Updated: Jun 2, 2020
It’s August 2017, the Met office has just issued an amber weather warning. I'm soaking wet on a paddleboard in the middle of the Thames. I’ve not eaten hot food in 36 hours, but I’m loving every minute of it (Despite the way I look in the picture).
I’d long been contacting Guinness with ideas for records. It was a way of taking my mind off work, off research, or just off anything. My problem had always been that Guinness rejected any of the ideas that I felt hit the sweet spot of respectable and achievable, but would always accept the sublime (fastest paddleboard across the Atlantic), or the ridiculous (fastest marathon in Lederhosen). Either way, I never ended up committing to an attempt.
My attempts at records away from Guinness’ sphere of influence had been fun, but always labelled with enough caveats to make them feel more like participation badges rather than achievements. How about 'First solo crossing of the Great Glen Way on foot, in one day', or 'Fastest UK resident in the Swedish cross-country ice-skating marathon -Vikingarannet?. However, in January 2017, Guinness accepted a record request that would change it all.
It’s autumn 2016 and I’ve just sent Guinness a request to ratify a record for ‘Fastest paddleboard down the Thames’. There were records for canoeing and rowing down the Thames, so why not have a paddleboard one? What’s more it didn’t look like anyone had actually set one yet, so an idyllic trip through arcadian England, and a World Record awaited. It was mid-January 2017 when Guinness accepted this as a valid, attemptable record, and sent me a long list of guidelines that must be adhered to. Notably, they were only going to ratify a record on the non-tidal Thames. Rather handily, this made all of my organisation much easier, as I wouldn’t have to plan a passage through central London and on to the open sea! The first drawback to the entire arrangement was that, despite having been a kayaker for years, and having been on numerous paddle and camp trips, I’d only ever been on a paddleboard twice at this stage. The second, was that I didn’t have a paddleboard.
Winter rumbled on with its usual mix of milestones, Superbowl, Six Nations, FA Cup rounds, and then all of sudden it was May, and I really needed to start training, for that, I needed a board. The one previous commercial paddleboarding trip I had been on was handily based at a company called Active360, based not far from my home near Kew Bridge. After getting over the embarrassment of having to contact someone and say, ‘I’m going to set a paddleboard world record... no I haven’t done it much before... yes, I would love to borrow as much kit as possible.’ Courage plucked up; I sent the email to the generic Info@... email on their website. To be honest, I didn’t expect much, and had already started to look into other options, when lo and behold, I received a message from the company’s director, Paul Hyman saying ‘sure, give me a call and we’ll sort something out’. After a quick chat he’d lent me a board for some training sessions, and even secured me a brand-new expedition level Billboard SUP for the trip itself. Suddenly this all looked like it was going to be rather easy!
My spring of training sessions went well. Put upon friends, or confused Uber drivers were asked to drop me at random points on the Thames whilst my wife waited for me to paddle back to the end of our road (handily at the time we only lived 200 yards from the river). I found my comfortable paddle speed was around 4mph, more than enough to get me to my target of 2.5 days for the 125-mile journey. The thing I hadn’t counted on though was the Thames’s quaint, idyllic, and somewhat idiosyncratic locks. It turns out that that the qualities that lend themselves to the charming idea of an English rural idyll are the same ones that mean no two locks, or indeed the portage route around them are the same. I’m sure this brings great delight to the legions of walkers who descend the Thames path every year, but it does not bring great joy to the paddler carrying two days’ worth of food and a 14ft board through 44 different locks.
Training over, I had planned to start the journey in July 2017, but having lived in Scotland for 10 years, my knowledge of the Great English Summer was slightly lacking, and only a late stage did I realise that I’d planned to travel right through the middle of a fairly important rowing regatta right in the middle of Henley. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Faux-pas averted I decided to move the trip back to mid-August, the UK is relatively empty at that time of year, but I did leave myself open to river traffic from those enjoying a staycation.
On Monday 7th of August my ever-willing parents drove me to the Bridge House Campsite start point at Lechlade-upon-Thames, via a vital supplies drop-off at a campsite just below Abingdon that was to be stopping point on night one. They watched me put up a flimsy tent, have a little practice paddle, surreptitiously snuck me some Dairy Milk and a bottle of Coke and were on their way. Eight months of preparation, and a lifetime of saying ‘I’ll have Guinness World Record one day’ had all led to this point. Now all I needed to do was get into the tent and prepare myself for the 5am start. I knew the journey ahead would be interesting, but had I known how interesting, I might have just stayed in the tent.
Come back next week for the journey itself!