I did a two-hour one-to-one introduction to stand up paddle boarding with Mirko from Active360 last Tuesday here in London at Paddington Basin.
Mirko is a very relaxed, pleasant, knowledgeable instructor. I had recently fallen into very cold water while white water kayaking and was a bit tense, but Mirko put my worries at ease right away. It helped that I had arrived in my sleeveless wet suit. With T-shirt and shorts on top it looked normal enough’ish for a short ride on the tube and a ten-minute walk from Paddington station, or so I thought. I still got a fair few puzzled stares, but didn’t mind.
Cold Shocks and Trailblazing
My priority was not to repeat my kayaking experience, when I had suffered a mild cold shock. Active360 usually provide wet suits on request as long as you ask them well ahead of time. Hardly anyone bothers.
As a kid, my parents took my sister and me on long beach holidays in Italy every summer. We regularly paddle boarded in the sea back then, decades before it became popular. Since then I had not done any more of it.
All photos (c) Mirko Buzzelli
A brief briefing
Mirko spent about 10 minutes explaining the basic technique and talking about safety, while I was locking up my backpack, putting on the Active360 swim vest, slipping into my neoprene shoes, and rehydrating.
Getting onto the water
Then we put one paddle board after another onto the water. Lowering yourself onto the board from the edge of the concrete embankment is quite easy. However, I was surprised how wobbly it felt kneeling on the board. Standing on my dad’s surf board as a little munchkin holding one of his kayaking paddles had felt much more stable.
For a moment there I was kissing the idea of standing up on the board goodbye. Despite my love for stand-up. When we had done a few manoeuvres at the T-end of the Basin, I felt more confident.
To stand up or not to stand up
We started paddling towards Little Venice past by a few narrow boat based restaurants. I contemplated standing up on the board a number of times, but Mirko was the one who advised against it, because there were boats passing, there was strong draft under a bridge, or because there was a bit of a current.
When we reached a quiet stretch, the instructor reminded me that it’s best to accelerate the paddle board up to speed before putting the paddle flat onto the board right in front of you. Then you first put your one foot forward flat onto the board, then the other, and immediately stand up straight, looking straight forward and fixating your eyes on a steady point near the horizon. Put the paddle into the water and start paddling, make sure that you don’t come to a halt, because movement means added stability.
Quite to my amazement I managed to stand up on the fourth attempt. My knees still haven’t fully recovered from a sports injury six weeks ago, but everything went smoothly. For the first few minutes it felt very wobbly and I doubted my decision to stand up so early into the two-hour session. After that, I hardly thought about the fact that I was stand up paddling.
Everyone who has visited this part of London knows that there’s quite a lot to see. It’s called Little Venice for a reason. While Mirko did not offer anecdotes from his adventurous life out of his own volition, I kept on asking him questions.
Cycling from Indonesia to Japan and hiking the full length of Sri Lanka
Turns out he’s cycled all the way from Indonesia to Japan (yes, a few ferry rides in between). He took a year off work for it. He hiked the full length of Sri Lanka (700km) and did a long-distance trek in his home country Italy (350km). What was most interesting to me personally, was, that he had stand up paddled the full length of the Thames last summer. This is something that a friend of mine and I had been eyeballing lately. I got Mirko to agree to send me a link to the post on his slow travel adventure blog where he outlines the experience, including a detailed itinerary. Hopefully this will come in handy in the near future.
Slower than walking but much more fun
We paddled for about 2.25km at a speed of maybe 2.75km/h. When I saw a narrow boat coming towards us on a narrow stretch of the Union Canal, I lowered myself into kneeling position again. This had not been my instructor’s idea, but mine. In hindsight, it would have been a better idea to stay standing upright. The narrow boat was going so slowly, it was not producing any waves.
A few moments of fame
Throughout our little tour passers-by took pics of us, greeted us enthusiastically, waved at us. I don’t want to exaggerate, but these interactions happened at least fifteen or twenty times, no kidding. For some reason, paddle boarding seems to be considered to be cool. Awesome!
Apparently hardly anyone ever falls in
I stayed on my knees for a little while. Mirko was sharing anecdotes from sessions with other students, including one of a 50yo lady that kept on falling into the cold water several times. She always got up again and had left my instructor in no doubt that she was having a great time.
I mentioned that I was surprised that not everyone was encouraged to wear wet suits, considering the water was so cold. The reason was very simple: hardly anyone ever fell in. Out of the large number of newbies Mirko had put under his wings this season so far, only three had fallen into the water. I can still hear my instructor’s words: “Paddle boarding might be the only water sport where you never get in contact with water.”
This was great news. Maybe I was just being a chicken again and the risk of taking a dive was close to zero. Perhaps as a result of my new-found confidence I didn’t concentrate enough on the right technique. But sure enough, the moment my instructor had mentioned the positive statistics, I made an attempt to stand up and fell right into the water with a big splash. Luckily, the water was nowhere near as cold as the River Derwent had been two months ago. I made sure I didn’t swallow any of the rather toxic water and climbed right back onto my paddle board.
We were only about 15 minutes from our base, so I decided not to try to get up again and paddled the rest of the distance on my knees. Getting off the board was as easy as getting onto the board and did not involve any further incidents.
I’ll be back!
At £79 I found the experience today to be good value. 5 out of 5 in my book. The price for a two-hour weekday group session is only £20 cheaper, if it’s your first lesson with them (£34 cheaper at £45 if returning customer). So to me the one-to-one session was the obvious choice. Weekends are £20 more for the one-to-one. I’m planning on doing one or two group sessions in Paddington before venturing onto the Thames at Kew with Active360.
Looking for more fun outdoor activities? Try our posts about hiking in Bhutan, rowing Venetian style in Venice, skiing in Mayrhofen, skydiving in Cambridge, riding an e-scooter and open water swimming in London, caving in Somerset, packrafting in Wales, and canyoning near Porto.
For articles on food, feel welcome to eyeball our articles about peasant food that’s gone posh, our recipes for razor clams and conger eel, and our reviews of Paul in Vienna, L’Ange 20 in Paris, and Gruvelageret near the North Pole.