Paddling in Circles
Chapter 1 – Introduction“An encounter with wild dolphins is like no other experience I have ever had.
There is a spark when you look into their dark eyes –a flicker of communication between species. And the best bit of all is that it is always on their terms.”
It was early March and St. Ives Bay on the North Cornwall coast was bathed in spring sunshine. The water beneath my kayak was so clear I experienced vertigo as I stared down into the shimmering depths. I could clearly see the ripples of white-gold sand several metres below and then suddenly a dark shape flashed past beneath me and I flinched involuntarily, my paddling rhythm interrupted. What was it? Where did it go? Not a sign anywhere. I continued to pull hard, each paddle stroke driving the kayak through the gin-clear water.
“There they are!” I yelled silently. The scimitar-shaped dorsal fins of a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins broke the surface just fifty meters away. Their curiosity got the better of them and they circled towards me. My smile turned to laughter as the first one leapt into the air to get a good look at me, a potential playmate and an apparently welcome visitor to their aquatic world. Soon I was riding the wake from three bottle-nosed dolphins and several more darted to and fro’ beneath my hull. It is difficult to laugh and paddle hard at the same time but I knew that they would only stay with me if I could somehow match their impressive speed. I had to be careful where I placed my paddle blades as the smooth, muscular bodies were so close to me on either side of my kayak. With a sudden burst of energy one leapt skywards, droplets of seawater sprinkling like diamonds from its body as it arched gracefully through the air and re-entered the water ahead of me with barely a splash.
For five minutes or more these wonderful creatures choose to share their ocean and my day was filled with joy and delight; their gift to me. The encounter was on their terms, they played by their rules and I felt privileged to participate in their game. They left me with a feeling of completeness – one step (or paddle stroke) closer to the meaning of life.
Apart from it being a beautiful afternoon for a paddle on the ocean, the reason I was out there was because I was training hard for the greatest adventure of my life, the realisation of a childhood dream: to attempt the first solo circumnavigation of the coastline of the UK and Ireland by sea kayak.
Born in another place
Distant and exotic
Now eager to explore
Over the horizon
It’s porcelain skin
Unblemished to perfection
Now ripples with expectation
Of the excitement to come
The subtle change
By a sickening green
And pale hue
The wind, its cousin
A mechanism of change
Its sensual touch
Caresses the ocean
A distant drum roll
And battle begins
The change in mood
A dynamic organism
With refined aggression
The first defeat
The heaven’s moan
And tears fall
From dying warriors
The frown changes
An expression of confusion
Then the snarl
Of an animal enraged
Revenge is pure
Released on its enemy
A seething interface
Death is certain
Violent and sudden
But somewhere now
A Storm Child is reborn
by Sean Morley 1981
I have always been a bit of a dreamer. I wrote the poem ‘Storm Child’ at the age of fifteen whilst I should have been studying for my O’ Level exams. Perhaps immature and full of clichés this poem does, however, hint at the fascination I have always had with the sea; its ever changing moods, its infinite depths and limitless horizons. With Cancer (the crab) as my star sign astrologists might say that it was inevitable that I would be drawn to the ocean. Perhaps it is the same mystical calling that brings enormous, juicy edible crabs inshore at the Spring Equinox to breed, only to be caught by fishermen and thrown screaming into pots of boiling water. They will have their revenge one day I am sure. As a boy I remember being shown how to find the largest crabs hidden in dark holes in reefs only exposed at the lowest of spring tides. Lying prone on the slippery, kelp-covered rocks, I tried to summon up the courage to reach through the seaweed into the crab’s lair. Exploring the hole by touch, I would try not to think of what might be lurking in there. I knew conger eels often share the same holes and are aggressive when cornered; their teeth are large enough to do serious damage. Suddenly the ‘rock’ I am touching moves and I withdraw my hand involuntarily. A crab! How big? I imagine a leviathan with claws bigger than my hands ready to crush and sever my fingers. Feeling sick, I want to scream. My manhood at stake I harden my resolve and reach in again. There it is, jammed hard against the roof of its cave, ready for a fight. I know what to do and very gingerly sneak my fingers down one side and grip the back of its claw. With a tug the crab loses its purchase on the slippery rock and out it comes. I yell with delight and gripping its back legs I hold my prize aloft like a gladiator seeking applause from the crowd. Only then do I realise that the crab I have been ‘fighting’ with is a youngster and far too small to eat.
After my parents divorced when I was nine, my mother found a job as a housekeeper for an elderly couple who lived in a very large house close to the Cornish fishing village of Polkerris. I spent much of my time, especially during the long, hot summer of ‘76 on my own exploring the wild headland of ‘The Gribben’. Bordered by the seductively private Menabilly estate with its own beach and lodge in the picture-postcard cove of Polridmouth to the east and Polkerris to the west, Gribben Head was my playground. When I think of my often turbulent childhood it is the image of the red and white day-mark atop the headland that dominates my memory, helping me to focus on the positives, the same way it commands the eye’s attention when viewed from any hill overlooking St Austell Bay, diverting your attention from the ugly smoke stacks of Par Docks or the dull-grey clay waste tips inland. Gribben Head was my magical garden, where I could go to escape the mental trauma of my parent’s divorce and try to make sense of a very confusing world. Why did my father leave us? What had we done wrong? Did he not love us? I loved him – unconditionally. Writing this now, as a father of two wonderful kids, the concept of pretty much abandoning your children as my father did to my brother and me, is unconscionable. But there is always collateral damage in any divorce and it has taken me three attempts to find the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with and I have come to realise that we are all fallible and that it is necessary to forgive to be able to move on.
