stand up paddleboarding

FINDING SOLITUDE IN A BUSY METROPOLIS

 
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Words: Marcus Samperi

Pictures: Oliver Wesley


 
 

It was a usual morning: standing on a busy platform, awaiting the inevitable crowded commuter train to arrive already so jam packed with people that the likelihood of being able to board was minuscule at best. If successful then an uncomfortable journey awaits: pressed up against the automatic doors or being in such close proximity to a stranger that is usually only afforded to romantic partners. Personal space is a premium in a city of 8.1 million people especially during the morning rush hour. Once boarded, an unnatural silence fills the carriage; the only sound coming from the train creaking, swaying and chugging along the tracks. Everyone encased in their own individual bubble tapping into a smart phone, nose deep into a book or morning newspaper or generally just starring into space completely oblivious to anything outside of their squeezed imaginary bubble. Faces are expressionless, eye contact is avoided at all costs and nobody would dream of starting a conversation. If you closed your eyes you could potentially imagine that you were the only person riding the commuter train if it wasn’t for the constant elbowing, shoving and that huge rucksack leaning uncomfortably against your leg. This lack of personal space can have a detrimental affect on the human mind with the urge to find a place away from other people getting increasingly stronger as the city borders swell encasing more and more local towns and villages causing the population to balloon even further. With green spaces being built on to cope with the housing crisis brought on by the population boom then it is becoming incredibly difficult to find that respite, that quiet time that is imperative for positive mental health. However, there is still one area of a city that this peace, tranquillity and space can be found even in a mega-city such as London: the river.

Historically, major cities of the world have been built on or near major waterways for two reasons: commerce and sustainability. However, many of these rivers over the years have been under utilised and even badly polluted from industrial waste or general littering. In some instances the waterways have even been forced underground to allow for the relentless urban development to continue unimpeded. However, in recent years there has been a massive switch around thanks initially to a number of activists and charitable organisations that have been campaigning to clean up our waterways and to bring them back to former glory. This has resulted in an increase in water sport enthusiasts making use of these spaces including kayakers, canoeists and competitive rowers. However, there is one sport that is sweeping the world encouraging those untraditional water sport-types to tap into the benefits of the waterways: Stand Up Paddleboarding, or SUP for short. SUP was developed by surfers in Hawaii in order to continue to get out onto the sea during times of little or no swell. With no initial skill needed to begin it has resulted in a large uptake over the years making it the fastest growing water sport in the world. It isn’t just limited to the sea, it can be partaken on any body of water deep enough to allow the fin to pass unobstructed including rivers, lakes and streams.

This gives the stand up paddle boarder access to areas where most don’t even know exist or, if they do, a different perspective on the area they thought they knew. More importantly being on the water gives the paddle boarder space, a degree of quietness and distance from the bustling city streets. Just one hour spent out on the river is enough to aid mental clarity, de-stress from the rigmaroles of every day life and to achieve a low-impact full body workout giving a feeling of overall happiness and calmness from within whether that is paddling solo or as part of a group.

Saturday had finally arrived; with the long working week at an end I find myself standing on the bank of the River Thames at Putney. It is a bright spring-like morning with the sunlight not quite powerful enough to remove the chill from the air: my breath still visible and my hands cold to touch. I shiver a little as I remove the paddle board from its bag, rolling it out and begin hand-pumping it with air knowing that once the board is fully inflated I will be suitably warmed through. Within 20-minutes I’m on the water paddling towards the centre of the river with the familiar soundtrack of traffic passing over the nearby Putney Bridge slowly fading away and being replaced by the softer tones of the paddle entering and travelling through the water: rhythmic in style and hypnotic in nature. Even this early on I could feel a calmness sweeping over my entire body.

I slowly get into the paddling routine: stretch forward, paddle in, pull back and repeat, looking straight ahead with my brain devoid of any chatter. As time progresses I become aware of other sounds around me including birds chirping and the water hitting the surrounding banks. Paddling upstream I pass many river islands and can sometimes be lucky enough to see the odd heron standing tall on their spindly legs or a seal popping its head above the waterline. In the shallower waters it is not unusual to see ducks, geese and swans along with their young in tow. Periodically, a tourist boat passes with the passengers smiling and laughing enjoying a unique view of the city: they point, wave and - if close by - try and strike up a conversation. The feeling of being not only noticed but also actually engaged with feels incredible.

From the river the city takes on a completely different look: green, peaceful and wild. The width of the river means that space is no longer a premium and even though it is shared with competitive rowing teams and tourist boats it feels incredibly spacious: a feeling not generally associated with a metropolis particularly a mega-city such as London. The pace is slow, the air feels cleaner and the water smells fresh even though the sediment gives it a brown appearance. It isn’t unusual to spend longer out on the water then originally planned – two hours can feel like 30-minutes. The SUP really helps to reset the stress levels and to get you in touch with what is really important: feeling happy and relaxed.

Monday morning arrives far too quickly and the busy life starts again. However, by finding that space, peace and tranquillity on the river - even just for an hour - can help you mentally cope with the stresses and rigmaroles of every day life.  In cities where green spaces are disappearing and being replaced by buildings and roads then head for the rivers – you will most probably find it there.

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