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Bill Bailey: Paddleboarding

Take a casual look out over the Thames one day and you could be surprised by who you see paddleboarding (SUPing) down the river. The perhaps unexpected answer is comedian Bill Bailey, who first got into SUPing while filming in Indonesia, a country with which the performer has strong connections and where he is patron of the Sumatran Orangutan Society.

“I found it devilishly tricky to stay upright,” says Bill, “until I realised I was on a race board – narrow and fast but also very unstable. When I got back to London, I procured a more stable board and went out on the Thames. I immediately fell in love with the sensation of ‘walking on water’ and have been an enthusiastic paddler ever since. I love the simplicity of it, the freedom it gives you and the way it allows you to see familiar surroundings from a different perspective.”

Bill, who lives close to the Thames in west London, often paddles from Putney or from Hammersmith Bridge upriver to Kew. He also enjoys a paddle round the Paddington Basin, and along the River Brent, but he says that the most exotic place he has paddled is in the turquoise waters of Wayag, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is part of Raja Ampat, a group of Indonesian islands in the North Moluccas, near Papua.

“It’s a natural ocean lagoon, filled with tall limestone towers or ‘karsts’ that rise vertically from the water. It’s a strange and beautiful sight, even more so seen from a paddleboard.”

Such is Bill’s interest in the sport that he now has a new nickname ‘The Calm Paddler’, which is probably a reference to his show Qualmpeddler, and he has become involved in the development of a new board, known as ‘the Billboard SUP’.

“When I first began paddling on the Thames, I used very stable boards, but they were often quite slow and not that manoeuvrable. On the river you sometimes need an extra turn of speed to cope with the tidal current. So I asked Paul Hyman, local SUP expert [owner-director of SUP school Active360] about the possibility of a stable but faster board.”

“By now, my Danish neighbour Søren Strange was also hooked on the joys of paddling, so the three of us thought ‘why don’t we design our own board?’ A combination of a few of my suggestions, Paul’s deep SUP knowledge and Søren and his wife Kira’s design expertise produced the first prototype ‘Billboard’.”

“Two years on and the new board is sleeker and faster than the first model. The aim was to make an inflatable SUP that could cruise urban waterways, tropical waters and remote Scottish lochs, and this feels as close as you can get to the ultimate expedition board.”

Bill is making the most of his time on the water before he starts a big tour in 2018 called Larks in Transit. “This show is about many of the experiences I’ve had travelling the world performing comedy. It will be a collection of stories of the far-flung parts of the Earth where comedy has taken me, and all points in between. There will probably be a healthy amount of politics, philosophy and poetry.”

And will there be any of his trademark music? “Did I mention the mandola playing? There’s a good amount of that, plus some Tom Waits nursery rhymes, some lost works of Beethoven, and some live audience sampling.”

When I ask if he has any new TV coming up, I’m not sure if he’s joking. “A feature length in-depth documentary about the history of mousetraps in the Swiss cantons.”

Perhaps he’s telling the truth ... he certainly has a knack for doing the unexpected!

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