or canals, stopping for a drink in a riverside bar, sitting on a bench to eat lunch or a snack. They generally don’t question being served a drink in a riverside pub in a single-use plastic cup then leaving their cup outside the pub, or bringing food and drink packaged in plastic to the riverside and leave their rubbish on or beside an overflowing bin. There’s a total disconnect between individual consumption choices and the inadequacy of disposal – there is no thinking of the ease with which these throwaway items blow into the river. The sad consequence of these unquestioned consumer habits is that on many days sections of the Thames riverbank resemble a rubbish dump.
What makes stand up paddling in London special?
It’s like marrying both city life and nature. It’s relaxation without much effort and exercise with all the body and mind benefits without paying hefty prices for gym memberships or relaxation classes. It’s a way of discovering the nature in the city you live in, seeing things from a different perspective and appreciating your surroundings, feeling integral part of it too.
The Thames is a beautiful river. Its muddy appearance puts many people off who consider it not safe to paddle in. It’s the clay residue disturbed by the tide and currents that give the Thames its brown colour. Personally, I like it. It’s mysterious and has character.
It’s a river full of wildlife. When you paddle along, you see lots of birds and fish; seals sightings are frequent and we had dolphins too. This year a young seal tried to climb on our boards a few times. How unusual is that to be so close to nature in such a big city?
The Thames has one of the biggest tidal range in the world and the currents can be very powerful so the river is constantly changing. It makes it very interesting and often challenging in places at high tide.
It’s also a busy river at times and we share it with many rowers, pleasure boats and a commuter service, the Thames Clippers. I love the early morning and night paddles, when we often have the river to ourselves.
Talk us through the various put-ins around the capital and what makes them unique
Kew Bridge is Active360’s longest established base. It’s opposite Kew Gardens and there are islands up and down river mostly inhabited since prehistory. It’s a well used stretch of the river but with quiet backwaters.
Richmond is the site of one of our newest base opening in April. It has London’s oldest bridge and many riverside bars and good cafes and restaurants can be found there if you want to combine paddling with social outing.
Putney is another great place to get on the river. A huge embankment area with many rowing and sailing clubs and the start point for the Boat Race. It’s also the starting point for the parts of the Thames where restrictions on SUP apply so you have to watch out for these.
You’ve been the main driving force behind accessibility on the Thames. Tell us a little about that struggle
When we first started operating, we came across big restrictions put on us by the Port of London Authority (PLA) who thought SUP was a high risk on the Thames. We worked hard to show them that the risks were comparable with other established watersports if not less. SUP was a new sport though and a few misconceptions were to be expected. Rowing is well established and accepted on the Thames despite rowers moving backwards in unstable crafts that are tricky to turn. We had a few obstacles to overcome and a few battles to undertake.
We stuck with it and tried to work with the PLA effectively and productively. We developed the Thames Skills and Knowledge course aiming to equip people with the knowledge and skills needed to paddle safely on the Thames. Eventually, in 2013 the PLA recognized SUP as a safe way to enjoy the river. It is a safe sport when the right equipment is used, participants are prepared and take the river seriously. The low number of incidents attributed to SUP since we popularised it in London speaks volumes.
Tell us about Active 360’s history and where you plan on taking that
We started with the base at Kew and a small canal base at Brentford. We were invited to start at Paddington three years later and now we are about to set up a sister company which will run operations in Richmond and Hampton Court. We have expanded over the years and introduced more people to SUP each year.
In 2013 we set out to be the go-to people for SUP in London. We felt had achieved that by last year and it was time to set new goals. The focus of the company is now changing. It is now the environmental engagement through SUP that is coming to the forefront.
How many SUPers do you get coming to you looking for instruction and guidance?
We have around 1000 people each year paddling with us – around 60% of which are beginners or novices wanting to up skill. We also get quite a few who are already involved in SUP but want to learn to paddle safely on the Thames.
