With around 7,723 miles of coastline, it’s not surprising water based activities are a popular pastime within the UK.
Even cities that are in central UK locations have lakes, canals and reservoirs nearby, so there is always a good opportunity for water sports participation close to home.
Generally, water-based activities in the UK have seen increased participation levels over the years. The introduction of new sports like paddleboarding has helped this continued growth.
The popularity of any sport will depend on multiple factors, but the ones that seem most important for water sports include:
- How easy it is to learn
- How safe the water sport is
- The social scene
- Location of sport
- How weather dependant the sport is
- Cost of equipment
- Equipment storage and transportation
It’s no surprise that outdoor swimming is the most popular water sport in the UK, as it ticks all the boxes for an inclusive, easily accessible water sport.
This article lists the top most popular 10 water sports in the UK and outlines reasons why they are so popular.
Table of Contents
What is the most popular water sport?
Outdoor swimming – 6,125,000 participants
Outdoor swimming comes in at number 1 in the UK’s most popular watersports. And it’s no wonder, while so many other sports in this list come with scary price tags, a slinky speedo is all that’s required for entry-level outdoor swimming – and even that is not always required!
Outdoor swimming takes place throughout the UK, from straight off the sandy beaches of Bournemouth, to icey ex-quarry sites in the Snowdonian mountain range, to the pristine wilderness of the Outer Hebrides.
Wild swimmers have long since known that outdoor swimming offers a healthy dose of endorphins, but increasingly, the research is showing that regular cold-water immersion could slow the on-set of neurological diseases such as dementia*
As appealing as skinny dipping may be, it is important to make sure you are properly equipped for any watersports adventure. Neoprene wetsuits in varying thicknesses are available for outdoor swimming, as are boots, gloves and hoods.
Open water swimming floats are also highly recommended at any time of year, helping the swimmer to be more visible to boats and offering additional buoyancy in an emergency.
Waterproof changing robes make getting changed and warm after a swim as swift as possible – and you can’t go wrong by bringing along a flask of hot tea.
Wherever you choose to dip, it’s important to take the time to research the area and evaluate the risks. There are many helpful resources out there to get you started:
The Outdoor Swimming Society connects local groups throughout the UK to share tips, encourage new members and meet for larger events.
Wild Swimming has published numerous books on the subject: Coastal, Inland and Regional volumes can be bought and there is an online forum where contributors leave up to date reviews of specific spots.
Canoeing – 1,779,000 participants
One of the oldest forms of transport, canoeing comes in as a strong second in the UK’s most popular watersports. This is in part due to the huge variety of paddling activities now available in the category; from the serene to the downright extreme, there is a version of canoeing for everyone.
We are talking about canoeing and kayaking under this heading, and you might be wondering what the difference is. There are many styles of each craft but typically, the seat in a canoe is raised and the paddler sits with legs at a 90degree angle or is kneeling. In a kayak, the seat is not raised and the paddler sits with legs out in front. Another significant difference is the paddle. Canoes are propelled by a single-bladed paddle, while kayakers use double-bladed paddles.
If you’re looking to soak up some tranquillity with a loved one, taking a two seated Canadian canoe on the river wye, an area of outstanding natural beauty, might be the perfect trip. Adrenalin junkies can be found in enclosed kayaks charging down white-water river rapids, or even catching waves with surfers on the sea. Or if it’s a family you are looking to entertain, why not explore the beautiful caves on the Jurassic coast in sit-on-kayaks – kids will love being in charge of their own boats.
Prices for your own equipment start at around £200 for an entry-level sit-on-kayak, while top of the range sea touring kayaks can be thousands. What’s important is you have the right equipment for your level and are starting out in a safe environment.
You might like to read our reviews about the best inflatable kayaks.
You can always rent equipment, get some lessons and find out what style is right for you before investing. There are canoe tour companies throughout the UK, spanning coastal waters, lakes and rivers and even manmade white-water rapids, such as CIWW at Cardiff Bay.
Surfing – 628,000 participants
Number three. Surfing was due to enter the Olympics for the very first time in 2020, but while the Olympics have been postponed due to COVID-19, the surfing boom here in the UK hasn’t faltered for a moment. With international travel pretty much scrapped for the year, more of us headed to British beaches and discovered a thriving surf culture on our very own shores.
