There is nothing I enjoy more than feeling insignificant. Whether it’s looking up into outer space or being on top of a mountain, I love to feel the noise and nonsense of real life slip away as I realise how small we all are in the grand scheme of things.
This summer I discovered a new way to do this — paddleboarding.
As I drifted peacefully on the crystal-clear waters off the Pembrokeshire coast, seals bobbed their heads up to greet me and cormorants and seagulls took flight.
Pictured, Carol Vordeman on her paddleboard. Women have found paddleboarding lifechanging
I peered into the water to see enormous jellyfish blobbing around beneath me; and stopped to enjoy a spectacular sunset and a red moon rising. It really is the most gentle and serene pastime in the world.
I’m not the only one to think so, either. Normally about 100,000 paddleboards are sold in the UK each year but a recent report says there has been a 150 per cent increase in sales in the past month. It is said to be the world’s fastest-growing sport.
Paddleboarding is great for women of my age. I’m not in competition with anyone, I don’t need to prove I am fit or can go faster or stronger than others. I fall in all the time, but that’s OK. I am living in my wetsuit trousers and can happily spend hours on the boards with my friends.
This week alone we managed to cover 15 miles of water and although my shoulders are aching as a result, it has been wonderful.
I’ve been out on the sea and now I want to try my board on the river. When friends come to visit, I’m going to make sure they have their paddleboards with them, as that’s where you’re going to find me —messing around on the water.
Here, four other women tell JILL FOSTER what paddleboarding has meant to them…
BOARDING EASED AWAY MY STRESS
Carole Loftus, 41, is an events manager. Single, she lives near Reading. Carole says:
There is nothing more relaxing than mooching down the river on my paddleboard, watching the birds and the wildlife and enjoying the views. My mind can only focus on the gentle rhythm of the paddles and it’s almost hypnotic. My mood is instantly lifted and I feel calmer and at peace.
I’m so glad I discovered paddleboarding last year. The lockdowns were tough on everyone but for people like me, living on their own, the isolation was particularly difficult. I’m such a sociable person normally. I love meeting new people and have so many amazing friends.
Carole Loftus, 41, is an events manager. Single, she lives near Reading
Suddenly being on my own for weeks on end was hard mentally. My parents live nearby but I could only see them at a distance — and one of my best friends lives miles away in Kent. My goddaughter was born in December 2019 and I’ve only cuddled her once. I became anxious and felt incredibly low.
I’ve always been a water-baby. I love swimming, kayaking and wakeboarding — like waterskiing, you’re towed by a powerboat.
Then one day last summer, when the first lockdown was easing, I was visiting Caversham Lakes near my house and I saw people paddleboarding. It looked so calm and such fun, I thought I’d have a go. I’d tried it before once or twice but never really mastered it.
It’s a wonderful way to relax but it’s also quite challenging.
At first I struggled with balancing — it helps to have strong core muscles — and my legs would shake the whole time.
The great thing about paddleboarding is that if you tire or lose your balance, you can sit down and use the board like a canoe. People travel along with their kids or their dogs on the front of their boards.
Now I absolutely love it. I’ve bought my own board for £270 and lots of friends are asking if they can join me because it’s such fun.
My job keeps me tied to a desk for hours on end, so in the warmer weather it’s great to be able to go out on the Thames or the lakes for a few hours to relax.
I try to get out at least once a week and in warmer weather, I go on several evenings after work.
I can meet up with other paddleboarders and sometimes we mooch along the river, stopping in the backwaters for a bite to eat.
Paddleboarding has helped me no end with my anxiety and depression over the past year. I’d recommend it to anyone.
THE ANSWER TO MENOPAUSE BLUES
Sarah Agar-Brennan, 47, is founder of the Maple Agency, a business development agency. She lives in Leeds with husband Carl, 47, a senior sales manager, and their children Ellie, 20, and Daniel, 18. Sarah says:
My mental health has been slightly fragile since the death of Ellie’s twin brother Cody six days after their birth. An inquest found that the consultant was inexperienced at delivering twins and Cody got stuck in the birth canal for 20 minutes. While they fought to get him out, he was starved of oxygen and although they resuscitated him, he had a seizure and died just under a week later.
We were heartbroken but I found techniques to manage my grief and thought I was in a good place.
Sarah Agar-Brennan, 47, is founder of the Maple Agency, a business development agency
But when I reached my early 40s I started to feel very low, as if a cloud had come down around me. I was questioning myself in a way I’d never done before; and things that had been good in the past ceased to feel good.
My children were older, so perhaps I had more time to myself to reflect on Cody’s death and I grieved a lot for him. I started getting severe migraines, too.
I put up with it for three years until I saw a therapist who specialises in women’s hormones, who identified that I was going through perimenopause. I realised I needed to make some changes, slow down and have a better work-life balance.
In summer 2020, during lockdown, I’d spotted a paddleboarder on the River Wharfe while on a walk and thought how wonderful it must be simply to ‘go with the flow’ of the river.
I really wanted to try it, so I saved up and bought a secondhand board for £750 before I’d even tried it. I figured that if I bought a decent board, I could always sell it on for a similar price if I didn’t enjoy it.
