“You’re brave!” the couple remarked as they watched me, bundled up in coats, scarves and gloves. It’s January and I’m stumbling up the shingle beach with my 11-foot paddleboard under one arm, and the other splayed out as a counterweight. “We packed ours away in September.”
After two hours out at sea, I’m keen to get back to my car, out of my wetsuit and warmed up, so simply say: “We saw seals! You should get your boards out...” and shuffled past.
Paddleboarding in winter is as freezing as it is invigorating, so I couldn’t stand around and chat. I had sodden wetsuit socks to peel off.
Interest in paddleboarding over the summer of 2020 skyrocketed. Stock sold out, and wannabe paddleboarders joined endless waiting lists that lasted well into autumn. The stand up paddleboard (SUP) market is predicted to grow by $59m (£43m) in the next four years, according to research by Technavio, having already doubled worldwide in the previous five, from around $5bn to $10bn, according to Statista.
Luckily, I didn’t have to wait: my paddleboard arrived in June, and with it a summer of adventures around Hampshire. Living on Portsea Island, I have more opportunity than most to SUP. I went out with the Southsea SUP Club to build up my confidence and regularly paddled from east to west of the island, ending in Eat Out to Help Out brunches. With the lockdown easing, it was the perfect way to escape my four walls and meet friends at a distance.
Winter paddleboarding presents a new challenge though. As the water got colder, the waterways got quieter. The sunny camaraderie of the summer was replaced by the bleak solace of winter.
Twenty metres off the coast of Southsea Beach though, and I’m as far away as you can get from anyone in Portsmouth – the most densely populated city outside London. It’s just me, master of my own vessel, with miles of water to navigate as I please, without the worry of breathing anyone else’s air or needing a mask.
As I stealthily glide along coasts, marinas and riverbanks, I’m reminded of what drew me to invest in a paddleboard over the summer. As someone who used to travel to two or three countries a month, the enforced grounding has taken some getting used to. Paddleboarding feels like my chance to explore, to see the streets I’ve paced for the last 10 months from a different perspective.
With considerably fewer people on the water in winter, paddleboarding is a great socially-distanced activity far enough from civilisation to breathe easy. As soon as you come within a metre of anyone, you’re pushed away with a paddle, either yours or theirs, ever-so-gently for fear of knocking them off.
Yes, it’s cold out, but after pumping the inflatable board for 10 minutes the heat generated settles into something akin to a layer of armour under my neoprene
That’s it right there, the biggest fear of paddleboarders in winter: falling in. That’s what we prep for, what we dread – but, after a summer of practice, it hasn’t happened to me yet.
Just in case, I wear neoprene socks and gloves, a wetsuit, sunglasses and a beanie – the standard winter paddleboarder’s uniform. The only part of me exposed to the zero temperatures is my cheeks – windswept and smiling. Yes, it’s cold out, but after pumping the inflatable board for 10 minutes the heat generated settles into something akin to a layer of armour under my neoprene.
The pump up is only the start of the adrenaline rush. For as long as I can stand the cold, I’m purely focused on staying on my board. Even just standing on a SUP on water engages the core muscles, weakened from almost a year of sitting hunched over my laptop and not much else.
I take my centre position, knees slightly bent, straight back, stabbing my paddle forward, spearlike, to draw it back again through the water. My senses are heightened as any unfamiliar tremble to the paddleboard needs to be counterbalanced. As I’ve seen, the wake of a passing boat can easily take you out.
After studying wind, tides and currents for the precious sunny and calm days, I’m more appreciative of Mother Nature. There’s only me and her out on the water, all doomscrolling left behind and replaced with a mindfulness that comes naturally.
Paddleboarding also turns out to be the perfect ice breaker – strangers talk to you when you’re preparing to SUP, the same way they do when you have a dog. In winter, conversation will largely revolve around how crazy you are, but I take a weird pride in that.
“Excuse me,” comes an energetic voice out to sea. I carefully turned my head, conscious of the movement’s effect on the board. An overly-animated lady is shouting and waving from the water’s edge, with a dog at her heel, and I presume it must be something to do with my car, or that I’m not allowed to be here.
“I need to send you these photos, they’re just magical,” she gushes, phone in hand. “What’s your number?”
I pivot with my paddle to face her on the board. Of course I shout it over, vainly wanting the visual evidence of paddling off into another January sunset.
There’s a certain type of person who enjoys paddleboarding in winter, and yes, as many onlookers have reminded me, it’s a brave and crazy one. But with weeks of lockdown still to go, it could be time to pump up that packed away SUP and join our club.