Nordic tales with Chris Jones, our man in Sweden
Photos: Chris Jones, Sofia Jorpes and Michael Beck
Chris Jones upped sticks and moved to Sweden a few years back. Now based in this Nordic land, his SUP boarding activities are decidedly different from that of the UK – not least during winter, where temperatures plummet! SUPM caught up with Chris for a natter about all things Scandi SUP.
Firstly, tell us why you decided to get gone to Sweden?
OK, starting with the hard questions like Paxman! Let’s say there were a lot of factors, and Brexit was the catalyst.
And how have you been finding it in general since the move?
Honestly, I love it here. We swapped a house in the suburbs for one in the country with several very different paddle spots nearby; this wasn’t planned but a stroke of good fortune. The locals are really friendly, and I am fortunate to have met some super-cool folk to have paddle adventures with.
Can you speak the lingo like a native yet?
Sadly, and embarrassingly no. The standard of English here is as high as in the UK, and whenever I try to use Swedish, I usually get an understanding smile and “Did you mean to say…” in perfect English.
Anything particular that’s much better since you pegged it overseas?
There are a lot of things I like about being here, but the most relevant for SUP is that access rights here are defined in law, ‘allemansratten’, and make the access in the UK, England in particular, look very poor. I don’t need a license or permission to paddle on any body of water.
And what about downsides. Are you missing full English fry ups for instance?
There are people I miss that goes without saying, but I just said it. The things that I miss vary, but at the end of the day, it isn’t that different here, and almost anything I could get in the UK I can get here; good sausages are hard to find, though. I miss places quite a lot and tides. The tidal range here is tiny, 30cm for a ‘spring’ tide, and that means no huge beaches like you find in Cornwall and North Devon; I miss those. Also, I’ve just missed the Six Nations and Ireland’s last match, which I would have loved to have seen.
You seem to be getting amongst it regularly in terms of SUP – even during the freezing winter. Talk us through the Swedish paddle boarding opportunities in your neck of the woods.
Opportunities to SUP here are almost limitless, as are the distances you could cover; last year, I paddled more than 1600km, and that was with a month out with a silly injury.
A 15-minute northeast drive puts me on my local lake, a 4.5km long beautiful stretch of water where I do a lot of paddling. Ten minutes further puts me on a very different lake, shallower, and lots of small islands to explore. This was where I got my first sighting of a beaver in the water. Those are just two examples; there are many more.
Twenty minutes southeast puts me on the largest lake in the area, Lygnern. This is 18km long, very deep and perfect for DW runs when the conditions are right, I’ve yet to experience this but am eagerly awaiting ‘the day’.
Fifteen minutes south and I’m in Kungsbacka, my local city. Here I have straightforward access to Kungsbackaån, the river that runs to Kungsbacka Fjord, a beautiful place to paddle, complete with sea eagles in winter and ospreys in summer along with seals, porpoise and (rarely) orca. There is significant boat traffic in the summer, but with considerate boat users and clearly defined areas where boats are allowed to go, it works well. A little further south are the popular surfing spots around Varberg.
Heading west, I have the Gothenburg Archipelago and The Kattegat to explore. There are hundreds of islands in the archipelago with countless beaches or sheltered bays to find solitude even in the middle of summer.
And finally, heading north puts me in Gothenburg, which has a few stretches of canal and two significant rivers running into it that make point to point paddles pretty easy to do. Oh, and urban beavers too!
How cold has it been during winter? Have there been sessions you’ve said no to because of it being too icy?
We had several nights at -18 C this winter, which’s pretty cold, but because it’s dry, it is much easier to deal with than winter in Devon, where it rains every other day. During that cold spell, every stretch of water froze here, including the sea! That put a stop to all my paddle activities; I am not brave enough to put blades under a SUP! The local fjord froze to such an extent that there were ice-yachts on it, and some of my paddle buddies ice skated to an island I usually paddle to several kilometres from shore.
What are conditions typically like where you are?
Varied, the weather here is less extreme than in SW England, wind speeds are lower, and there is a lot less rain, summer days are longer and warmer while winter days are noticeably shorter, colder and drier. The sheer number of places I can paddle means that I usually find somewhere sheltered to paddle on a lake or in the sea, even if it is very windy, or I can get some mini-DW action on a lake that’s lined up the right way.
Are there any other paddlers around, or are you the only nutty Brit to be SUPing frozen Swedish lakes?
Who are you calling a Brit! For the purposes of living in the EU, I’m a proud Irishman, born and bred in the UK;) There are a few other SUP immigrants in the area, Irish, French, German, Italian and some Brits too; however, many of them put their boards away for winter.
How does summer differ from winter, apart from rising mercury levels?
Daylight, I am still getting used to the long, long days of summer. It surprises me how fast the days get longer, from needing a head torch outside in the mid-afternoon to needing blackout curtains to sleep at night. It’s a misconception that it’s always dark here; sure, winter days are shorter, but the summer more than makes up for that. That lack of tides and generally shallow coastal areas means that the water gets warm fast, too, sea temps were often over 25 degrees last summer, and the lakes can get even warmer, depending on their depth.