I was given a degree of freedom by my hard-working mother that is almost unthinkable now in a changed and arguably more dangerous world. I would walk the cliff paths of Gribben Head and sit for hours watching the resident Peregrine Falcons taking rock doves in spectacular stoops high above the rocky shore. I would creep up to within a few metres of ‘Salty’, a large bull Atlantic Grey Seal who would often be found sunbathing on a bed of kelp at low tide. I collected cowrie shells from a special beach and went snorkeling for sea potatoes and starfish to sell to the tourists. I would often see ‘Salty’ swimming around the entrance to the harbour. Fading in and out at the limit of my vision, I had to keep telling myself that it wasn’t a shark; basking sharks were regular visitors to the bay. Even though I knew basking sharks were not dangerous I couldn’t help imagining being swallowed up by their huge gaping mouths. A crew of us local kids used to go cliff diving from a ledge above ‘Seagull Beach’. I recently went back there to take a look – you would never get me to swallow dive off there now! At high tide we would perform impromptu displays of diving and somersaults from the high Polkerris harbour wall, showing off to the tourists. By helping the ‘old boy’ who rented out paddle skiffs from the beach: he would send me out to fetch in those who were overdue or had strayed too far offshore, I learnt to use a paddle, albeit one with flat, non-feathered blades and a shaft so thick I could barely grasp it with my small hands. I was forever in and out of the water throughout the long days of summer and the sea became my friend. These were largely idyllic days and childhood memories I shall treasure forever.
I was ten when I got into my first proper kayak, on a shallow, gently flowing section of the River Camel during a summer camp with 1st St. Austell Scouts. Splashing around in circles I was instantly infatuated and since then almost every aspect of my life has revolved around the simple pleasure of being afloat in a kayak. An extremely active Troop with dedicated and enthusiastic leaders, we were always away camping and hiking, training for the Ten Tors competition on Dartmoor or most significantly for me, regularly messing about in kayaks. At the age of eleven, I inherited my first kayak, an Ox general-purpose slalom from my brother Mark who was becoming more interested in football. I kept it in the St. Austell Canoe Club boat shed down at the picturesque port of Charlestown and I spent many happy days pottering along the coast, rock-hopping and surfing on the small swell that made it into the relative shelter of St. Austell Bay. I broke all the club rules by going out on my own but I built up a degree of confidence and self-reliance that the senior members of the club grew to respect. I remember doing my assessment for the British Canoe Union Sea Proficiency Award at the age of thirteen. It was a stormy day and size-able surf was dumping on the hard pebble beach at Charlestown. Most of the students declined to get on the water. I volunteered to have a go and was told to paddle out through the surf and then into the harbour. With the instructor alongside me, we slid our two kayaks down the steep pebble bank and into the oncoming waves. The instructor promptly got back-looped and deposited back on the beach upside down. I made it out through the surf and waited patiently for the others to join me. After a while I realised that no one else was going to come out so I paddled out and around the harbour wall into the harbour entrance, through the clapotis or reflected waves that were breaking all about me and into shelter. It was great! On the basis that I had survived, the instructor was gracious enough to pass me for my assessment.
Whilst much of my youth was spent within the fairly restricting discipline of competition, I’d always dreamed of exploring the world by kayak. Whenever I got the chance I would paddle on the sea. Perhaps the reason why I never made it to the Olympics was because I was too easily distracted by the adventure that paddle sports had to offer. My favourite training session would be to paddle my racing kayak out into the mouth of the River Fowey and sprint down the face of swells as they jacked up in the entrance to the harbour, pushing the limits of these most unstable of kayaks. Sometimes at the weekends when the sea was calm enough I would paddle six miles across St. Austell Bay to Porthpean Beach or Pentewan Sands to see my school friends who I knew were out sailing. Completely irresponsible considering that had I capsized, it would have been almost impossible for me to get back into the kayak and I would have had to swim up to two miles to the nearest shore. Nevertheless it gave me the boat skills and endurance to compete against paddlers whose training was rather more orthodox. During my years as a junior, the late Martin Compton gave me tremendous support. Club coach and Assistant Scout leader, Martin dedicated his life to helping young paddlers at the club reach their potential. Sadly Martin died prematurely before I could finish writing this book and I dedicate this first chapter to his memory. Whilst I was lucky enough to represent my country at a Junior World Championships and numerous other international races I was always happiest on the sea exploring the South Cornwall coastline, intrigued by what I would find around the next headland. It occurred to me that if I kept going ‘around the next headland’ eventually I would return from the opposite direction, having paddled all the way around the coast of Britain. Even at that young age, I knew that one day I would do just that.
Perhaps this is a good time to clear up the confusion that exists around the language of paddle sports and canoeing. I find it mildly irritating when people say “You’re the rower aren’t you?” It’s quite simple, when rowing you go backwards – when canoeing you go forwards. Why anyone would want to spend all their time looking over their shoulder is beyond me – if man was meant to row he would have eyes in the back of his head! So what is the difference between a kayak and a canoe? Why do I call it canoeing when I am talking about paddling a kayak?” In the UK, canoeing is the generic name given to paddling both kayaks and canoes recreationally. Even the Oxford English dictionary confuses the two describing a kayak as “an Eskimo one-man canoe.” The original canoe was probably no more than a log that prehistoric man sat astride and used to drift down-river; the first paddle just a branch. Dug-out canoes produced by hollowing out a tree trunk – a process of burning and chiseling, were the first man-made watercraft from which all other forms of water transport have evolved. Twelve hundred years ago Polynesian navigators using outrigger canoes traveled across thousands of miles of ocean to discover Aotearoa “Land of the long white cloud”. I will never forget seeing Nga Toki Awhaorua, the world’s largest war canoe or waka in the grounds of the Treaty House, Waitangi, New Zealand. At 35m long this fearsome looking craft was propelled by eighty Maori warriors and built over two years from two huge kauri trees. Dug-out canoes and canoes made of papyrus, balsa wood or whatever raw material is available, are still the main means of transportation in many regions of the world. The canoe that we are familiar with in the Northern Hemisphere is often called the Canadian Canoe and has its ethnic origins in the designs used by the North American forest Indians. Early forms were dugouts but more elaborate timber frame and birch bark canoes were being used by the time the first white pioneers and trappers explored the continent’s vast interior.
