As I write this, water is hitting the windowpane as a steady drizzle continues on a dreary Monday afternoon. I’m going to be spending the whole day indoors. Rewind to Saturday and as that same rain was falling I was on the other side of the windowpane, standing on an inflatable board completely exposed in the middle of the Thames along with 18 other mad adventurers. The drizzle turned into heavy rain, heavy rain turned into heavier rain. We continued our paddle strokes towards our final destination of the day, the campsite where we’d be spending the night; and all the time we had big stupid grins on our faces.
The weekend was organised by Dave Cornthwaite, the “yes man” who I met at a conference in Berlin a few weeks ago, as part of his #summerseries of little adventures in the UK. He is a bit of a stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) aficionado, having already paddled the length of the Mississippi as well as around the Caribbean island of Martinique. (Me, I was a bit more wobbly! But you do learn quickly…) The sport is an offshoot of surfing originating in Hawaii, Hoe he’e nalu. This weekend Dave was joined by Annie Ross and a gang of her “Exerk” followers, as part of her quest this year to do 52 sporting challenges in 52 weeks. We all met up on Friday night at a campsite just outside Oxford where we would spend the night before heading down the river to eventually end up at Goring, 24 miles downstream, on Sunday afternoon.
As one of the first to arrive on Friday afternoon, I set up my little sleeping area with my sleeping bag and mat enclosed in a bivvy bag (a “bivouac sack” that acts as a waterproof shelter when you don’t have space to carry a tent or when you simply want to be that bit closer to nature when you’re wild camping). I had used it once before on a warm and dry September’s evening on an island adventure last year; this time, I made it to 5 am when the splash of rain on my face woke me up. I tightened the drawstrings of the bivvy bag so that only a small gap remained around my face and I could still breathe… I think I dozed off a little but I can’t say I felt particularly well-rested when the alarm rang at 7 am and I got up to get ready for the first day of paddling!
The best thing about adventures like this, hands down, is the people you meet. You greet each other with a hug and within minutes you’re chatting as if you’ve known each other forever. I always find that the type of person who’s willing to go on a random adventure, not knowing anyone else on the trip and in this case never having paddle boarded before, is my type of person! Warm, positive, open to new experiences, and without exception doing something incredibly interesting with their life. Paddleboarding also lends itself perfectly to getting to know each other: as you’re making your way down the river, your pace naturally varies so that you’ll be talking to one person and then drifting towards someone else for another conversation. Plus, you have nothing else to do! No phone, no camera (I definitely wasn’t going to risk either falling into the water), no TV, no distractions to take you away from basic human interaction.
…which leads me to the second-best thing about this particular adventure: the feeling of getting into a steady rhythm, dipping your paddle into the water at the front of the board and pulling it smoothly back through the water before lifting it, returning it to the front and repeating the movement. The stillness was beautiful, the only sounds the clucking of the water, the wind in the trees, the birds up ahead. The rain on that first afternoon only added to the experience: where we’d usually be spending the whole day indoors, probably hunched over a computer or maybe lounging on the sofa in front of the TV, instead we were out in the elements with a lovely group of people. Pure joy. And it’s amazing how little you actually need when it comes down to it: I had no coffee in the morning and yet I was wide awake; no phone or camera, so I could enjoy the experience more fully than if I was constantly trying to capture the moment in that perfect Instagram shot; and I had none of the usual stuff that I’d have crammed into my handbag in my everyday life.
That being said, after an afternoon of getting soaked in the thunderstorm – having only just dried off after falling in earlier that day – I was shivering as we arrived at the campsite for our second night’s sleep. A 20p coin was all it took for a hot shower to bring me back to feeling human again and we were soon enjoying good food and more good conversation at the local pub; we even managed to sit outdoors later in the night. All that fresh air and exercise will take its toll, though, and we were in bed by 11 pm. I couldn’t quite face the idea of another wet and vulnerable night in my bivvy bag (I’m not a real adventurer! Boohoo!) and was relieved to be offered a spot in a three-man tent. A glorious night of eight hours sleep later and I awoke refreshed and ready for another day on the river…
My arms were sore as we started to paddle; soon, though, I was back into the rhythm again and I felt like I could have gone on forever. When we suddenly arrived at Goring where we were ending our journey I felt sad that it was all over, my mood deflating along with the paddleboards; and when I woke up on Monday morning I was disappointed not to be getting back on that board. The spirit of the adventure lives on, though, in all the friend requests on Facebook, the photos that are being shared and, of course, the memories. And there’ll be a new adventure soon, that’s for sure!
Dave is continuing his #summerseries over the coming weeks. Find out about the upcoming activities and join him on one of them here.
You can also join Annie on one of her weekly sporting challenges here.