I said to my husband ‘I need to do this!’ and he rolled his eyes. I’m always trying new sports, so he thought this was just a fad.
But from the very first moment I went out on the water, during a camping holiday in Wales, I felt ‘healed’ somehow. All the feelings of anxiety melted away.
I felt really ‘at one’ and was focusing on staying upright and developing a rhythm, so nothing else could come into my head.
The water dictates how fast or slow you go, so I literally was ‘going with the flow’. I had never done paddleboarding before but I simply couldn’t get a lesson — they were fully booked. I have since found out that lessons help a lot, and I am taking them with a local guy now as I need a better technique when the water is faster.
During that holiday I would get up really early and watch the sunrise from my paddleboard on the lake. It was so secluded and quiet and I had a real sense of inner peace. Now I even practise yoga moves on top of the board. The depression I had been experiencing lifted.
It has helped with perimenopause in a wider way, too, as the water keeps me cool. But the main improvement has been to my nervous system — it calms my mind, I am peaceful and that, in turn, helps me sleep and function in all aspects of my life.
My husband comes paddleboarding on the river with me now and we have been scoping out the coast for new places to visit.
We are at the point where soon both our children will have left the nest and we’ll be together alone for the first time in a long while. I love him dearly but we have to find something to do together as a couple that we both enjoy and look towards the next chapter in our lives. It is breathing fresh air into me and giving me hope.
HELPED ME THROUGH A CANCER BATTLE
Pictured, Melody Smith on the Basingstoke canal with her paddling companions Jake and Bailey
Melody Smith, 47, works for the ambulance service. She lives in Blackwater, Surrey, and has a grown-up daughter, Maxine. Melody says:
Paddleboarding has helped me rediscover myself after a very difficult couple of years. It has given me the confidence to try new things and helped me refocus my life.
In 2019, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45. It was such a shock. Life had been ticking along nicely and suddenly it imploded.
I underwent chemotherapy, then a lumpectomy, then radiotherapy. I had to take time off work and that had an huge financial impact. The stress of it all broke down my relationship of five years — and then we were in the middle of the pandemic and I had to shield because my immunity was compromised. Even though I’ve always been someone who finds the upsides of a situation, it has not been easy.
During my treatment, I tried to surround myself with positive people, which really helped my mental health. But when the treatment ended and I didn’t have the reassurance of weekly monitoring, I started to struggle.
My right side was numb from the surgery and treatment and I wanted to find some kind of gentle exercise that might help.
I also wanted something that could be a new hobby, a new passion. I have always loved nature and being outside.
My son-in-law had bought my daughter Maxine a paddleboard and when lockdown eased a little, I asked if I could use it and sought out a quiet beach.
We went as a family and I really thought I’d never be able to get my balance on the board. But what did it matter? I’d give it a go.
I kept falling off, of course. But eventually I was able to stand for ten seconds, then 20. And when I finally started paddling, I was overwhelmed by this incredible feeling. It was like a meditative Zen state, so calm. The sea was like mottled glass, a lovely calm day. I was absolutely hooked.
Now I go as often as I can, especially when the weather is warmer. I’ll go on canals, rivers or lakes but I’m more of a sea-baby. It’s such a wonderful stress-reliever.
I haven’t yet joined a club but I’ve met some wonderful people through boarding.
As I recently started a new job, I haven’t been out for a while and I’ve really missed it. It’s like an addiction, gnawing away at you. I’m looking forward to sunny days when I can spend more time on the sea.
IT RESTORED MY SELF-CONFIDENCE
Adya Misra, 34, is a medical editor. She lives with partner Sorren Hanvey, 35, a lecturer, on the Wirral. Adya says:
When my partner and I moved to Liverpool a couple of years ago because he had been offered a fantastic job, I had no friends or family here. Moving cities in your 30s is weird and daunting and I still can’t believe I did it.
I had joined a kayaking club, as I had been kayaking for years — but my confidence had been badly knocked in the summer of 2019 by a horrible experience on a kayaking coaching course.
Adya Misra, 34, is a medical editor. She lives with partner Sorren Hanvey, 35, a lecturer, on the Wirral
We had been out on the water and the coach said some cruel things, telling me I would never progress and that I should reconsider even completing the rest of the course. I came home and said to my partner that I was never kayaking again.
We were living by the dockside and I’d noticed some beautiful pictures on social media of people paddleboarding on the water. So in September 2019 I decided to take the plunge and try paddleboarding in the docks.
Standing up on a paddleboard on the water as daylight was fading was terrifying at first but I loved the different vantage point. The women in the group were all so supportive and I felt my confidence slowly returning.
Since then, I have made so many lovely friends through my new hobby. I bought my own paddleboard in February 2020 which I keep in the car at all times, just in case the urge takes me to go out on the water.
I’m lucky to live in an area surrounded by water because I can go from my house and reach it within minutes, then my mind is totally in the moment as I float across the surface. I love seeing the cormorants and oystercatchers up close.
I love sunny, calm days but paddling on rainy days, as long as it’s safe, is great for clearing my head. You can’t be bothered by phone calls and emails and you’re at one with nature. It’s wonderful.