Okay, so what is a kayak? The qayaq or qajaq or kayak is the skin covered sea-going craft used by the Eskimos of the Arctic – dating back to before AD500 (there is speculation that they were used as far back as 2000BC). Eskimo or Esquimaux was the name given to the Indians who occupied the Far North of the American continent. In fact there were several diverse Native peoples of the Arctic who went by different names: the Inuit of Canada and Greenland, the Inupiat of Alaska, the Inuvialuit of the Mackenzie River delta and the Aleuts of Northern Siberia. They all used kayaks of specific design unique to each tribe. Dutch whalers, plying the waters around Greenland in the 1600’s brought back kayaks along with many other artifacts including hunting equipment, skins and ivory. Some of these kayaks still exist today in Dutch museums. These early kayaks were made of driftwood and bone, pegged and lashed together to make a light rigid frame. Sewn onto the frame were the skins of five caribou or nine seal skins. Seal oil was used as waterproofing. These elegant craft were used to hunt walrus and seal. They were seaworthy, fast and silent; the perfect boat for a hunter. The Inuit continued to build and use kayaks until the mid-nineteenth century, when cultural disruption and the availability of commercially made canoes and other boats took the place of traditional skin-covered kayaks. More recently the Inuit have attempted to revive their ancient culture. Qaanat Kattuffiat the Greenland Kayak Association is evidence of this. Those who remember the old ways have helped the new generations of Inuit preserve the traditional techniques of construction of kayaks and associated equipment. Historians and scholars from both sides of the Atlantic have sought to preserve and record these skills. There are some beautiful examples of replica kayaks, built using wood and canvas (instead of sealskin).
Most modern kayaks are produced in a mold, from plastic, or laminated in fibreglass and polyester resin or the more expensive hybrids of Kevlar and carbon fibre using epoxy resins. Kayak manufacturers have tried to incorporate the lines of the Eskimo kayak into their modern designs. The Inuit consider these new ‘plastic’ kayaks to be ugly and for the most part remain loyal to their traditionally built craft. Ugly or not the modern sea kayak is incredibly sea worthy, and in the right hands is capable of undertaking long voyages in extreme conditions. The late Derek Hutchinson, described as the grandfather of the sport of sea kayaking explains the potential of this simple craft most eloquently in his book The Complete Book of Sea Kayaking:
“Sea kayaking gives a person the opportunity to venture on to a wild, unpredictable expanse in a craft that moves solely by the strength of their arm, directed by their experience and knowledge. Facing the challenge of the sea in this way causes a paddler to journey into the genuine unknown – the unknown and untried areas of his own soul. The sea kayaker depends on neither wind nor engine; he shares his craft and responsibility with no one. The kayak man challenges the sea in what appears to be the most diminutive and delicate of crafts, even more fragile in appearance than the smallest of sailing dinghy. Nevertheless, the man who paddles the kayak well is the master of one of the finest, most seaworthy crafts in the world. It can lay beam on to a breaking sea many times its own height. The fastest and most dangerous of waters, which are treacherous terrors for even the largest sailing boat or motor craft can be conquered by the shallow-draft kayak. It can hop from bay to bay seeking shelter and passages where no other boat can or dare go, and it can avoid the roughest water by hugging the shore. It can capsize and be righted by a dexterous paddler without him ever having to leave the security of the kayak.”
The first person to document an attempt to circumnavigate the mainland of Great Britain was Geoff Hunter in 1970 in a home-made wooden sea kayak. ‘Angmagssalik Round Britain’ by J. Clarke and Geoffrey Hunter, describes his incredible journey but Geoff was forced to cut short his voyage by going through the Crinan and Caledonian Canals, thus avoiding the most exposed coasts of the West and North of Scotland. The blurb on the back of his book gives some idea of the challenges he faced:
“The duration of the journey was estimated to take three months—the reality lasted from May to November. The canoeist, Geoffrey Hunter, was acutely short of funds and this obliged him to survive by his wits when ashore, just as his survival at sea depended on his great skill as a canoeist. Geoff narrowly escaped death when he was shipwrecked in the Solway Firth. His kayak was a write-off, but he borrowed another Angmagssalik and continued on his way. Not until he reached the West Country did Geoff begin to get the organised shore-based support that he sorely needed.”
It remains a remarkable account of an adventure in the ‘old fashioned’ style of just getting on and doing it. Whilst he was clearly a very skilful paddler, the suitability of his kit and the lack of real planning and experience meant that Geoff was perhaps fortunate to get as far as he did and still return home safely.
In 1980, Englishman Nigel Dennis and New Zealander Paul Caffyn successfully completed the first complete circumnavigation of Great Britain after just 85 days of paddling. Thereafter, Nigel Dennis established the Anglesey Sea and Surf Centre as one of the premier sea kayaking centres in the world and produced his own line of kayaks. Nigel has lead expeditions throughout Europe, Antarctica, Easter Island, Cape Horn and South Georgia. Paul Caffyn has become a legend in his own lifetime. His accomplishments include circumnavigations of the North and South Islands of New Zealand, the main islands of Japan and in 1982, a 9,420 mile journey around Australia which took 360 days to complete. ‘The Dreamtime Voyage’ is his account of this odyssey which is acknowledged as one of the most remarkable journeys ever undertaken by kayak. Paul had to contend with a tropical cyclone which nearly swept him off a small offshore islet in the Coral Sea, tiger sharks which frequently bumped into the kayak in the Gulf of Carpentaria, saltwater crocodiles, sea snakes and three sections of sheer limestone cliffs. To overcome the three 100 plus mile plus long sections of cliffs, Paul used Nodoz tablets to stay awake and Lomotil to keep his bowels dormant during these overnight paddles. The longest stint along the awesome Zuytdorp Cliffs in Western Australia, took 34 hours of continuous paddling. Freya Hoffmeister, the German female sea kayaking phenomena repeated this truly epic journey in 2008 in a faster time (described in Joe Joe Glickman’s book; Fearless). And although Freya is proving herself to be arguably the greatest sea paddler of all time, Paul is my idol, a true pioneer of the sport who, whilst justifiably proud of his accomplishments, shuns the very idea of fame and the B.S. that goes with it.
