Every year we get a few enquires from people who want to SUP through London. It’s a great experience to do but its not for everyone. The tidal current through central London is always strong and there’s almost constant traffic with wash from boats. The river has embankments along its entire central London stretch with very few places to egress easily and safely. The wash bounces back from the embankments and comes back at paddlers from several angles. This combined with the wind can be very dangerous and difficult to handle on a stand up paddleboard.
There are many moorings and pontoons which can be deadly if the tide pushes you into them – or underneath them. We call this pinning. Being pinned on the tidal Thames can often resemble whitewater-like type pinning where the volume of water is so great that it makes it difficult to escape from and has a strong potential to lead to drowning.
Ten year ago the Port of London Authority banned all SUP downriver of Putney Pier. We challenged this and after a long negotiation and risk assessment process agreed a training programme (Thames Skills and Knowledge) which opened up possibilities to paddle through London down to Tower Bridge. This training is in two parts with TSK1 being very accessible to anyone with basic SUP experience allowing them to slowly and safely build their competence on tidal rivers. We started off delivering it from Kew Arches and when Covid started we developed the course tho deliver the theory part online.
TSK2 part is much more complex as it requires an extensive Tidal Thames experience below Putney Bridge with thorough understanding of risks and river hazards. We piloted a TSK2 course with a group of mainly our SUP coaches and ran it in 2016. We quickly realised that demand from people with sufficient Tidal Thames paddling experience to even take the course and benefit from it was limited. Most people who want to paddle the Thames source to sea, for example plan to do it as a one off experience, live out of London and are not willing or able to spend many hours building up experience on the Tideway. Generally the best way forward for one off or occasional trips through town is to complete your TSK1 and go through central London with a PLA recognised guide – a safety kayaker river guide with Local Knowledge Endorsement (LKE) training. There are a few good LKE guides whom we have worked with on numerous trips through town and who have helped others to achieve their ambition with a little training from us to get them prepared. Some find this requirement less than ideal as it makes their trip more expensive and adds another dimension to trip organisation. The benefits of this should be considered – it enables SUP paddlers to go through central London with a lot less training and practice and still be safe in a hazardous environment. The cost of a guide is spread between the participants who are all responsible for safety of each other.
Active360 has paused developing TSK2 as this has not been a priority – relatively few people have the sufficient experience to do it and the time and resources to do it thoroughly are considerable and would make the training a lot more expensive in comparison with TSK1.
We have run very successful trips through central London with TSK1 paddlers with an LKE guide. These were always highly rated giving many a memorable and enjoyable experience, butone theywere not looking to repeat often.
TSK 2 courses can only be viable to run if enough people get through TSK1 and go on to develop their experience on the Tideway to include the tidal stretch of the Thames between Putney and Chelsea. This means participants, after completing the course, teaming up with other TSK1s (with at least one having taken VHS radio training and carrying a handset) and planning trips together. It’s good to see people recently starting to come together online to do this and we hope it will result in a pool of more experienced people ready to take TSK2 training which would then make future courses viable.
The new TSK2 syllabus will be focussed on Passage Planning and hazard identification and avoidance and will include a substantial number of hours on water. It will only suit people with verygood prior experience and understanding of the Tideway. It will run in modules with the first one covering passage planning so that people can develop their understanding of the river and site specific knowledge. Hours would need to be logged covering weather and tide conditions on each trip and evidence of understanding these.
Some paddlers may disagree with the requirement of commercial LKE river guides and will want to paddle through town unguided. This will be possible once there is enough interest backed up with experience to get the TSK2 going and fully approved by PLA. It will also require a pool of people to have completed the training and the hours on water ( to be ready to complete the training a minimum of 20 hours logged and verified paddling between Putney and Chelsea Bridges with a passage plan for each trip).
Meanwhile there are few people with the right experience to develop and run this course so until that changes and new people step up to run the course, its unlikely that the Tideway in Central London will be easily accessible to independent SUP paddlers without a guide.
The situationmay be unacceptable to some. However, it’s important to remember that it took a lot of work to get SUP allowed on the Tideway in the first place. Having restrictions put in place again because of dangerous incidents or irresponsible paddling would ruin the enjoyment of the Tidal Thames for many SUP paddlers.
The PLA may choose to relax the rules following a review planned to start soon, but with a series of well publicised SUP drownings in recent years major changes in restrictions seems unlikely.
Many people have taken up SUP activity on the Thames with no training or prior watersports experiences which shows in their paddling skills when they are out on the river. Many of these own cheap supermarket / internet bargain SUPS some of which are unsuitable for the Tideway conditions. Relaxing rules may encourage more inexperienced paddlers with a limited understanding of risk and risk avoidance / reduction to put themselves in danger. This may lead to more incidents and potential for drownings.
The rules as they stand may seem to you to be onerous and unfair as the rules back 2013 did to us before our campaign to change them. In a democracy there’s always scope to campaign and lobby and try to change things as they stand and if you have the time and energy, the drive and tenacity to see it through and the connections to help you along the way, you may prevail one day. Always worth a try if you believe you have solid arguments and reasons for change.
There is a level of unfairness to the current rules as kayakers and canoeists can paddle through London without special training so that’s always a good basis for a campaign. However, there are some good reasons why kayaks (not the cheap inflatable ones!) but stable ones capable of being paddled, and turned at speed and self rescued, are generally safer craft on this stretch of river. Consider this: you are drifting along in a strong current, the wind has picked up and is quite a strong westerly wind (nothing unusual as that’s our prevailing wind). You are approaching a Thames Clipper stopped at a jetty in front of you to pick up passengers. Do you have the experience to work out if you have long enough to pass by before the clipper pilot pulls out ? Do you have the paddling ability to hold position on a SUP against wind and tide? It is much easier to hold position (paddle on the spot with tide and wind pushing you) in a sea kayak or a touring kayak. They are generally faster and more stable in choppy water. A good SUP paddler can do this but it takes skill, strength and practice. Most SUP paddlers don’t get opportunities to practice this enough on the benign waters and conditions they routinely paddle in.
My main point is don’t take the Thames in Central London lightly. If you want to SUP there – set it out as a longer term challenge, build up your experience and your skills, grow your competence with in depth understanding of the river and how changing weather and tidal conditions affect paddling, really master the site specific understanding by learning permanent ‘markers’ on the river, landmarks to orientate yourself, exits points which you can study from the shore (bikes and scooters are good for this). Work out the hazards. Plan a route through with options and contingencies. And put the hours into paddling on the more demanding (than upriver) stretch between Putney and Chelsea Bridges in different conditions. Once you’ve done that, consider getting TSK2 training so you are ready to paddle safely with other strong experienced paddlers you can rely on and don’t need to look after.
If you do hire a river guide with LKE training you will appreciate the many hours of river time they have clocked up to be able to pick the best lines, assess the changing risks dynamically, develop skills and look after their group. They are taking a great responsibility and it’s well worth paying their fee so you can enjoy your day and relax a bit in safe hands.
The door is open for anyone wanting to develop their own version of the TSK course to seek PLA approval. They will need lots of Tideway paddling experience, appropriate training and confidence to lead groups in London backed up by thorough understanding of the terrain and the risks of each section of river. Active360 has no monopoly on this training and the PLA always assumed other organisations would eventually jump through the hoops to take the training on.