Cornwall is synonymous with surfing in the UK. The big swells, huge variety of beaches and favourable climate mean that there is something for surfers of every level.
If it’s your first time surfing, it is highly recommended to go in summer when it’s warm and the surf tends to be the smallest. Wetsuits and surfboards can be rented from surf schools that operate 7 days a week in the summer holidays, and lifeguards patrol most of the busiest beaches.
Experienced surfers surf all year round throughout the UK. The biggest and most consistent waves often come in the autumn and winter months. This kind of surfing is not for the faint-hearted and must be undertaken with real caution, but with the summer crowds dispersed and the beaches tranquil, winter surfing in the UK can be incredibly rewarding.
Paddleboarding – 614,000 participants
Even though the popularity of Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP) has been on a rapid upward trajectory since the early 2000’s, 2020 was a remarkable year for the sport. It was the ‘socially distanced’ sport of choice for those trying to enjoy a heat-wave-summer amidst a global pandemic; so much so that many suppliers totally sold out by spring and second hand boards were like unicorn tears to get your hands on.
Canals, estuaries, and shore lines are all beautiful places to explore on an SUP. The paddler gets an elevated view of their surroundings compared with other watersports, and on a sunny, windless day, the serenity is unrivalled.
Don’t be fooled however, SUPing may be tranquil at times but it is easy to get caught out by both wind and tide. The paddlers entire body is exposed to the wind and acts as a human sail. Trying to paddle against even a moderate breeze is hard work, so all trips need to be planned carefully with weather conditions in mind.
So to get started, you’re going to need a board and a paddle. Even at entry level, you’re going to need to make the choice between a hard board and the increasingly popular inflatable SUPs. Provided you have a big enough vehicle or roof racks, hard boards are ready to go at a moment’s notice and you don’t need to remember your pump. Inflatable paddle boards do travel better and tend to be cheaper, but sometimes this is reflected in their performance. If you do decide to go for an inflatable, it’s worth spending a bit more to get something truly rigid, or you could end up paddling something resembling a sinking banana.
Motorboating – 538,000 participants
Exploring the UK waters and beyond by cruising around on a motorboat is one of the most popular boating activities. This watersport is all about enjoying the fresh air with friends and family.
Take in the rays on the deck or bring a bbq and set up a picnic on a quiet beach. Depending on the size of the motorboat, there can be enough room for living accommodation and bedrooms too.
Motorboating is a lot easier than yacht cruising because you don’t have to rely on the winds or know much sailing. However, it is still a challenge to operate a motorboat, for example leaving or trying to moor up in a windy marina takes skill and is not possible for a beginner to do.
Becoming a competent captain takes time and a lot of hours on the water. Many people who own a motorboat take a yachtmaster course to kick start their progression or refine their skills.
Whilst there are only 82,000 motorboats registered in the UK, the number of people who say they have participated in motorboating is around 538,000. This number could be because so many people share their boat with friends and family or hire a boat for a weekend getaway.
Bodyboarding – 551,000 participants
This classic beach activity has been around for years and it’s probably one of the first water sports you tried as a kid. Almost everyone who has been to the beach in the UK has probably bought a cheap foam bodyboard and had a go at trying to catch a wave.
For those who don’t know, bodyboarding, or boogie boarding is when you ride waves by laying down on a small rectangular foam board. It’s similar-ish to surfing, but you don’t stand up.
The reason why it’s a very popular water sport is that bodyboarding is incredibly accessible and simple for beginners. You don’t need very big waves and small children can try it in the shallows on any beach, which also makes it one of the safest water sports.
At the more extreme end, you’ll see bodyboarders head out with the surfers as they all attempt to catch the biggest waves.
The equipment is inexpensive, compared to most other watersports. To get you started a bodyboard will cost around £35 and a spring or summer wetsuit is all you need. For those who take it more seriously, bodyboards can cost up to £250 and you’ll probably have a set of fins (similar to snorkelling flippers) to help you catch bigger waves.
Read our reviews of some of the best bodyboards in the uk.
Some UK beaches are banning the sale of polystyrene bodyboards, because of the environmental impact. Very cheap boards are often used just once, then thrown in the bin after the family has had a day on the beach. This attitude of course needs to change if we want to become a more sustainable society.