American Chris Duff claimed the first solo circumnavigation of mainland Great Britain in 1986 however, like Geoff Hunter he used the Crinan Canal to bypass the Mull of Kintyre during bad weather. Purists like me would argue that this makes his circumnavigation incomplete. But for Chris it was always more about the journey and the spiritual experience than setting any record. Ten years later he went on to complete a circumnavigation of Ireland and wrote the beautiful and much acclaimed book ‘On Celtic Tides’.
The first circumnavigation of the mainland of both the UK and Ireland was accomplished by a team of three paddlers from Gillingham Canoe Club in 1986; Bill Taylor, Mick Wibrew and Richard Elliott who completed the 2,612 mile journey in 155 days averaging 27 miles a day. At the end of Bill Taylor’s book about the journey; ‘Commitment and Open Crossings’, he asks,
“Who will paddle around Britain and Ireland but taking in the Channel Islands, the Scillies, St Kilda and the Shetlands?”
Bill had thrown down the gauntlet! I knew as I read the book that I would have to take up Bill’s challenge. It still appeared to me that no-one had successfully completed a full, solo circumnavigation of Great Britain, let alone the UK and Ireland and no-one, solo or otherwise, had attempted to include all the inhabited islands. I knew I was far from ready to undertake such an expedition. I had only just begun to sea kayak seriously and I had a lot to learn. Being ultra-competitive by nature, I just hoped no-one else beat me to it.
I met Robin Feloy in 1995 when he began training with his K2 partner John Tipping at Exeter Canoe Club for the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race. I found Rob to be an enigma. At first glance he looked like your typical salty sea kayaker, a quietly spoken man who sported a long beard which made him look much older than his forty odd years. He had a very easy-going, unassuming manner and was clearly a very competent and experienced paddler. His background was in sailing and he earned a living as a yacht surveyor. He had designed a sea kayak called an Inuk, which he described as a ‘High Performance Sea Kayak’.
In my limited experience at the time I thought there was no such thing. Whilst I had always loved paddling on the sea, the only purpose-built sea kayaks that I had paddled up until that time were heavy, slow and cumbersome and difficult to keep straight in a side wind. Rob convinced me to have a go in the Inuk and I have been in love with the boat ever since. Rob is right; the Inuk is a high performance sea kayak. His skill as a yacht designer is obvious when you study the fine, flared bow and semi-circular cross section of the hull. It was perceived by many to be inherently unstable but for me, with my background in racing kayaks that are like sitting on a tightrope, I found the Inuk a beautifully stable platform from which I could apply full power to each stroke whatever the conditions. The kayak would respond to each paddle stroke, lifting slightly and accelerating, and downwind it would allow you to chase the smallest of swells with a willingness to please.
I took part in my first sea kayak race in 1996. The West Cornwall Sea Kayak Experience is held each year on the May Bank Holiday weekend and is co-hosted by Penzance and Hayle Canoe Clubs. It switches from coast to coast in alternate years between Mount’s Bay and St. Ives Bay. The stunning scenery and friendly competition makes it a very special event. I won the race in 1996 – I had the fastest boat! The guy who came in second place was to become my soul mate, my K2 partner and my ‘Best Man’. I got chatting to Ian Wilson after the race. He was loud, good looking and a fellow policeman from Essex but despite that, for some reason I liked him. He was convinced that the only reason I had beaten him was because I had a faster boat. I suggested he buy an Inuk, as he was never going to beat me paddling in “that old tub” (he had been racing in a Baidarka, designed by Derek Hutchinson, which was a great expedition boat but had never been designed for racing).
And so our friendship developed with both of us giving the other a hard time, taking the mick at every opportunity but knowing that, when it came down to it, we could rely on each other to do what was needed to get ourselves out of any predicament we found ourselves in. I won the race again in 1997, this time Ian did have an Inuk and although I beat him he pushed me all the way to the finish line.
I had my first taste of expedition-style sea kayaking when Rob Feloy invited me on a trip to Brittany in May 1996. With two other ‘salties’, John Tipping and Angus Passmore we toured the French coastline around Concarneau and managed to get out to the Iles de Glenan despite poor weather. The Isles de Glenan are similar to the Isles of Scilly off the west coast of Cornwall. Discussion naturally came around to plans for a crossing to the Scillies the following year – Rob had wanted to do the trip for a number of years but had never had the right conditions. I thought it would be good if I could combine it with a paddle around the whole coastline of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary and thus the South West Peninsular Sea Kayak Challenge was born.
