Alexi Duggins is at your mercy: send him to a new weird London experience every week and he’ll do it. This week: paddleboarding on the Thames
There’s paddleboarding and then there’s paddleboarding. Rihanna, Jennifer Aniston and R-Patz might merrily paddle giant surfboards during yacht-infested internments in sun-kissed holiday resorts. But does Rihanna have to worry about facial splashdown with liquid effluent? Nope. She has it easy.
That’s because Rihanna doesn’t paddleboard in the Thames. Charming as our river is from a distance, up close it’s coffee-coloured glop. To serve it as a beverage in its pre-treatment state, one suspects you’d first have to hack it into quivering, gelatinous chunks and extricate lurking flakes of bog roll. Treat it as a swimming pool and, as David Walliams discovered, gastroenteritis awaits. So when I get this week’s challenge, I’m not at ease.
‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,’ says Paul Hyman of Active360, as he kits me out in a wetsuit and life jacket at Chiswick Pier. ‘We checked Thames Water’s pollution alerts. There won’t be a problem with sewage today.’
Today? ‘Yeah, the sewers do overflow into the river, but only after heavy rain. Most of the time it’s fine.’ Most of the time? I do not want to fall in.
‘It’s your first time, so you’ll probably overbalance,’ Paul explains as I’m shown to an oversized surfboard, given an oar and taught to propel myself by standing and using the oar to push the water away on alternate sides of the board. ‘If you start to feel unsteady on your feet, just drop to your knees and you shouldn’t fall in.’
‘Shouldn’t’? Not ‘won’t’?
‘Just drop to your knees,’ he says. Fortunately, this advice proves unnecessary at first. Once I stop relying on my feeble biceps and put my body into the oar-stroke, Chiswick, Barnes, Hammersmith and Putney bridges glide overhead as we chatter merrily and push our way through serene water. The sun lounges behind clouds, the weather is warm and the river laps refreshingly over our tootsies. It is, frankly, lovely.
Until we pass Putney Bridge and start to encounter large boats, that is. As they slice through the water, an angry surge roils in their wake, cappuccino-ing the river into wobbly treachery. ‘Make sure you’re paddling really hard when the wash hits you!’ yells one paddleboarder. It’s no use. My knees buckle and I plunge towards the water. Miraculously, I land on the board.
As we near central London, the boats get bigger and my board shoots up and down so violently it’s like sharing a seesaw with Rik Waller. But Paul’s advice proves spot-on and not once do I end up in the water. By the time we reach Battersea Power Station I’m so relaxed about the whole thing, I lie down and use my arms to paddle. After all, these guys do this every week and they’re fine.
‘I only know one person who’s ever caught a bug that made them sick,’ says Paul. ‘And that was three years ago.’ Sick? Oh boy. I head home in fear. I spend the evening waiting for the illness to hit and then… nothing happens. My fear of a filthy Thames is all water under the bridge: I’m a confirmed paddleboarding convert. Look out for me looking fly in Rihanna’s next music video.
Fancy giving it a go yourself? Visit Active360’s site.
Suggest next week’s task at @alexiduggins.