The sun is breaking through the clouds as we reach Drake’s Island, which is just as well as this is the moment I choose to fall in the water. Having ridden our paddle boards from Plymouth’s Royal William Yard, I’d dodged ferries and stayed on my feet through the chop. A lapse of concentration and – splash. That’s me walking home wet then.
“Well, there’s always one who falls in, and it wasn’t going to be either of us”, says Harry, my guide from South West SUP. The other guy is Will, the owner of the company – so yeah – he has a point.
Stand up paddle boarding has gone from niche hobby to one of the world’s fastest growing water sports. Here in Plymouth, Devon’s largest city, you’ll see paddle boards, or SUPs, out on the sound pretty much any time the weather is half decent. Admittedly, those breaks in the maritime weather can be unpredictable, but when the sun shines, this might be one of the best places to go paddle boarding in the UK. Hear me out here!
Long regarded as an unfashionable destination where you only end up if you’re in the navy (or you got on the wrong train at London Paddington), Plymouth has been working hard to re-brand itself. From it’s hey day waving goodbye to the Pilgrim Fathers of America, and also as one of Europe’s biggest naval ports, Plymouth has seen a steady decline.
In 2003 David Mackay was bought in to change Plymouth’s destiny with his ‘Vision for Plymouth’. Mackay had been instrumental in changing Barcelona from a run down Mediterranean port to one of the world’s coolest cities. Things were looking bright.
Admittedly becoming ‘Britain’s Ocean City’ has been a slow process. Plymouth hasn’t always made the sea accessible to everyone, normally requiring chartering a yacht or taking one of the ferry rides across the sound. But, stand up paddle boarding seems to have changed the landscape. A sport that is affordable and easy to master means that anyone can go paddle boarding from almost anywhere on the city’s seafront.
If you’ve never been to Plymouth you might be surprised to learn that it’s actually quite stunning. Well, the view from the Hoe is. Stop giggling at the back.
When facing the sea, the endless opportunity for exploring the landscape with a stand up paddle board becomes apparent. Now, this is where my bold claim about the best paddle boarding in the UK comes in…
South West SUP are based in the renovated Royal William Yard, a former naval depot close to the city centre. The granite buildings have become a favourite haunt of the locals, with chain restaurants, boutique hotels, working spaces and a ferry connecting the area to other parts of the city.
My guide, Harry, originally from Essex, has a real passion for the city. “I don’t think I could live anywhere else in the UK now”, he says as we set off from the launch point. “I can go paddle boarding for breakfast, take a walk on Dartmoor for lunch and then go and catch some surf in the evening.” He does have a point.
From a paddle boarding stand point (excuse the pun), there is plenty to do. South West SUP’s location makes it a perfect spot to head to Drake’s Island, which is what we’re doing today. Currently uninhabited, the island is home to a ruined refuelling station and a pier which has seen better days. There are plans to turn it into a luxury retreat with a spa – not dissimilar to nearby Burgh Island. (Another good SUP spot a half hour drive down the road.)
Harry explains the options, “If the tide is a bit too strong we can coast hop along to Plymouth Hoe, or if everyone is up for it we can paddle over to Mount Edgcumbe. And, when the fireworks championships are on, we get lots of requests for late night SUP tours.”
Mount Edgcumbe, on the Cornwall side of the river, is a country park which is home to sheltered beaches and a National Trust stately home. The perfect spot to step ashore and refuel with a cream tea or even a beer from the pub looking back at the city.
But what about when the weather is, ahem, crap? I ask Harry… Plymouth is, after all, known for it’s changeable climate even in the summer.
“Actually”, says Harry, “There’s lots of options… If the sea is too choppy we have some good inland options too There is a great spot on the edge of Dartmoor, it’s beautiful and it involves a trip to a pub!”
So you can go stand up paddle boarding in Plymouth all year round? Apparently, yes you can! Whether or not you would want to in the depths of January is a whole other discussion.
“In the summer though, there is so much to see by SUP around here. And we’re starting to see more tourists coming here looking for experiences like this”, he adds. As the sun comes out, and I start to dry off slightly, I totally see his point. Paddle boarding in Plymouth might not sound like a bucket list activity, but if you’re in town (or looking for a fun UK weekender) I can highly recommend it.
Need an excuse to head to Plymouth? Enjoy stand up paddle boarding in Plymouth for the UK Fireworks Championships, held every August in the city.
Plymouth also hosts the Fastnet Race, Ocean City Sounds, Barbican Jazz Festival and Armed Forces Day. Check out the Whats On guide for the best time to visit the city and explore with a SUP.
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