The Inuk did everything I asked of it during the Challenge. I set off from Lyme Regis on the Devon/Dorset border and finished at Porlock Weir on the border of Devon with Somerset after approximately 84 hours of paddling over 9 days. I had paddled 413 miles, a daily average of 45.8 miles and an average speed of nearly 5 miles an hour. I saw 24 lighthouses and ate 36 energy bars and raised over four hundred pounds for the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary Widows and Orphans Compassionate Fund and just under three hundred pounds for the RNLI. I made the crossing to the Isles of Scilly in a record time of 4 hours 36 minutes which I believe stands to this day. I was surprised and delighted to receive several letters of recognition of my efforts, including one from the then Chief Constable at the time John Evans and a very kind letter from Nigel Hingston, the then South West Region Sea Touring Representative of the British Canoe Union and someone I held in very high esteem having completed the first ever crossing from Devon to the Channel Islands in a double sea kayak with his partner Andy Stamp in 1992 in just 19 hours. He sent me a copy of his extremely detailed and comprehensive Small Craft Sea Touring Guide to Cornwall, along with a letter in which he wrote:
Congratulations on two accounts.
Firstly, your record-breaking trip: and all within 9 days! I well remember during our training Andy Stamp and myself under took a day trip from Teignmouth to Plymouth in a Voyager. It took about 14 hours, left us tired, aching and any further paddling (next day) was the last thing on our minds. I am in full admiration and awe of your achievement.
Your determination, tenacity, single mindedness in completing the challenge and more importantly raising funds for the charities is to be commended.
Secondly, on the report: it makes a really good read. Have you thought of sending it to one of the canoeing magazines?
I followed his advice and sent the article off to Stuart Fisher, publisher of Canoeist magazine and waited anxiously to see what response I would get. Stuart took the article and published it over a period of three months and I was gob-smacked by the positive comments I received. I had never really considered writing as a career option but I had found the process rewarding and enlightening, enabling me to re-live the experience and enjoy it all over again.
I had enjoyed the experience so much I was even more convinced that I wanted to paddle around the whole of the UK. But I needed to gain more experience of paddling at sea. In 1998, with Ian Wilson and Irishman Jim Morrissey we used Inuk kayaks to break the record for the fastest crossing of the Irish Sea (The Preseli Challenge) in 1998. A straight line distance of 45 nautical miles it took us 1 1hours 6 minutes in less than perfect conditions. The crossing was a fairly complex navigational exercise and I learnt a huge amount about what had up to that time been a ‘black art’ and best avoided.
In 1999 Ian Wilson and I again used Inuk kayaks for a 500 mile circumnavigation of Northern Scotland starting and finishing at Fort William. Ian was the perfect companion for the Roof of Britain Kayak Expedition; not only did he paddle at an identical pace to me he was also a great cook. Whilst I lay tucked up in my sleeping bag ostensibly planning the next day’s paddle and writing my diary Ian would dutifully prepare dinner so long as I did the washing up. Ian’s ability to see the funny side even in the most uncomfortable situation was remarkable and his ability to ‘large it up’ is legendary. Our friendship was born out of mutual respect the two week ‘Roof of Britain’ kayak expedition convinced me that having done the ‘top bit’ and the ‘bottom bit’, I now had the experience necessary to tackle the whole of the British Isles.
The list of circumnavigators had grown in 1996 when Steve Macdonald and Peter Bray paddled around the mainland of Great Britain in a double kayak. What makes this achievement truly remarkable is that Steve is partially sighted.
The definition of ‘solo’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is “unaccompanied, alone”. To my knowledge only Ric Freeman had previously attempted a solo circumnavigation of the UK and Ireland. His journey in 1998 ended in failure when he ran out of time and a great deal of controversy surrounded his claim to have completed the first solo journey by kayak from John O’Groats to Land’s End. After reading his rather confusing account of his journey in Canoeist magazine and the subsequent questions asked by eminent authorities on the legitimacy of his claim, I learned that I would need to be precise about what my intentions were and to ensure that my journey was well documented and evidenced with photographs.
Simon Osborne completed an extremely commendable anti-clockwise circumnavigation of Great Britain in 2002 raising the incredible sum of £22,000 for Leukemia Research in memory of his brother Mark who died of the disease. Simon was a relatively inexperienced sea kayaker before he set on his journey and had company for significant periods and therefore did not claim to have been paddling ‘solo’.[Simon successfully completed a circumnavigation of Ireland in 2004 and now operates Sea Kayaking Cornwall, a highly respected kayak school with fellow expedition sea kayaker Jeff Allen.]
During the same year (2002) and without either being aware of anyone else’s exploits, Richard Atkinson, a quietly spoken Englishman circumnavigated the mainland of Great Britain, starting in the Moray Firth, this being the headquarters of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, his chosen charity. Richard paddled ‘solo’ but like Chris Duff chose to miss out the tricky conditions of the Mull of Kintyre by using the Crinan Canal.
The ‘solo’ issue gave me much food for thought whilst planning my expedition. Any activity on the sea presents a risk both to the participant and to those who may be asked to perform a rescue should that become necessary. It is therefore imperative that every effort is made by the participant to reduce the risk to an acceptable level. I fully recognise and accept this principle. The British Canoe Union advises a minimum of three paddlers for any journey by kayak. Whilst I accept this advice is based on sound principles of safety it would, of course, make any solo expedition impossible. Historically there have been many successful solo expeditions. The key to their success has been the expertise and experience of the paddler, combined with sound planning and judgement. A circumnavigation of the UK and Ireland with all the vagaries of weather and tide and at times, remoteness of location make such a journey hazardous. By attempting the journey completely on my own, this would inevitably increase the risk. I accepted this and fully appreciated that at times there would be nobody able to see a flare or receive a distress call from a handheld VHF radio with limited range. I believed that by planning thoroughly and having with me the very best equipment including a personal locator beacon, I could reduce the risk factor to an acceptable level.
The Channel Islands proved to be a conundrum. They form part of the British Isles but are not part of the UK or even the EU. By attempting to include them in my journey I would inevitably be increasing the likelihood of failure so I decided I would have two goals: to undertake the first solo circumnavigation of the mainland of the UK and Ireland and be the first ever to include all the inhabited islands. If time and weather conditions allowed, I would attempt to include the Channel Islands and thus make the first circumnavigation of the British Isles, a truly daunting total distance of some 5,000 miles.
