Marie Buchanan is not a large woman but luckily she has a big pair of lungs. I am heading straight for the bank of the Kingsbridge estuary on a stand-up paddleboard, and she is trying to stop me getting tangled up in the overhanging branches and toppling in.
“Big, wide, sweeping strokes right round the side of the board now, Hilly!” she yells. The wind is gusting around on this bright autumn day, blowing me ever closer to the trees. So I dig in, jabbing the 7ft paddle into the water in front of me as if I were “harpooning a fish”, as Buchanan had demonstrated on shore earlier, sweeping it in a curve round the side of the board, lifting it out and then back in again as fast as I can. “That’s perfect, Hilly,” she shouts. “Well done!”
It’s just as well she is such an encouraging coach – Buchanan is the UK’s top female paddleboard racer. I’ve been stand-up paddleboarding, or “supping”, a few times before but only in summer in the Mediterranean, where falling in is all part of the fun. Here, there’s about 12ft of cool Devon water beneath me, and a brisk northerly breeze is skittering down the estuary. It’s hard to keep a straight course while following her instructions and paddling about four strokes at a time close to either side of the board.
Once I’ve got on top of the wind, we paddle side by side to the head of the estuary (geographers will appreciate that it’s not actually a river, but a ria or coastal inlet) and the quay at the old market town of Kingsbridge. There’s more shelter here and now we’ve been on the water for about an hour with no mishaps, Buchanan encourages me to relax, letting my knees and hips give a little. My feet have been gripping the board for dear life but I manage to shuffle a bit so that they are parallel.
Buchanan is totally at ease on the water, as you might expect of someone who grew up on the south Devon coast. When her older brother gave her a go on his windsurfer and said she was a natural, she believed him. He was right – Marie, then 16, was soon in the UK’s under-21 development squad for the 1996 Olympics, and came very close to being selected.
But real life took over, with sports science and physiotherapy degrees, and now she’s back in Devon, working as a physiotherapist at the community hospital in Kingsbridge. “I work with a lot of elderly people who have had falls and there are so many parallels between helping them get back on their feet and teaching people to sup,” she remarks. “I’m very aware of how anxiety affects balance.”
Paddleboarding is relatively new in the UK. When Buchanan first heard about it, she thought it was just a fad. Serious surfers and windsurfers only took note when Californian surf god Laird Hamilton crossed the English Channel on a paddleboard in 2006. Simon Harrow, chair of the British Stand Up Paddleboard Association (BSUPA), believes that it is now one of the country’s fastest-growing sports. BSUPA was only formed in 2007 but, says Harrow, it has trained 400 coaches and has 30 affiliated clubs.
Despite her initial doubts, when Buchanan went out on the water for the first time, six years ago, she was hooked. “I tried kayaking but the appeal of paddleboarding is that you are standing up. It’s great all-round exercise: you burn up about the same amount of calories as gentle running, and it’s particularly good for strengthening your core muscles.” It’s one reason why supping appeals to women like me who are perpetually in search of that elusive flat tummy. At 40, Buchanan has an enviably trim figure and can carry a 12ft 6in board around with nimble ease.
It’s also a good sport for wimps. “Supping has all the attractions of surfing without [the] challenging situations,” Buchanan points out. Its sister-sport, paddlesurfing, is done on the open sea but it’s not really for beginners. “You don’t have to be an athlete to paddleboard on flat water – all shapes and sizes do it, from little kids to 70-year-olds. It’s great for families and it’s friendly and welcoming,” she enthuses. At Waterborn, next to the Crabshell Inn, the supping centre where she is teaching me, evening social sessions attract 30 people in the summer.
It’s time to practise some turns. In the sheltered head of the estuary, this is easy, and we decide to head back to more open water. The wind is behind us now and we go faster, chatting as we paddle – “natterboarding” – as Simon Harrow calls it. You can’t do that on a windsurfer.
As the estuary broadens out, we are more exposed and the gusts spin my board out of control, startling a family of snoozing swans. Thankfully, Buchanan had showed me how to kneel to lower my centre of gravity, and hold the 7ft paddle further down the shaft. If things get really hairy, you can lie prone and doggy-paddle along. If you fall off, a coiled leash Velcroed around your ankle stops the board floating off.
With Buchanan shouting encouragement, I get back on course but it’s a sharp reminder that the elements and a paddleboard can be a dangerous mix, and of why it’s advisable to start with a lesson with an accredited coach. A two-hour beginner’s session will cost about £40 including kit, and covers not only getting going but basic safety rules and how to check weather conditions.
We’ve been out for about an hour and a half, and I’m flagging but I’m determined to arrive back standing and not on my knees. I look out for dark ruffles on the water ahead that indicate a gust and, in a calmer patch, I manage to get up on my feet and back to the pontoon without making a spectacle of myself.
After my session, there was no time to relax for Buchanan. She’d won the gruelling 220km 11 Cities Tour, a five-day international race along waterways in the Netherlands earlier this year, and, the day after my session, defended her women’s open title at the BSUPA National Race Championships in Kingsbridge. She completed the 5km course in 39.14 minutes – faster than a lot of the men – and qualified to represent the UK in the world championships in Peru next year. But as the sport has no public funding or sponsors here, she may not be able to meet her travel costs.
I’ve set my sights closer to home – a sup school under the arches at Kew Bridge. A gentle paddle down the Thames sounds just the ticket.
For details of stand-up paddleboarding classes near you, visit www.bsupa.org.uk