It should come as no surprise that the sportscotland National Centre which specialises in water sports is based on an island. If you’re already an enthusiast of water-based activities you can make your way to Cumbrae by whatever means floats your boat, but as novice adventurers my husband, daughter, and I – and our bikes – take the half-hourly ferry from Largs. No seasickness tablets are required as our journey is across flat calm sea with the sun shining and it’s just 10 minutes before we’re back on dry land on Cumbrae. The water sports centre – which offers comfortable residential accommodation and hearty meals for participants on a variety of courses – is just a minute’s walk from the slipway.
Glenmore Lodge near Aviemore (another of the three sportscotland National Centres) and Cumbrae have joined forces to offer a wider variety of paddle sports courses. We are here to try stand up paddleboarding or SUP. Supping, as it’s also sometimes called, is one of the newest and fastest-growing sports in the world, and involves standing on a specially designed board while using a paddle to steer and propel you along.
Our instructor, Dave Rossetter, the head of paddlesports at Glenmore, explains that like surfing, SUP’s origins are in Hawaii where brave souls wanted to head further out to sea to reach the bigger ocean waves. Rossetter tells us he was recently paddling a 22ft board four miles off the south coast of England. I’m relieved to hear that the boards we’ll be using are around half that size.
Our SUP day starts at 9:30am but conditions have changed and a strong easterly wind has turned the sea outside the centre from a millpond into a landlubber’s nightmare.
However, Peter Braidwood, Cumbrae’s senior instructor knows the island’s coast like the back of his hand and tells us we can scout around the perimeter to find a more sheltered spot – one of the benefits of being on an island under 12 miles in circumference.
Our kit is a wetsuit, boots, buoyancy aid and a paddle which is adjustable and specifically shaped at an angle, much like a spade. Rossetter explains about the two types of board we’re loading onto the trailer (one inflatable – but far more rigid than a lilo – and the other wooden). Both have a handle, a safety lead which attaches around the ankle and a fin for stability. We find a spot to enter the water at Millport Bay.
We get attached to our boards and wade in to the crystal clear sea, only needing to go as far as allows the boards to float (about knee deep). Then we kneel in the centre of the board, which feels a lot more stable than I was expecting. Our aim is to paddle against the wind towards Millport’s landmark Crocodile Rock (a rock painted to look like a croc) and allow the wind and wave direction to help carry us back while staying on our knees in order to get a feel for the board. Paddling against the wind is tough work but once turned and riding with the surf it becomes much more fun, and a confident Orla is the first to stand up though it doesn’t take long before we’re all on our feet. Having tried canoeing and kayaking it does feel familiar, albeit with a much higher likelihood of getting wet.
Paddlesports enthusiasts love to embark on journeys and I think Rossetter may be slightly overambitious to suggest we travel from the top of the island down a good part of the West Coast after lunch at the centre. Having an expert on hand allows us to push our boundaries and safely experience paddling outside our normal comfort zone. So when the power of the offshore wind is stronger than our ten year old and she drifts out to sea, there’s no real fear that she will be swept over to Bute, and Rossetter uses the opportunity to teach towing techniques – though I think she might be taking it too far when she lies on her back watching the clouds pass by.
Courses with Glenmore and Cumbrae suit all abilities, from absolute beginners like ourselves to professionals at the top of their game. We also learn about surf conditions, how the wind is affected by the geology of the land and where to find shelter. This kind of practical learning experience will last longer than any power point presentation.
In a calmer area near Fintry Bay we learn different standing positions and how to turn through 180 degrees which ends up with us all in the water, which is not entirely unpleasant, as the wetsuits have by now become sweat suits. SUP may look easy and elegant, but it’s quite physically demanding and technique is important. One thing’s for sure – our SUP experience made a big splash with the whole family.