It is fine to have these great plans but how do you go about turning them into reality? Well luckily for me my wife Linda agreed to let me take six months unpaid leave whilst she continued to work to pay the bills. I had first met Linda at Exeter Canoe Club when in 1986. I was twenty one, she was just sixteen. It would be eight years and one marriage later that Linda and I got together. Linda had turned into a beautiful young woman and I had returned to Exeter, joined the police and came out of retirement from kayak racing to start training for the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race. The ‘DW’ as it is known among paddlers has a reputation as one of the hardest canoe and kayak races in the world. The 125 mile race starts in the town of Devizes in Wiltshire and follows the Kennet and Avon Canal to Reading where it joins the River Thames. The race finishes under Westminster Bridge on the tidal section of the River Thames in Central London. Linda and her father Clive agreed to be my support crew for the race that includes 76 locks that need to be portaged and provide the opportunity for re-supply of food and water. I entered the men’s K1 (kayak single) category and having Linda as my support crew was a wonderful distraction during the four day stage race!
We became a couple and trained and raced together in a double kayak. Linda had always been a technically ‘pretty’ paddler but had lacked the speed to get into the elite ‘Women’s A’ category of kayak racing. I largely took over from Clive as her coach and helped her to find the ‘grunt’ that she lacked. The ability to go fast is mostly about power and lactic acid tolerance. Linda had the most powerful legs of any woman I knew but she seemed to lack the upper body strength need to power a kayak through the water. We worked out in the gym, learned to transfer the power from the paddle to the boat and above all, learned how to tolerate pain. Linda’s confidence grew, both as a paddler and as a person. She graduated from Exeter University and was successful in obtaining the first job that she applied for. I wasn’t the only one that could recognise the tremendous talent that this woman had to offer! Linda reached the pinnacle of her kayak racing career when she represented Great Britain at a World Cup Race in Spain but her focus was always her career and she recognised that she was a teacher first and a paddler second. We got married and moved to west Cornwall and settled into a very comfortable life in a beautiful part of the world. Life was good. Linda had found her vocation in life – she was born to teach. She had become the youngest headteacher in the county, of a brand new school that demanded her full attention.
But I was not nearly as content with my job as Linda was with hers. After competing in the 1983 Junior World (Sprint) Championships in Poland and becoming Junior National (Long Distance) Champion in K1 and K2, I went to college in west London. I chose the college largely based on the proximity to water and I began training at Richmond Canoe Club with ultimate goal of Olympic selection. But I was now a small fish in a big pond and success was not so easy to come by. It was apparent that steroid abuse was rife among the elite men and I had no desire to go to that extreme. But that was just an excuse: the bright lights of London and fit young women at college were all the distraction I needed. After flunking my degree and failing to get anywhere as a senior in the kayak racing circuit I moved back to the southwest and drifted from job to job, unable to find my way. When my first wife, Carol suggested I join her and apply for the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary I found the focus I needed. The police proved to be just what I needed: a career path, lots of variety and plenty of challenge.
I had always been tempted by a military career – my father was an officer in the Royal Air Force and during any brief contact that we’d had he would always encourage me to consider joining one of the services. But I knew that I didn’t want to go to war. The Falklands War had been a disturbing reminder of just what was expected of our servicemen and women and frankly I wasn’t sure I was capable of fighting in a war that appeared to me to be politically motivated. But using firearms for peaceful purposes, to protect the public from dangerous criminals seemed like a very admirable thing to do and so, with no prior weapons experience I underwent the selection and training to become a police firearms officer. It was great stuff! We got to play with lots of cool ‘toys’ and drive around in fast cars. The balance of camaraderie and competition, mental and physical challenge kept me stimulated and motivated – I enjoyed going to work. My biggest mistake was seeking promotion. I had joined the police with the worthy and not overly ambitious goal of attaining the rank of inspector by the time I retired. I was promoted to sergeant of the armed response unit in Camborne in west Cornwall. Thankfully firearms incidents in this largely rural area are not that prevalent so we had a dual role. Our primary role was proving a 24 hour response to firearms incidents but our majority role was roads policing and specifically the management and investigation of serious road traffic collisions. These dual responsibilities combined with the management of personnel and seemingly endless paperwork proved extremely challenging for me. I would easily become inundated and struggled to keep my head above water, especially as far as the paperwork was concerned.
As the pressure mounted at work I would increasingly look to the water for my way of escape. Linda knew that I was unhappy at work and our relationship suffered as a result. After much discussion and perhaps as a way of saving our marriage she agreed to let me apply for six months unpaid leave so that I could have a crack at the British Isles. We re-arranged our mortgage so that we could take a six month payment holiday and we calculated that we could just about afford it without making us bankrupt. The fact is I would not have been able to consider the project without Linda’s support and the support of her parents who agreed to help to look after Linda and our dog Handel whilst I was away.
And so my dream of making the first solo circumnavigation of the UK and Ireland began to take shape.
