As the second edition of the Big Ben Challenge and Big Ben Race (23 September 2017) fast approaches, event organiser and head of London-based stand up paddleboarding specialist Active360, Paul Hyman, was kind enough to tell us a little bit more about it. Paul shared with us his thoughts on where Active360 is heading, what he envisions for the near future and how SUP on the Thames is soon to reach high tide.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and Active360?
I’ve been involved in watersports since my late teens. I started with sea kayaking, then kayak surfing and whitewater kayaking, along with diving and underwater hockey (the latter of which I played for two decades). I started kayaking regularly on the Thames when I moved next to the river in the late 90’s. I set up three canoe clubs on the tidal Thames, and then in 2011 I decided that stand up paddleboarding was a much better and fresher way to engage people with the river environment, the wildlife to be found there and the threats the river faces from plastic pollution and climate change.
Both the company and the sport have grown every year and we now have bases at Kew Bridge, Putney Paddington and Brentford, with others currently in the pipeline. In addition to our daily activities, we run SUP trips and expeditions to interesting parts of the world. East India, Greenland, Iceland, the Hebrides and Sardinia have all been paddled to date and we are planning a mangrove planting SUP expedition in Myanmar soon.
Racing on the Thames and arriving at the foot of Big Ben is quite an incredible experience. How did you decide on the route the race would take?
I’ve been wanting to run a race through central London almost since the very beginning of the whole Active360 adventure. This would have been impossible a few years ago as SUP was seen by the Port of London Authority (PLA) as a risky watersport. After a struggle to establish it as a safe way of enjoying the river the time was finally right in 2015 to start planning the race.
The route from Putney to Big Ben is a particularly good one because it takes off at the same starting point as the famous Oxford vs. Cambridge Boat Race, it takes in iconic buildings such as Battersea Power Station and Westminster, with the Houses of Parliament and of course Big Ben (and its famous clock). It’s a relatively quiet stretch of river with fewer big boats sharing the space in comparison with the run from Westminster to Tower Bridge, which makes it safer and less complicated to pass through.
Apart from Big Ben, what makes this race so unique?
There are so far only a few comparable races that run through world cities (like Paris, Budapest etc.), and this is so far the second ever to pass through central London, so only 18 people have raced there to date and perhaps fewer the 100 people have ever paddled SUPs there. We’re ready to change that.
Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, great urban rivers like the Thames were highly polluted by industrial waste and were therefore unfit for sports use. Only in the last decades of the 20th Century did the Thames in central London become a clean body of water full of fish and wildlife. This makes it the perfect playground for an event like this, especially coming from a body with an environmental vocation like ours.
As you say, this is the second year that the Big Ben Challenge is to be held. What improvements will be made for this edition?
Last year the race was a pilot project, and as such, we limited participation to top level racers who we knew could cope with the tides and strong currents without much difficulty. We had to prove to the PLA and our sponsor Tideway that this race could be run safely without disrupting Thames traffic. This year we are actually organising the Big Ben Challenge as a complement to the Big Ben Race. The former will be a fast endurance paddle event covering the same course but at a steady pace and not racing.
This gives many more people the chance to take part. Also, last year, four-time world champion and three-time Olympic champion rower Andrew Triggs-Hodge retired from the sport (following the Olympic Games in Rio) and joined Tideway, the engineering company building the Tideway Tunnel. This is a huge “super sewer” running beneath the tidal Thames, which will prevent the Thames from being used as a safety valve to dump sewage after heavy rainfall.
His new role is to create a legacy for the tunnel, which includes much greater sport and recreational use of the river. So I’ve been given the incredible opportunity to work with a world champion in mainstream watersports who now wants to help build up a more small-scale – though fast-growing – sport. In this case, SUP. This is very good news for SUP in London, as well as beyond, as together we can raise the profile of the sport over the next 5 years. The Big Ben Challenge and Big Ben Race are part of this project.
What other activities can people get involved in, beyond the race itself?
Andrew is organising a large waterside festival at Putney called the Foreshore Festival. It will involve several environmental organisations working on marine pollution issues including Thames 21 and Watertrek. We will be picking up plastic bottles and bags from the water, and Thames21 will do so from the foreshore. Watertrek, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the PLA, British Canoeing and many others will have stands there to promote their work and we will be screening films on plastic pollution in Westminster School Boathouse on the riverside (as part of our Plastic Ocean Festival).
Active360 will run SUP taster sessions and the whole day will start with a mass paddle down from Kew Bridge to Putney, picking up plastic bottles along the way. These are being used for an art installation by Artichoke, working on the Lumiere London Festival due in January 2018.
The whole event, including the Race, Challenge, Festival and all related activities are a celebration of the fabulous and unique environment of the tidal Thames, in a spirit of recreation, environmental engagement and safety. It’s a great chance to raise the profile of Active360 and Watertrek in London and to recruit more people to get involved in our work.