Dinghy Sailing – 514,000 participants
Dinghy sailing is such a diverse sport, it’s no surprise that it makes it into the top 10 most popular UK water sports. From taking a relaxing cruise around a harbour with friends to high-octane high-speed racing in a regatta, there is something for everyone.
A dinghy is a small boat that uses a sail for power and a rudder to steer. The generic image of a dinghy boat often resembles an upside-down bathtub, but this category of sailing hosts 100’s of different boat shapes and styles, some of which are very impressive looking and can go very fast (up to 25 mph).
The UK’s abundance of harbours, lakes, large rivers and enclosed beaches means there are so many places to try dinghy sailing. You can even dinghy sail in London, sailing clubs in Putney and Docklands are perfect places to learn for the city dwellers.
There is a great social aspect of dinghy sailing too, where most are part of a club and weekends are often spent taking part in organised races. The social side of sailing clubs is probably a huge factor in this sports high participation level.
Another factor of participation is how easy it is for beginners to learn. A sport that is incredibly difficult will lose many participants early on. However, dinghy sailing is easy and simple enough that kids from 6 or 7 years old can comfortably sail around in small boats such as a Topper or Feva.
Canal Boating – 450,000 participants
Exploring the UK canals on a boat is a wonderfully relaxing and slow-paced adventure watersport.
Canal boating, also called narrowboating, is the activity of cruising around the UK canal system on a boat that is designed specifically for canals. These boats are powered by engine rather than sail, are very long and narrow and generally have sleeping and living areas.
The UK has roughly 4,700 miles of canal routes, which were first built by the Romans then developed during the industrial revolution to transport goods. The advent of rail and motorway systems meant these waterways were unused for commercial purpose and started being used for leisure.
There are 34,000 canal boats in the UK, yet 450,000 participate in the activity, so it’s probable many families and groups of friends hire canal boats for a holiday or long weekend getaway.
It’s easy to see why this watersport is so popular in the UK. Half of the UK population live only 5 miles away from a canal route, so access is easy, the boats themselves are simple to handle and of course navigation is no issue because the route is set for you.
Then there is the variety of scenery you can explore on a canal. There are many stunning rural routes for wildlife spotting, city waterways for culture and not forgetting the 1,000’s of pubs that are dotted right on the water’s edge.
Powerboating – 386,000 participants
Another boating activity comes into the top 10 water sports in the UK.
A powerboat, which is also called a motorboard or speedboat, is defined as craft that is less than 10m in length that planes over water, being propelled by an engine. Planing is when a boat picks up enough speed that it glides almost completely out of the water.
A powerboat is what you’d probably expect to see James Bond in. They are fast, manoeuvrable and look very cool!
There are many different types of powerboat, depending on where and what it is used for. The hull can be designed for shallow or deep water, have space for one to 8 people, create wake (for wakeboarding) or none at all.
Technically, powerboating is not a difficult water sport, but it does cost a lot of money to keep and maintain a powerboat all year round. The amount of different activities that can be done whilst using a powerboat is probably why this water sport is popular.
Activities that need a powerboat:
- Day cruising
- Overnight stays
Yacht cruising – 370,000 participants
Coming in at number 10 on the UK most popular water sport is yacht cruising.
Yacht cruising is the sailing equivalent of motorboating, but the boat uses the wind instead of engine power to get around. Yacht cruising involves travelling and exploring UK shores, often visiting harbours and ports along the way. This can be just for a few hours or for weeks at a time, depending on how far you want to go!
These types of yachts are usually left in the water and moored to a buoy or jetty, have cooking facilities and a cabin (or 2) for overnight voyages.
Yachting is far more complicated than motorboating or canal boating, because you have to harness and control the wind to get you from point A to B. Most people who own a yacht and go yacht cruising will take a Yachtmaster Course to learn navigation, sea survival and basic meteorology.
Along with its being a very technical sport, yacht cruising will be one of the most expensive water sports on this top 10 list.
About the author
Watersports Pro is managed by Ollie, who has been in the industry since 2007. A paddleboard and advanced windsurfing instructor, Ollie has travelled the world teaching these sports.
Now based on the South Coast of England, he shares his experience and knowledge on watersportspro.co.uk.