Apart from it just being an ego trip I wanted the expedition to raise a considerable sum of money for charity. Of course there are so many worthwhile causes and it was not easy to decide which one(s) I should become involved with. It is perhaps easy to take an organisation like the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) for granted. Much like your life insurance policy, you hope that you will never need it but it’s nice to know it’s there. In 2003 the RNLI took over most of the Beach Lifeguard services on our beaches and as a result a visit to the seaside is a much safer pastime. The RNLI has a reputation for being a wealthy charity but when you consider it cost £107 million to run the lifeboat service in 2003 it is clear that they need every penny. The charity is entirely dependent upon voluntary contributions and you can rest assured that the money is well spent: 81 pence in the pound goes direct to maintaining and replacing the existing fleet, purchasing new equipment or shore facilities, Beach Lifeguards and Sea Safety. Like many organisations the RNLI had been hit by the poor performance of the stock market as well as a worrying drop in legacies and membership numbers. Several new initiatives had started to see a turnaround in the charities fortunes and any funds raised by my expedition were to be targeted towards the Lifeboats 200 Crew Training Appeal. I wrote to the regional office in Bristol and they put me in contact with David Nicoll, Area Fundraising Manager for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. We arranged a meeting at the Falmouth Lifeboat Station where he is a member of the crew of both the inshore and the all-weather lifeboat. Dave was immediately enthusiastic despite the fact that it would have been obvious to him that I was bringing him a lot of work. Throughout the following twelve months Dave proved to be a real friend, ringing or texting me on a daily basis and much of the success of the expedition is down to him. He was able to offer a great deal of material assistance and access to the publicity machine that helps to make the RNLI one of the most successful charities in the world.
I first became aware of the work of The Marine Conservation Society (MCS), the UK charity dedicated to the protection of the marine environment and its wildlife through Richard Cooper’s record-breaking circumnavigation of the UK and Ireland using a windsurfer in 1999. I decided that my expedition would raise money for the MCS as well and serve to raise the profile of the organisation, especially within the paddling community. Perhaps most well known for the publication of the ‘Good Beach Guide’ and the ‘Adopt a Beach’ scheme, MCS has worked successfully for over 25 years to highlight issues of concern and threats to both marine wildlife and to the wider marine and coastal environment. There is no better way of exploring our coastline and observing the shy wildlife you will find there than by kayak. The MCS recognises the low impact that canoe sport has on the environment and wishes to encourage us to record what we see. They particularly want sightings of basking sharks and jellyfish and turtles both of which can regularly be seen around our shores. You can obtain sightings report cards by going to their website www.mcsuk.org where you will also be able to find out about other ways of contributing towards protecting the marine environment. I travelled to Ross on Wye, the unlikely location of the MCS headquarters and met with the Communications Director, Richard Harrington. MCS is a much smaller charity than the RNLI and Richard seemed to be apologising for the fact that MCS would be unable to provide the same degree of support that the RNLI would be able to offer. I assured Richard that all I was interested in was raising the profile of MCS and hopefully generating some funds to be put towards their invaluable work.
The London Boat Show in January of 2004 was a major milestone in my expedition preparation. I was invited to the show by Andrew Richards, Managing Director of Crewsaver and its subsidiary YAK which produce an excellent range of paddling clothing and equipment. Andrew had heard of my intention to circumnavigate the UK and had written to me in the Spring of 2003 offering his support. That early offer of sponsorship energised me and gave me the confidence to believe that the expedition, now called the ‘YAK-paddling.com Challenge’, really would happen.
David Green, one of the founding directors of Kirton Kayaks based in Crediton had been a father-like figure for me for many years. As well as supporting me from day one of my competitive career with free or heavily discounted racing kayaks, David was a source of wisdom, consistency and stability in my often chaotic world. I had been talking to David for years about my dream of paddling around the UK and he had promised to build me a boat fit for the job.
Dave had more or less retired by the time I was finally in a position to commit to the project but Pete Cockram, who had taken on the day to day management of the firm honoured Dave’s pledge and at 4.30pm on a wet and windy Friday I left work and drove to Crediton to collect the fabulous C-Trek sea kayak designed by Robin Feloy that I would be using for the Challenge. I knew that the Inuk just wasn’t going to be big enough for a six month expedition. Thankfully Rob Feloy had also designed the Inuk’s big brother called the C-Trek and this large, 18’ 7” expedition sea kayak would be perfect for the task – fast yet stable and with sufficient carrying capacity to enable me to carry all the food and equipment I would need. Kirton Kayaks are reknowned for their build quality and my boat was no exception. Made from state-of-the-art materials the ‘vacuum-bagged’ epoxy Kevlar kayak had a shell weight of just 20 kg yet its hull would be tough enough to withstand the rough treatment I was likely to give it during the expedition. Despite the inevitable last minute panic, the kayak was finished on time. My thanks go to everyone at Kirton Kayaks; especially Pete Cockram who interrupted his Christmas holiday to ensure it was ready for the London Boat Show in early January 2004.
A storm chased me all the way to London, strong winds buffeting my car and trying to wrench the boat from the roof. I kept my speed down to below 50mph on the motorway and did not arrive at the Docklands ExCel complex until after midnight. I slept in my car in a lorry park and despite the howling wind and heavy rain that combined with the noise of the Docklands Light Railway, buses and planes I had a good night’s sleep!
The storm that had followed me to London was now battering the huge marquee that housed the Canoe Village. The walls on the windward side of the building were buckling and bending inwards some five feet in the fiercest gusts and the roof rippled much like I imagine it would be inside a building during an earthquake. Thankfully though the ground did not move which was just as well because the hall was jammed-packed with all the cool kit and groovy gear for every watersport imaginable. My next challenge was to get my new kayak into the hall and erected onto the YAK stand without killing anyone in the process. Trying to stand a highly polished and therefore rather slippery 18 foot seven-inch sea kayak on its end with not a lot of room to manoeuvre was rather tricky but once installed and surrounded by YAK logos the boat looked great. Big, bright and yellow, emblazoned with black YAK logos, my magnificent new kayak towered above the competition in more ways than one.
The show started quietly but Stuart Fisher, editor of ‘Canoeist’ magazine soon came by and took some photos. Stuart had offered to give me copies of all his Coastal Guides; a labour of love over many years containing information gained from paddling the entire coastline of Great Britain, his guides provide the reader with a detailed description both of the physical features of the coastline and the history of the man-made landscape. They proved to be invaluable in the planning phase of the expedition and again when writing this book.
