By Kirsty Hill
I remember my first ocean experience on a Stand Up Paddle board (SUP) for all the right reasons. I’m a passionate surfer and I’d booked onto a Women and Waves weekend hosted by Newquay Activity Centre (NAC). Yet despite the cloudless skies and wall-to-wall sunshine, there were no waves. Luckily for me and the other women taking part, NAC delivered an epic itinerary of paddlesports, including stand up paddle boarding. Perfect for a calm day!
I stand up paddle boarded a few years ago under supervision and with instruction on an inland reservoir during the Winter. I wanted to try it in the sea for a completely different experience. Let’s face it – reservoirs don’t exactly have the same appeal!
Yet hiring the kit and just ‘having a go’ was never on my radar. From my own ocean experience, I’m fully aware of the potential hazards, particularly navigating an unfamiliar craft in an unknown environment. It’s a bit like rock climbing – why would you scale a cliff without any instruction or using the right safety equipment? Doesn’t sound like a situation I’d want to be in and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t either.
There’s a lot more to stand up paddle boarding than you probably realise. So for those of you who want to try it but not sure what you need to consider, here’s a guide to why you should invest in a stand up paddle board lesson instead of hiring the kit and doing it yourself:
You’ll be guided by an expert
You may feel confident in hitting the water alone yet even the most skilled watermen and women get into difficulty in the sea. Hazards such as rips, strong currents, rocks, watercraft and strong winds can quickly turn a pleasant afternoon into a scary and dangerous experience.
Newquay Activity Centre’s stand up paddle boarding instructors are experts in what they do. They know the coastline inside out, they’re fully trained lifeguards and act promptly in an emergency. They’ve undertaken training and assessment by a leading industry expert so you’ll learn the correct and most efficient way to manoeuvre the board – less time floundering around feeling frustrated and more time for you to enjoy the session!
Plus, NAC’s guided paddle board lessons aren’t just about paddling along on the ocean. Their instructors know a huge amount about the local area, and will show you various points of interest from your craft.
- Learn about the wildlife that inhabits Towan beach and the surrounding area – you may even spot a native grey seal!
- See the coastline from a completely different perspective – explore caves and other features which you wouldn’t see from the beach
- Hear tales of Newquay’s fascinating history involving pirates and smugglers.
And, most importantly, they’ll show you how to navigate your stand up paddle board. You’ll get a full safety brief on the beach – hazards to consider, how to hold your paddle, make efficient paddle strokes, mounting the board and how to get going. Your instructor will guide you out beyond the breaking waves, and give safety instructions to listen out for whilst you’re in the water.
You’ll use the right equipment
Hiring may seem like the easy option, and cheaper, but think of a lesson as an investment into your own personal safety. Not only that, but you’ll also have access to good quality and, most importantly, the right equipment. For maximum safety and comfort on a stand up paddle board lesson, you’ll need:
- The right size paddle board – like surfboards, they range in size. Individual paddle boards vary between 10’ and 11’ and 32-34 inches wide. Extra width can be great for extra stability and float but if you’re quite small like me, you may end up with something that feels sluggish to paddle
- A correctly inflated paddle board – sounds obvious but if it isn’t inflated to the correct PSI, it will lose rigidity and performance
- A paddle board fin – without one, the board can’t ‘track’ or move forward in a straight line, so you’ll literally go round in circles!
- A paddle board leash – it’ll keep you attached to your board if you fall in the water and prevent it from drifting away. Secured via a velcro fastener, leashes keep the board safer for others in the water and under control
- An adjustable paddle – the last thing you want is a paddle that’s too big or too small for you. It will detract from the experience as you’ll struggle to paddle efficiently. Your stand up paddle board instructor will ensure your paddle is the right size, depending on your height, before you hit the water
- A warm, well fitted wetsuit – as Newquay Activity Centre opens throughout the year for all activities, they have great quality wetsuits for all seasons meaning you’ll be toasty warm on your lesson. Again, your instructor will measure you up for a wetsuit before you enter the water
- Buoyancy aid – this will keep you afloat if you fall off your board
- Sunscreen and hat – even on a seemingly cloudy day, the sun’s harmful UV rays still break through. They also reach beneath the water’s surface so even if it feels cool, you can still get sunburnt. Don’t risk it – be sensible, and cover up.
What to look for in a good quality stand up paddle board
They can vary hugely in quality and while Newquay Activity Centre invests in good quality paddle boards, some hire shops may not.
John-Paul Eatock, technical director and paddle sports assessor says,
“Lower quality stand up paddle boards, no matter how much you inflate them, bend like a banana when you stand on them. High quality boards retain their pressure. Also, look at how thick the rails are. If they’re only a couple of inches, the board probably doesn’t have a well made core, which means it’ll bend in the middle. Anything between 2 to 4 inches and you’re onto a winner.”