Winter is all about staying dry and warm; summer is all about practising pivot turns and cooling down.
Is it all about flat water for you, or are there bumps available?
I like bumps, and they are available here. The local fjord offers a great, 8km mild-mannered and messy DW that keeps paddlers on their toes, and there is a knowledgeable group of locals that like to share. Then, depending on wind direction, there are several DW options along the west coast.
SUP surfing is another matter. I was progressing to competent in the UK, the stage where I wasn’t a danger to others. Here I find it more difficult as we only get waves with a howling on-shore gale, which makes the paddle out difficult unless prone and the waves lack power; you have to work to get anything out of them. Some brilliant surfers here thrive in the conditions, and there is a lake surf scene further north, but as a very average learner surfer, I realise that I was spoilt for surfing conditions in SW England.
Talk to us about your association with McConks SUP?
Back in the day, I got involved in a Facebook chat about three-part paddles with Andy, and I had a different and taller viewpoint than others commenting. The conversation led to a special super-long travel paddle for my first trip to Sweden over four years ago. We kept talking, and I ended up with one for the three 14’ carbon race/touring boards that Andy delivered just before we left the UK.
Soon after moving here, I took over a Facebook group called SUP My Race, and I now run monthly distance challenges for over 1800 paddlers from all around the world. In 2020 Andy started to support the group, and in 2021, I am glad to say that support has increased.
Tell us about your new sled – it looks particularly unique?
She’s beautiful, isn’t she?
In the summer of 2020, my paddling stepped up a gear as a result of SUP My Race, a consequence of virtually hanging with so many driven paddlers, and I started to push the limits of the McConks hardboard I had. That limit was just under 8.5 km/h for an hour with me as the engine. I asked Andy if he had plans for a faster hardboard, he said ‘No!’ and here we are 🙂
And you’ve had a hand in providing design/R&D feedback for it.
Yes, once I’d told Andy that there was a place in the EU that could build the board, he got more curious about my requirement, so I sent him a detailed wish list: shape, dimensions, volume, hull design, thoughts on the dugout-ness and all the bits that need to be specified to make a board function. I was reasonably confident that his curiosity would get the better of him, and it did. He then took that as a starting point, tweaked it a bit and over several weeks and lots of emails turned that list into the board that we have now; my ideas turned into a fantastic board thanks to Andy’s knowledge and skill with design tools.
How does the new board differ from your previous machines?
Flatter, faster and more fantastic.
She’s aimed at flatter water than any other board I’ve owned (that’s 15 so far and counting); I wanted a board that would enable me to go faster on lakes but able to handle conditions I encounter in coastal paddling here. It was also essential to carry a dry bag for mid-paddle fika (Swedish for coffee and cake) for a day paddling.
She’s the first dugout that I’ve spent more than one paddle on, and that’s been a bit of a learning experience, bracing against the sides at first, then relaxing and letting the board move around more; the lower centre of gravity is very noticeable. She is also the narrowest board I’ve owned, and that too is proving to be a challenge, but so far, I’m staying (mostly) dry with only a couple of swims in about 100km of paddling, one of those was looking for a seal behind me, and no one saw, so it doesn’t count. Does it?
Most importantly, she’s mine. She isn’t someone else’ idea of what I should paddle but my idea of what suits the conditions here. And paddling your own board is a very special feeling.
Any plans for more involvement with McConks and their R&D programme you can talk about?
I’ve not yet told Andy that I’d like an all-water board, so there are no plans at the moment.
How’s the Swedish lockdown been? By all accounts, it’s been quite relaxed over there?
You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the media 😉 Let’s say that things are different here; social distancing was a thing before the term was coined. Government functions are also very different, but like every country, mistakes were made and lessons learned. I have appreciated the light touch that essentially did not restrict activity outside.
What’s been your view of the UK situation from afar (without getting too political)?
Without getting too political, that’s a tough ask. I have been asked most since I got here was “Why are the English leaving the EU?” and more recently, “Why are they leaving like that!” I’d like to leave my answer there.
Any plans to come back to Blighty, or are you stayed put?
No plans to leave where we are; it still feels like being on holiday here. When I get used to moose walking through the garden or photos of a wolf less than 2km away, then I might reconsider.
Final thoughts on SUP, thanks and praise?
I think SUP is in a really good place right now, and it is becoming more and more popular and available to an ever-increasing number of people. There are problems with that popularity, particularly with basic safety for new paddlers, and I hope that the steps brands like McConks are taking with publishing guidance and working with SUP schools means we see fewer headlines about paddlers getting into trouble.
A HUGE thank you to Andy at McConks for his support both as a paddler and with SUP My Race, and I’d like to name check EO SUP in Latvia, who are helping me this year with pair of their top-end paddles. Oh, and my Swedish friends who tolerate my attempts to use their language. Praise, that’s easy. Every paddler who goes out on a less than optimal day and comes back with a huge smile on their face; that’s what the sport is about.