STOP PRESS! Making History: The Big Ben Challenge - Magazine Article

22 November 2017

"The tide is high as first light comes up over the river Thames.  The river is already a bustle with the watermen of today, a hundred years of heritage can be felt in the air..."

Exciting to have a really great article about our Big Ben Challenge published in Autumn/Fall issue of The Paddler magazine; teasing us with more news on the 2018 event to follow shortly. 

The tide is high as first light comes up over the riverThames.The river is already a bustle with the watermen of today, a hundred years of heritage can be felt in the air as countless numbers of rowing club athletes set about their Saturday morning ritual of training. There’s a real feel of competitive sportsmanship about the place as boats and skulls move up and down the river, coaches and cox-men calling out with strict voices.TheThames is a river that has always bought life to the city of London, ebbing and flowing, giving this great city its life blood to thrive. It has many traditions and sports come and go, but FatherThames can now add to its sporting history stand up paddling (SUP).

Walking on water

The sport of SUP has become more and more popular and accessible over the last few years, with many clubs springing up around the country giving the opportunity to anyone who takes the challenge. Many have described it like walking on water and as a great form of exercise, it’s understandable that the growth has been rapid. Keen competitors unload their SUP boards, integrating into an already busy riverside sprawling with rowing craft and weekenders up early to soak up the atmosphere of this exciting place. SUP’ers as they are affectionately known, know something special is happening here. In only its 2nd year, having originally piloted in 2016, the London river authorities have given permission for the Big Ben Challenge to paddle and race 10km and 20km from Putney Bridge to Big Ben, returning back on their challenge in front of the houses of parliament at Westminster, and then heading back with the turn of tide.This is something up until now that was considered too dangerous to under take due to the strong currents and busy river traffic. The challenge has a competitive field of paddlers ready to take on the fast pace, with great kudos involved, coupled with a handsome prize purse, many have travelled from far and wide to participate.Above all, there’s an underlying feel that all here are privileged and excited about the experience.

London’s iconic bridges On busy streets running along theThames, bystanders crowd around the start line, looking on with intrigue at the spectacle of this new and fast growing sport.The challenge starts with great anticipation at the starting whistle as the 10km “challenge SUP’ers’’ command the power of theThames’ full flow aiding them on their swift departure, a journey which will take in many of the London’s iconic bridges and sights.  The 20km racers soon follow suit with an explosive start showing the skill and stamina of both male and female paddlers competing side by side, quickly flying off out of view, soon passing under Putney bridge. The momentum of the water’s fast flow makes for an exhilarating paddle as the SUP’ers seek out its fastest current. Passing under bridge after bridge, paddlers witness multiple vistas of this cities vast and varied landscape, heritage and modernism thriving side by side. Londoners going about their business stop to cheer and encourage the paddlers as they powerfully glide by.

UK’s seat of power The paddlers soon come alongside the UK’s seat of power, the magnificent Houses of Parliament. With the ever watchful face of Big Ben signalling to one and all the turning point barge, the paddlers work harder than ever to compete against the swirling waters as theThames tide starts to turn.The SUP’ers crossing the river have to use all their skills to command the balance of their boards. Seeing the waters gradually rising lifts the spirits of the now tiring competitors on he return paddle back to the start. On their journey new sights catch their attention, helping to combat the feeling of fatigue, as parks, grand buildings, heliports and boats slip by with every paddle stroke. Each paddler concludes the journey passing under the last bridge at Putney. Smiles radiate as they give their last efforts to cross the finish line of their personal journey with great gusto.

Stories of the experience

Finishing paddlers wade out of the waters to cheers and claps from bystanders, friends and loved ones.Waiting on the water’s edge, paddlers who have finished, encourage the achievements of all who have partaken in this epic journey. Many stories of the experience are shared right there and then on the banks with hearty laughing, closely followed by groans as stiff and sore muscles carry boards off the shoreline The festival feeling rose in the air as SUP’ers joined the frivolities and music on the riverside at the Foreshore Festival event. Crowds gathered as the organisers took great pride in announcing the achievements of the SUP paddlers at the prize giving, with all involved cheering and showing that they truly enjoyed the privilege of taking part. As the SUP’ers slowly started to disperse and the tide fully returned, nobody was left in any doubt that this event would be back too. Big Ben had indeed seen all paddlers achieve their individual goals.The clock will chime at midnight on NewYear’s Eve, signalling to all that 2018 will bring a fresh challenge for all SUP’ers to participate at, with friends new and old, once again enjoying this epic paddle.

Story: Paul Hyman Photos: Paul Hyman andAllistair Swinsco

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