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AquaPaddle: Gateway to SUP Racing

I have been following AquaPaddle for a few years now and get what a great idea it is – the “parkrun” for paddlers! I can also see how it would benefit SUP racers and also feed into the National Series. So I asked AquaPaddle founder Brett Scillitoe to share his thoughts on this wonderful paddle format.


Paddlers taking part in an AquaPaddle event on SUP boards
An AquaPaddle event

When I first started regularly paddling (SUPing) in 2016, racing never entered my thoughts. It was just something fun to do with a few friends. When those friends grew in number, we formed a club (Dittons Paddle Boarding), and that's when we started to attract paddlers who had raced in other sports, and they started to buy long pointy boards with the aim to go faster and to RACE! 

In 2019, I did my first race, the Head of the Dart. I say race, I was in the Leisure Fleet and wearing a drysuit and an admiral’s hat, never a good look, but I did lose a couple kilos during the event! What I witnessed was the fun and excitement of paddlers on very narrow long boards going very fast. I tried to chase and quickly realised they were in a totally different league. 

The club had been growing steadily and we were starting to provide free mental health sessions for the local emergency services. I wanted to find a way to expand this work beyond our club and to find a way to cover the cost of the sessions long-term. It was around this time when the lightbulb lit and the idea of the AquaPaddle 5km was born.

  1. Build a community that will donate.

  2. The locations will become Delivery Partners and the 5km events will also be a challenge for those who have attended the BlueSpace (mental and physical health) sessions and want to improve their fitness. 

Then during the COVID lockdown and the explosion of interest in SUP, the plans firmed up. We created the AquaPaddle Charity in 2021 and had our first test events that Summer and Autumn. The web app, that is at the heart of the operation, was built by our amazing tech guru, Al Patterson, over that winter and in April 2022, we launched the new system and our first regular AquaPaddle at Hampton-Molesey. It was mainly club members and a few friends and yes, the club's racers were there and set some good times.

Since then, with the help from Paddle UK (formerly British Canoeing) we have grown to over 30 locations, run by 25 teams or Crews, as we call them. In 2023 we ran 127 events and had over 1600 finishers. We would have had many more, but the weather has been a big challenge, and many events were cancelled. 

This just shows the interest in time trials and although it is a personal challenge, AquaPaddle is a great pathway to stepping up to racing. It has a mass start and since the event is open to all paddlers, regardless of craft, it is very exciting. It gets paddlers used to the choppy water and picking a line. However, for those who are new to the sport, they can start more slowly and experience a “race start” in a safe environment. 

Since the free AquaPaddle events happen regularly, at least once a month weather permitting, paddlers are very quickly able to build their strength, fitness and skill. The community spirit at the events sees paddlers trying other paddlers’ boards. We have seen paddlers start on all-round boards and quickly progress through touring boards to full race boards. Talking after the event, people who have taken part in the GBSUP events often tell of their experiences and encourage other to take part in the next races. It is about gaining confidence and AquaPaddle is the perfect place if you are thinking of racing to try it out for free, build your confidence and then take the plunge and register for a race. 

Although 5km is not a long distance, it is enough to give you a flavour and to understand how you would be over a longer distance. Also, there is nothing stopping the paddler from continuing to paddle once they have crossed finish line of the AquaPaddle event. 

Racing is a different level; you would have paid a fee and want to perform to the best of your ability. Having paddled regularly at an AquaPaddle you would have perfected your stroke style and found solutions for when the conditions might be more challenging, or part of your body starts to feel the strain. You will be able to bring those coping strategies in to play and continue to deliver a good performance and most of all enjoy yourself. 

If you are a seasoned racer, why should you get involved in AquaPaddle? Apart from it being fun and great regular sprint training, the main benefit as a SUP racer is that you might not be “top dog” at your local event. If the kayakers in K1’s turn up, then you will have to be about your business to keep up. The current record for an AquaPaddle is sub 25 minutes. This is a proper challenge for a SUP racer and great training to be with much faster paddlers.

You might go out training, chances are it is mainly on your own or with others you know. If you know them, you generally have a pecking order. When you come to AquaPaddle, you have no idea who or what you are up against. Although it is not a race, it is one heck of a personal challenge trying to chase down a K1 or Surfski in full flight! 

Comments from a couple of regular racers who also attend AquaPaddle events show that getting involved really makes a difference. Devon Cumberland who has raced for many years said:

AquaPaddle keeps me motivated to get on the water and a good excuse to keep paddling through the winter months. In summer it's a great training tool to gauge where you are in fitness and push yourself to get that PB.

And Ed Milner said:

I have been AquaPaddling since it started. Although it is not a competitive event, it gives me useful fixed points in my calendar to go out in all conditions and paddle a time trial. This helps me with other events that are races, because the AquaPaddles are an opportunity to push yourself and try different techniques. I think AquaPaddles are a great place to start if you are interested in getting into SUP racing because it makes you push yourself more than a typical social paddle (although they are also good social events!). As well as that side of things, AquaPaddles are a great way of making sure you meet up regularly with sup-buddies - which is always good! 

The AquaPaddle app is continually being improved. You can build your own fleet of craft, so you can choose what craft to register with for the forecast conditions. Very soon after each event, the times are published, and you can quickly see how you have done.

So, what are you waiting for? Sign-up and register for your next local event. If there isn’t an event near you and you are a qualified paddle leader or instructor then please get in contact, we would love to hear from you and grow the network. This also includes internationally!

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