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The Thames Challenge PART 1

Jenny Buckley |

A True UK Paddle Adventure

If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be writing a blog post about how to undertake a long-distance paddle adventure of over 320km, I’d have laughed and told you that you must be joking as I’d just had heart surgery. Nevertheless, here I am having just completed the SUP Thames Challenge for a teenage mental health charity and paddled over 200 miles in 9 days.

In this blog post, I am going to share with you some of my observations about the SUP Thames Challenge, things to consider in the run-up and what I learnt. As the blog title dictates, we will break this down into two parts with the first following below:

Stage 1 – Preparation Is Key!

While the phrase ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is perhaps a little defeatist, good planning will indeed save a lot of stress during your event. So from the very start, you should be giving yourself a minimum of 6 months of planning time before the projected start date of your challenge. It’ll surprise you just how fast this period will trickle away, and you don’t want it to be a mad rush 3 days before departure.

Your first job (in my opinion) is to research and apply for any licenses you may require to paddle in some regions of your trip. There may be areas in which paddleboarding is not permitted even by license (as we discovered in Central London as anywhere East of Tower Bridge is a strict no go area for SUPS). But don’t let this dishearten you, as you can usually find an alternative. For us, it meant diverting from the main river at Brentford and navigating the canals of Central London (an experience in itself) and finishing in front of Canary Wharf, Limehouse basin.

The main point here is to be sure that you have spoken to the correct people. Tidal rivers will usually have a port authority as you reach closer to the sea who take control of water operations. Whereas paddling higher upriver and on canals, means you’ll need to be conversing with the River & Canal Trust and informing the Environment Agency of your plans. Find out from one or the other where their jurisdiction ends, and the other takes operational control. They’ll undoubtedly have loads of useful information to help you plan your trip.

Break The Challenge Up Into Achievable Chunks

Your next focus should be planning the route into achievable distances while taking into consideration accommodation options along the route. Depending on your paddle ability, I found 40km a day to be the upper limit of comfortable distance (though this offers little wiggle room for unknown factors like headwinds etc.). If you are paddling for charity, it’s always worth approaching hotels etc., for sponsorship and support. Do this early. Having a clear idea of accommodation along the route will take an enormous amount of stress away during the trip. Also giving you a clear daily target to reach.

The worst thing would be to plan your accommodation poorly, ending up with a 50km paddle day right at the end of your trip when you’re already tired. Try to give yourself a shorter paddle on the final day if you can by doing longer distances at the start of the challenge.

If you are planning on camping, be aware that wild camping in most areas of mainland England is prohibited, and you can be fined heavily if caught. When planning a charity event, you MUST consider this as The Environment Agency will want to see evidence that all is above board and your plans are in order. Approach campsites along your route for support. There are so many options open to you, including farms, campsites, Airbnb’s, boats, hotels, pubs (even people’s gardens). Just make sure you have sought the right permissions. Scotland and Wales have different rules on wild camping and do permit it in many areas but be sure to check.

Pay particular attention to parking along your route. You may need to leave cars at endpoints/start points, etc., and you will need them to be within walking distance of the river. This can be a massive pain at the end of a 40km day if you haven’t considered it! Also, consider how you will feel if you have to drive a long way upon completing a long day of paddling.

Don’t Forget About Those Locks!

Finally, consider locks and start times. On many UK rivers (especially large ones), flow is managed by locks and weirs as soon as the water becomes deep enough. Under current rules, Paddleboards are not permitted to pass through locks and must portage (walk) around. Portages are not always obvious and can be a fairly long walk, so keep this in mind. How will you transport yourself and all of your kit (especially if camping and carrying your kit) across a lock? Depending on how many of you are undertaking the challenge, it may require several trips to get you across. On a 40km stretch, you could easily encounter 15 of these, so do not underestimate how much time and energy it may take. On a paddle as long as this, it won’t be possible to scope out every lock between you and the finish, but if you make a generic portage plan, it will make your life a lot easier!

With the above in mind, give yourself plenty of time to complete your daily distance. Aside from locks, if you are starting from the source of a river, you may be battling fallen trees and shallow water, along with headwinds and any strong weather condition. The last thing you want to do is to be starting late and racing the setting sun to your endpoint. Most people would just stop paddling when it gets dark, but you may not have that luxury, so start early.

Part 2…

In part 2 of this blog, we’ll discuss things like clothing, equipment, hydration and fuelling, along with paddle techniques, physical training and mental coping mechanisms for endurance paddling.

I hope this helps if you’re planning a long paddle or perhaps even inspires you to plan one. If there is one thing I loved about the challenge, it was the true sense of exploration from seeing a river at its peaceful beginning and travelling through so many different landscapes and communities to end with such a contrast of vibrancy and bustle—a true UK River adventure.