And if you get hooked on paddle boarding and want to buy your own in the future, John-Paul adds,
“There’s a lot of truth in the saying, ‘you get what you pay for.’ As a general rule of thumb, spending £300 for a new board means it’ll be of higher quality. But you don’t need to spend £800 to get a good one. Check out Hotsurf 69 at Piran Surf – they often have deals so you’ll get a high quality stand up paddle board with a reasonable price tag.”
You’ll paddle out in the right conditions
The ocean can be really deceptive, especially if you don’t live by the coast and you’re unfamiliar with how the tides work, how the wind affects the conditions and how big the waves can reach. I grew up inland and until I got into surfing, I didn’t even know the difference between high and low tide.
That’s why stand up paddle board lessons are ideal. Newquay Activity Centre has a safe operating remit when lessons can go ahead without compromising your personal safety. This includes:
- Maximum wind speed – anything over 12-13mph is too windy. If the wind blows too strongly offshore (ie from the beach out to sea), it’ll be easy to paddle out but extremely difficult to get back to shore. You’ll cover little to no distance and find yourself drifting further out to sea – not a nice experience, believe me! Similarly, in a strong onshore wind (where the wind blows from the sea onto the shore – signified by ‘white caps’ towards the horizon), you’ll struggle to paddle out from the beach and find the experience really frustrating
- Maximum wave height – when the waves reach above waist high (approximately 2ft), it’s too big to paddle board and what should be a tranquil, explorative experience will feel pretty frightening. It doesn’t sound like a lot but for an inexperienced ocean goer, a 2ft wave can seem a hell of a lot bigger when you’re navigating a big, unfamiliar craft!
And, if during the lesson the conditions change radically, your instructor will have planned ahead and know how to safely get you back to the beach.
During the lesson’s safety briefing, your instructor will tell you about the conditions on the day and why they’re good for stand up paddle boarding. You’ll learn about the tides, the wind direction and speed, currents and how water moves around stationary objects such as rocks. All valuable and essential knowledge so that you can get the most out of your session.
You’ll develop the correct techniques
One of the most overlooked reasons to get a SUP lesson is learning the right techniques. It looks easy when you’re standing on the beach but if you’re not used to water activities like surfing, kayaking, coasteering or bodyboarding, it’s a lot harder than you think! You’ll use muscles that you forgot you had and it can be physically exhausting. Plus you can add to the fatigue and frustration by paddling inefficiently and repeatedly falling off the board. Not a fun introduction to your first paddle boarding experience!
A lesson will take all that hassle out of the equation. You’ll have heaps more fun by learning the most efficient techniques, and by the end of the session, you’ll have the skills and knowledge to go it alone in the future.
What you’ll learn
After the safety briefing on the beach and a discussion about the conditions, your instructor will explain about your equipment, how to mount the board, how to paddle out, and what to do if you fall in. They’ll also cover:
- The key components of the paddle – the handle (T-grip), blade and shaft
- How to hold the paddle using the correct grip
- Basic strokes and directional change – making sure the paddle’s blade slopes away from you
- Knee paddling – the correct technique and using it to counteract fatigue
- How to get to your feet and back onto your knees
- Balance, weight distribution and feet position
- The correct posture
- How to self rescue if you fall off the board
- How and when to rest, and the safe places to do so
- Navigating in windy conditions – staying in the shadow of the rocks
- Reversing into caves and navigating the natural whirlpools or ‘sluices’
- What to do in an emergency, including the life-saving ‘float to live’ advice from the RNLI
- Avoiding injury
“The most common injury from stand up paddle boarding is a twisted/broken ankle in very shallow water. This happens when stepping off your board. Make sure that you kneel or sit down on the board before you step off.”
There’s a lot more to it than you think and if you’re still not convinced to book a lesson, consider what you’d do if a child or member of your group became ill or injured themselves. Your paddle sports instructor carries a tow line and a waterproof phone/VHF radio – he/she will phone for help and get you back to shore promptly.
You’ll learn about the local wildlife
Once you’ve got the basics under your belt, you can chill out, enjoy the scenery and look out for the local wildlife that inhabits the area. Probably not something you’re aware of without a guided lesson. NAC’s instructors have in-depth knowledge of the coastline’s flora and fauna. They’ll point out spider crabs, jellyfish, birds and the local seal colony.
Jack Madden, senior instructor at NAC says,
“Stand up paddle boards make ideal podiums to witness wild marvels. Look up and you’ll spot nesting kittiwakes and fulmars, lazing cormorants and shags. Look down and your paddleboard transforms into a looking glass to the underwater world below. Kelp forests and rocky reefs house fish, sea-stars and anemones. Though not widely known, harbour porpoise and common dolphins visit Cornwall regularly. But the award for most charismatic Cornish creature goes to a more familiar resident, the grey seal!”
Encountering a grey seal will be one of your lesson highlights! They’re gentle and playful, yet one of the rarest seal species and endangered. Luckily, grey seals in the UK account for 40% of the world’s population – a third of those inhabit the South West.
