By Jo Moseley.
“Now as I near 50, I still love to surf and that’s because it makes me feel like the person I should be” Pam Burridge, Australian 1990 World Champion Surfer (Quote from Coastalwatch)
One of the privileges of my blog, HealthyHappy50.com, is sharing those moments when the women I write about express the joy, confidence and strength their sport gives them. Whether it is swimming the Channel, cycling up the highest mountain they’ve attempted or performing a ballet routine in their fifties, it is an honour to bring their stories to the world.
It is that joy and confidence that I was looking for when I decided to start Stand Up Paddleboarding for the first time in autumn of 2016.
After injuring my knee a few months before, I started a new personal challenge to rebuild my strength in September. I set myself a goal to exercise for at least 30 minutes in the fresh air every day for a year. Running, walking, cycling and rowing on the erg were all part of my plan but I was looking for something new that I could do on the water.
Lots of reports about the benefits of paddleboarding for core strength and balance, as well as being an excellent low impact cardio workout, had convinced me that this could be just the new sport I was looking for.
There was also a more emotional pull that went beyond the physical benefits of SUP. I have always loved being outside and in particular, being by or on the sea. It is a love nurtured by my father, a diver, sailor and more recently, an onshore RNLI volunteer.
As a little girl, I loved throwing myself into the waves of the North Sea, playing on the beach and climbing up the cliff tops. I loved that feeling of confidently moving about in the outdoors, coming home with sand between my toes or scuffed, muddy knees.
In the 70s, I was called a tomboy. Thankfully today I would simply have been seen as a girl who liked sport. But then the 1970s were a different time.
Unfortunately, like many girls, this joy and confidence was soon squashed during my secondary school PE lessons. Whilst lots of girls loved hockey and netball, I didn’t. I believed there was no place for me in school sport. My overriding memory was simply never feeling good enough – not skilled, fast, competitive enough. I still feel faintly sick at the thought of hurdles.
I decided I wasn’t sporty after all. This was the story I told myself, which stayed with me for decades to come, despite evidence to the contrary in my 20s. I spent a month kayaking in Alaska and two weeks hiking the Appalachian Trail. At university, I learned to sub-aqua dive in the cold Scottish waters and went on to teach others to enjoy the same wonderful underwater experience. At a push, I thought of myself as a little bit outdoorsy, but sporty? No, that was for girls and women who understood the rules, had team kits, won races and scored goals.
As I settled into the adult world of work, marriage and family, exercise became practically non-existent in my life for decades. How many wonderful experiences did I miss out on based on this very narrow 1970s & 1980s understanding of sporty?
But, as we know, life has a wonderful way of presenting us with opportunities again and again until we learn the lessons we need to know. Bursting into tears in the biscuit aisle of our local supermarket with my boys in tow in 2013 was to be the start of this lesson once again.
I was a frazzled, single, working Mum. Looking back, I realise, I was also in the early stages of the perimenopause. I was permanently anxious and barely got a full night’s sleep. Standing by the chocolate Hob Nobs I sobbed to my bewildered sons that it was all too much and I simply couldn’t cope.
A few days later, after recounting the story to a friend, she suggested exercise might help me sleep and lent me an old indoor rowing machine that was otherwise going to the tip. Within a couple of weeks I was sleeping and my anxiety levels improved.
Shortly before Christmas of 2013, my Mum sadly died of Lymphoma and I found myself falling into a hole of grief and loss. To my own amazement, I returned time and again to the rowing machine, grateful for the peace and comfort exercise offered me physically and emotionally.
In spring 2014 I embarked upon an indoor rowing challenge to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support in my mother’s memory. A million metres across 8 months and a marathon row completed shortly before my 50th birthday, we raised over £10,000.
Hmm, I pondered, maybe I am sporty after all?
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time”
T S Eliot
The idea of returning to the water with this renewed sense of self-confidence was exhilarating. Once I had decided upon paddleboarding, I booked a safari in the Lake District for my first lesson.
So what is SUP or paddleboarding? SUP is very simply standing on a surfing-style board and using a long paddle to move through the water – be it the sea, canal, lake or river. According to Supworldmag.com, although there is evidence it is has been practised for thousand of years around the world, it is relatively new in its modern day form, gaining popularity from about 2004 onwards in the States. It came to the UK about 8 – 10 years ago and is our fastest growing watersports. It is not difficult to see why.
As a watersport, it is both simple and accessible. With just a couple of hours of technical & safety instruction, you start to feel confident on the water. At the same time, it offers all sorts of different experiences – eg SUP yoga, touring, endurance, surf and whitewater – and room for improvement and new skills. Unlike the surfing we are most used to seeing, you don’t need to be by the sea to enjoy it, nor do you need years of practice or the patience to wait for the perfect wave.
If surfing is cool, SUP is warm. Warm, welcoming, inclusive, fun. Everyone I have met, either SUP fans online or people I stop to talk to on the beach, is friendly and encouraging. Its strength, and I believe its longevity, lies in its diversity – everyone is welcome.
According to Kate Ingham, joint founder of SUP Bristol, who teaches paddleboarding to newcomers and regulars in Bristol Harbour, SUP is very popular amongst women. A group of her regular clients had developed so much more confidence they asked to go on a longer expedition to the coast. SUP is a sport that makes us feel brave and to bring that sense of bravery and confidence to other sports and adventures.
From my own experience especially on the North Sea, I couldn’t agree more with Kate. There is something hugely powerful about standing on the board (as opposed to sitting in a canoe or kayak) and looking out to the horizon. Think Professor Amy Cuddy’s Wonder Woman pose on water, except you are holding a paddle too!
Paddling out with my teenage son on one of our first mini seagoing adventures we were greeted by an inquisitive seal. There were no other distractions, no demands other than being there and very much in the moment. No article on mindfulness or meditation app has come close to that feeling. We were absolutely in the flow – physically, emotionally and mentally.
On Boxing Day 2016, my 52nd birthday, the sun shone and the North Sea looked inviting. With my new board, a present from everyone in the family for Christmas, birthday and Mother’s Day for the next several years (!), I was fortunate enough to spend some time paddleboarding off the Yorkshire coastline.
Although everything was perfectly safe and the bay is sheltered, it was a tad windier than I expected. I felt as if I had to work harder to keep the board from being pushed along the beach. As I came close to the shoreline a wave hit me from behind and I went tumbling into the sea. I stood up and was hit from behind again. Finally I dragged myself and my board back out and away from the breaking waves. My boys stood on the beach standing guarding, shaking their heads at my rookie errors.
I had seaweed in my hair, a very cold nose, a bruise that would eventually form from where I hit a rock. Everything about it felt both very familiar and very new.
I thought of Pam Burridge’s quote – “It makes me feel like the person I should be”. Our skills and experience are at opposite ends of the surfing spectrum but she summed it up perfectly. I was back in the place where I felt happy and strong.
And this time, the only person to decide if I am sporty or not, is me.