RADIO GLA GLA: JOHN MCFADZEAN
We tune in with the man behind the SUP the world project, John McFadzean to hear about his lifetime quest to paddle in every country on the planet as well hear about his experiences at coldest SUP event in the world…the GlaGla Race in France.
Words: John McFadzean // Photos: Stuart Walker.
I began stand-up paddle boarding thanks to a remarkable coincidence one Saturday in June 2014. My third-floor apartment overlooks Southport Marine Lake, and standing at my window that morning, I saw something I’d never seen before, a few people were out in the middle of the lake with boards and paddles. I had no water sports experience at that time, and I thought they must be crazy, but they are also have a great time. A few hours later, I took my two youngest daughters to a dancing studio where I saw a poster on the wall advertising lessons for something called ‘Stand Up Paddle Boarding’. It felt like a calling, and I had my first lesson with Lucy from SUP North the following week. As the saying goes, it was love at first sight.
Back in 2014, I bought two second-hand boards from SUP North. I didn’t know much about board types or brands back then, but it turned out to be an inspired decision as I had many years of pleasure paddling them. I now own two other Red Paddle Co boards, a 13’2 Voyager and an 11’0 Sport. Red paddle makes innovative, high-quality boards and accessories, which is important for me and what I do.
SUP The World
After that introduction to SUP in 2014, I visited a few countries over the following years—Australia, Portugal, Italy, and France. I SUP-ed in each one. Gradually an idea began to form that I might paddle in every country I visited. And eventually, this idea morphed into something that I describe as a lifetime quest to SUP in every country in the world. I have 47 countries on the scoreboard so far, meeting many interesting people and accumulating a wealth of fascinating stories and beautiful memories along the way. According to the United Nations, there are 193 countries, so even more adventures lie ahead.
In the early years of my SUP life, I was a fair-weather paddler renowned for hibernating during the winter months. My board was packed away at the end of October and didn’t see the light of day again until the following March. But during the winter of 2017-2018, I decided to put on my brave boots and paddle through the coldest months. That’s when I came across a social media post about the GlaGla Race—billed as the world’s coldest stand-up paddleboarding race. It somehow seemed to be beckoning me.
The GlaGla Race takes place every January at Talloires, on the shore of Lake Annecy, in the Haute-Savoie region of France. Expertly organised by Benoit Mouren and his team. It attracts some of the world’s best paddlers and forms part of the Alpine Lake Tour, a year-round multi-race series. ‘GlaGla’ is a French expression with a meaning similar to ‘brrrrrrrrrrrrr’. ‘GlaGla’ is said to be the noise your teeth make when chattering due to cold.
In January 2018, I became one of the first paddlers from the UK to join the GlaGla. Many others have followed me since. I entered again for 2020, but unfortunately, illness thwarted my plans. Because of Covid, the 2021 race was replaced by a virtual event, and travel restrictions made 2022 tricky. That’s why I was keen to return to Lake Annecy in 2023.
This year, more than 800 paddlers entered the race. The coldest race on the SUP calendar is also one of the most popular. There were four categories: 15km, 6.5km, 3.5km, and Juniors. I took part in the 6.5. There was also a Technical Race and a Dragon Race after the main event. I used my Red Paddle Co 13’2 Voyager, my go-to board for longer distances and challenging environments.
Many top professionals participate in the GlaGla, hoping to get onto the podium or to finish in the top ten. Other entrants might want to achieve a personal best or finish ahead of their friends. But not me. I’m not a SUP expert or an elite racer. I’m just an ordinary paddler with no expectations of a podium finish. For me, the GlaGla Race is simply an opportunity to paddle in a stunning part of the world and hang out with like-minded people. I didn’t do any specific training in preparation.
When I set off from my hotel in Annecy on the morning of the race, the air temperature was minus 7°C, although it warmed up a touch as the day went on. Water temperature was about 6°C, warmer than usual for January. The organisers had to alter the route on the morning of the race due to the possibility of a strong northerly wind. I wore a Prolimit SUP suit with thermal leggings and two rash vests underneath. Billabong 7mm neoprene boots kept my feet nice and toasty, while neoprene gloves and a beanie hat completed my wardrobe. Strangely, I felt slightly too hot during the event.
I got off to a disappointing start, far away from the starting line when the whistle went, my cold hands too busy fumbling with an onboard GoPro camera. I would have liked to be nearer the front, which is a lesson learned for next time. I had to paddle through the chop of hundreds of racers who set off ahead of me. The water got flatter as we passed the first buoy and headed diagonally across the lake toward the gothic-style, 19th-century castle at Duingt. The expected wind didn’t materialise; generally, the conditions were benign. That’s why I was surprised to fall in towards the end of the race, on one of the flatter sections. I think it may have been a combination of fatigue and a lapse of concentration, but I was delighted to find that my SUP suit did its job perfectly, and only my head got wet.
My tracker told me I had paddled 7 km rather than the scheduled 6.5, and my finishing time was 1 hour and 24 minutes. In the overall rankings, Anna Tschirky took first place for Switzerland in the Women’s, with Ludovic Teulade picking up the same accolade for France in the Men’s.
The start of the race was chaotic, with hundreds of boards jockeying for position. Then gradually, the field began to spread out as we headed south. Some faces were serious and determined, others laughing and joking. The pros on their carbon race boards were very competitive, and it was good to watch up close as they formed draft trains and expertly executed buoy turns.
It’s always a pleasure to spend time with fellow paddlers, and Lake Annecy is at its best at that time of year, with low-hanging clouds and patches of brilliant white snow on the surrounding mountains. I love the city of Annecy with its canals and historic buildings. But the main attraction for me is the psychological challenge of paddling in such a cold environment.
The entrance fee this year was 38 euros. The event has a website at:
And the Alpine Lakes Tour has a Facebook page at:
Registration usually opens in the October before. It is possible to hire a board, although I took my own. A leash and PFD are compulsory on the water. Additionally, all competitors must carry an emergency survival blanket and some calories in the form of a chocolate bar or similar.
After flying into Geneva Airport and hiring a car, I based myself in Annecy, a picturesque, centuries-old city a 30-minute drive from Talloires. Heavy snowfall just before I arrived made this magical place even more beautiful than usual, albeit more treacherous underfoot, especially after a couple of glasses of wine!
I’ve had more car mishaps on my SUP adventures than anything else, and this trip was no exception. My hotel in Annecy was on a steep hill, and I overshot the car park on arrival. I had to abandon my car at the bottom of the slope as the wheels were just spinning on ice. Fortunately, I was able to rescue my stranded vehicle the following morning. Driving back to Geneva the day after the race, I spotted the dreaded flash of a speed camera, and sure enough, a 45 euro fine landed in my inbox this week. Despite that, I’ll definitely go back again.
Check out his adventures at: www.suptheworld.com