They should be observed with care and from a safe distance, especially pregnant seals. Your instructor will advise you how to approach these wild animals, using slow and steady movements, that doesn’t disturb or damage their environment.
At certain times of the year, one of Cornwall’s largest colonies of kittiwakes inhabit the Tea Cavern caves below the iconic Huer’s Hut. Kittiwakes are a threatened species and paddling around this area between March and early July endangers these birds – getting too close to them causes nest abandonment. Only four nesting sites remain in the South West so it’s important to respect and protect their habitat.
You’ll explore the local heritage
Newquay’s famous for its association with surfing, but there’s a lot more to the coastline than you realise. Tales of shipwrecks, pirates and smugglers await you!
Step back in time as you paddle round to the ‘Gazzle’ which in Cornish means ‘armpit’. You’ll see the Huer’s Hut, perched on the cliff, once used as a lookout point to guide fishermen towards schoals of pilchards, and learn about one of Newquay’s historical shipwrecks.
The Osten shipwreck
In December 1917 during a violent storm, The Osten washed up on the jagged rocks of The Cribbar, now known as Newquay’s legendary big wave surf spot. Using the Towan Headland lifeboat slipway, one of the steepest in the UK, a group of volunteer lifeboat crew attempted to rescue the stricken Osten, but capsized shortly after launch.
Using their knowledge of the local area, the crew traversed the cliffs and sought refuge in the cave below the Huer’s Hut. Known as the Tea Caverns, smugglers used the cave throughout the 17th and 18th centuries to smuggle heavily taxed, contraband goods into Newquay including brandy, silk and tea.
Using foraging and bushcraft skills, the crew survived for 3 days in the cave before being rescued.
You’ll get the full experience of the Tea Caverns, and other caves along the coastline, as your instructor will guide you in safely after dismounting from your stand up paddle board. See natural phenomenon in rock formations including stalagmites and the calcification of the ‘dragons cave’ near the start of the route.
You can explore different stand up paddle board tours
After a fascinating 2 hour lesson, I wanted to do it again! Thankfully, Newquay Activity Centre offers a variety of stand up paddle tours depending on the tides, your interests and group needs. If, after having a lesson you loved it as much as I did, why not book onto a second tour, and get a 10% discount! Options include:
- Family SUP tour – perfect for a family of four to explore the coastline and enjoy wildlife spotting games
- Snorkel SUP – discover what lies beneath with a safari in sheltered coves and inlets
- Eco SUP – a chilled out opportunity to explore the marine wildlife and develop environmental awareness
- Heritage SUP – learn more about the coastline’s historical myths and legends
- Gannel SUP – a tranquil alternative to the ocean environment. Explore the River Gannel’s peaceful scenery, heritage and wildlife
- Private SUP – focussed, one-to-one instruction for faster technique progression. You dictate the pace of the session.
High, low and spring tides
The tides also have a big difference on what you’ll see on a stand up paddle board tour:
The tidal zone recedes so with less water around, you’ll see more wildlife in the caves and rock pools.
Cruise underneath the suspension bridge which connects Towan beach’s iconic island to the mainland.
Spring low tide
Spring tides occur just after a new or full moon (twice a month) when the sun and moon align to create a strong gravitational pull. This causes exceptionally high and low tides known as ‘spring tides.’
A spring low tide recedes far more than a standard low tide. During a spring low tide tour, the Gazzle caves are abundant with marine life. You’ll see creatures which are usually much harder to find.
Spring high tide
The water reaches the breakwall on Towan beach during a spring high tide so you can launch straight from the slipway. There’s more water moving around so you’ll get the exhilarating thrill of swirling around rock gullies and getting deeper into the caves.
You’ll save time and money
It may seem cheaper and easier to hire the kit and do it yourself. But having a SUP lesson will actually save you time and money, especially in the long run.
Imagine hiring all the kit and not really knowing what to do with it – how to paddle effectively, get to your feet or keeping your balance. Or paddling out on a day when it’s too windy. Or even renting a paddle board that’s not inflated correctly. You’ve paddled nowhere, spent about 20-30 frustrating minutes trying to work out what’s gone wrong and given up altogether, even though you’ve hired the kit for half or even a full day. Sounds like a complete waste of time and money, doesn’t it?
Now imagine, like me, that you’ve had a lesson. You’ve had an invaluable 2 hours on the water and picked up some awesome new skills. In fact, you’re practically a pro at something you’ve never done before, you’ve seen the coastline from a unique perspective, spotted a seal and learnt loads about the local heritage. You’ve been in safe hands the whole time so you’ve relaxed and enjoyed hearing tales of smugglers and pirates. Plus you’ve gained a new appreciation of the marine environment.
In fact, you’ve loved it so much that you’ve booked a second tour with Newquay Activity Centre and got a discount. And, you’re considering buying your own stand up paddle board because you’re totally hooked! After all, you’ve now got the skills and knowledge, all from investing the time and money into a lesson, to enjoy stand up paddle boarding safely for many years to come!