Yes, the numbers are growing every year with SUP becoming the fastest growing watersport in the UK. Active360 will remain involved in shaping the events but more behind the scenes – sharing knowledge of the river and practical experience during preparation and planning, as well as helping out on the day where required.
With the logistics and main organisation on this massive event in safe hands, Active360 can stay focused on what we do best – sharing passion for the river and engaging people in protecting it. Record with the biggest on water clean-up. On Friday 21st June 2019 we are running a Get on Board Richmond event again. Last year we had close to 100 paddlers out on the Thames picking up plastic trash.
This year we hope to get 250+ paddle boarders out on the river which should attract good media interest and encourage more people to get involved in making changes.
The new SUP progression programme I mentioned will have a river ecology module which will take environmental engagement through SUP to another level.
What’s been the biggest highlight of your SUP career to date and why?
For me it’s simple things – always the wildlife encounters while paddling, being part of the nature with birds flying over and seals getting close up. It can be in far away places like Greenland or the Hebrides but I find our local patch of the Thames as exciting. This year we had a young inquisitive seal climbing over a few times on our boards. It brought the beauty and fragility of the river and its wildlife even closer to my eyes with this friendly but fragile creature getting so close to us.
But it’s hard to beat the night when a dolphin followed us down the Thames at night on a fireworks night paddle to Chelsea. The river was illuminated by moonlight, fireworks and the Victorian Albert Bridge at the end. A really magical night with friends, probably unrepeatable.
Anything still to tick off your bucket list?
Perhaps a long source to sea expedition or two and I must say Patagonia looks spectacular and very tempting. But generally I just wait to see what comes up as Active360 gets invited to get involved in so much now and in so many places around the world. Now it’s very much about seeing where I can be most useful. I’ve never been much into holidays unless there’s lots of water activity involved and if there’s a chance to help a project along combined with some interesting travel and paddling that will always win through.
What do you think of SUP kit in general and why?
It’s been great to see how SUP equipment has revolved and developed. There were a few good boards and paddles around in 2011 but the choice is so much greater and wider now. Technically the standards have risen and the way has been mainly led by a few pioneering companies willing to spend on R&D and to experiment.
The evolution of inflatable boards into very stable and rigid platforms capable of similar speeds to carbon and glass boards is bringing many people into the sport as it has solved the storage and transport issue. As I write this I’m lugging an 11’ inflatable across India coast to coast by train and everything I need for the trip including split paddles in a board bag with wheels and rucksack straps. This would not have been a great trip in 2011 when the inflatables were very limited, flexed a lot and were inferior to most hard boards. Also the early split paddles we used were heavy, clumsy and quite inefficient. This technical improvement and the convenience it brings is encouraging more people to get involved and enjoy SUP.
SUP is a maturing market with many players joining in. In my opinion there are too many brands including some very low quality players at the base of the market. I can’t help but see plastic waste everywhere created by cheap, short lasting and discarded equipment.
I can see the appeal of cheap kit, the affordability of it but Active360 generally steers away from anything at the low end of the market. We made our mistakes experimenting with budget equipment many years ago. Now we use and supply only good kit that provides a platform for great experience and good skill progression.
I see a few gaps in the personal kit area. Really warm winter boots are hard to find. I use calf length see kayaking boots which are good but quite expensive and in temps below 5c I need to double them up with good neoprene socks. Feet get cold on a SUP. A really warm inexpensive boot would encourage more people to go out in winter. We get some best paddling in the winter, but sadly, the river is still very much underused in the winter.
It should be easy enough to make really warm kit to protect hands and feet. The protection of extremities is very important in SUP. There are plenty of really good wetsuits and dry suits out there but it’s fingers and toes that get coldest and I’m sure that puts some people off from paddling in the winter. So I would really like the kit manufacturers to give a bit more focus to the simple things. How about rechargeable heated boots – or just some affordable ones with really effective insulation?
Thanks and praise?
Thanks for inviting me to share my thoughts and hope they make interesting reading to at least a few people.