One of my main reasons for attending the show was to try to attract more sponsorship for the expedition. There were various bits of kit that I knew I would need and all the manufacturers would be there. My first target was Silva, world leaders in navigational equipment and electronic wizardry. I was after their Multi Navigator, which is much more than a GPS: it also includes an electronic compass, altimeter and a barometer with a weather forecast function. I nervously spoke to Murray Macintyre, Commercial Manager for Silva who committed himself, there and then, to supplying a Multi Navigator free of charge and their excellent S12 waterproof handheld VHF radio at reduced cost. I was stoked. It wasn’t just the fact that I had saved myself quite a bit of money; it was also that someone else thought that what I was doing was worthwhile and worthy of support. It gave me the confidence I needed to start approaching other companies for more kit.
I finally got to meet Andrew Richards on the Crewsaver stand. Andrew asked me if there was anything else I needed. I could have kissed him! The R.N.L.I. had strongly suggested I carry a personal locator beacon and had recommended the Mc Murdo Fastfind Plus. This exceptional bit of kit features a built-in GPS receiver combined with a 406MHz transmitter and a 121.5 MHz homing signal. In the event of an emergency, an alert signal is transmitted to Cospas-Sarsat satellites and forwarded to a rescue co-ordination centre typically within 3 minutes. The built-in GPS receiver will provide latitude and longitude co-ordinates to give a position to within approximately 30 metres anywhere in the world. Of course such kit does not come cheap and I had been worrying how I might be able to afford one. I tentatively asked Andrew as MD of Cosalt, the commercial side of Crewsaver, whether he might be able get hold of one for me. Andrew took me over to the McMurdo stand straightaway to ask. McMurdo pointed out that the only people they sponsored were Ellen McArthur and the R.N.L.I. Andrew would not take “No” for an answer and reminded them of the order he had just placed with them for 10,000 lifejacket lights! A few weeks later I took delivery of a Fastfind Plus PLB and I am extremely grateful to both Andrew and McMurdo for their help.
Next on my list were Aqua Pac and Marketing Executive Holli Ng agreed to supply me with a hundred pounds worth of waterproof cases for my delicate electronics including a laptop computer and digital camera.
I came back from the Show to the news that Lettmann; the German paddle maker had agreed to provide me with a wing paddle for the expedition. Huge thanks goes to Paul Ralph of Marsport for negotiating that one! Lettmann manufacture a whole range of paddles for racing, touring and whitewater. The quality of their paddles is unsurpassed. The wing paddle was invented in the mid eighties by Stefan Lindeberg, coach to the Swedish national kayak team and naval architect Leif Håkansson. Until the invention of the wing paddle it had been considered that the most efficient stroke was to draw the blade through the water parallel to the centre-line of the kayak. Lindeberg had noticed that his top paddlers had a tendency to scoop the blade outwards. He tried to think of a way of turning this action to their advantage, and came up with his initial concept: a paddle blade with a solid cross section similar to that of an aircraft wing. When a paddle blade with a wing cross section passes through water, low pressure forms on the leading (convex) side and high pressure on the concave power face. This gives the paddle blade ‘lift’, propelling the boat forwards more effectively than the blade of a conventional paddle. The original paddles made to the Swedish design were successful but they were heavy and difficult to use. Another Scandinavian, Einar Rasmussen, a champion kayak racer from Norway, developed the concept, designing the wing blade to more or less the form we see today. Ever since copies of the Rasmussen blade became available in the UK I had used a wing paddle for racing. The downside to the wing paddle is that it is not much good for doing anything other than paddling forwards, the wing blade becoming unstable when the blade is used for a rudder or bracing stroke. But for the style of sea kayaking that I was engaged in – grinding out miles – the wing paddle was perfect. I found I could perform an Eskimo roll to right the kayak in the event of capsize satisfactorily with it and could modify my other control strokes sufficiently to stay upright.
Dave Nicoll and I met regularly and a date was set: Saturday 3rd April for my launch party and departure from the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, a spectacular building overlooking Falmouth Harbour. Falmouth has witnessed the start of many epic voyages and the venue was perfect. With just ten weeks to go before the start of the expedition the pace of life just kept on accelerating! Marine Instruments in Falmouth loaned me a number of books and charts to assist in my detailed planning. The RNLI were obviously keen to ensure I did not require their services during the expedition and asked me to do risk assessments for every open sea crossing where I would be more than five miles from land. There were 44 such crossings in total! With each one I took into consideration the tidal streams, the potential fetch of the wind and the amount of shipping I would be likely to encounter. A crossing such as the one from Land’s End to the Isles of Scilly involved crossing busy shipping lanes and the potential risk from collision with a large ship was significant. I could be certain that they would not see me and I would be too small to show up on any radar screen. When viewed from the shore a large ship on the horizon can appear to be almost stationary but in fact they can be travelling at great speed (in excess of fifteen knots) and are unable to manoeuvre or stop quickly. I would have to let them go first!
The media interest was growing. I had already had articles published in Canoeist and Canoe Focus magazines and the demand on my time increased as journalists and photographers wanted to meet up. I was put in touch with Stuart Elford, a former police officer and spokesman for the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, Stu had retired from the Force and set up his own PR company; PDQ Comms Ltd. Stu offered to look after my PR for me free of charge – he saw it as a way of increasing the profile of his company and for me it proved to be of real benefit having someone to deal with all the media requests and produce professional-sounding press releases which could be targeted at those in the media most likely to not throw them in the bin. No stranger to the ocean himself, Stu raced yachts for a pastime and he could therefore understand the difficulty of the challenge I faced.
A six month solo journey of 5,000 miles could prove to be a bit lonely and I wanted to share my adventure with as many people as possible. I intended to do this by using the internet to full effect. A long time and very dear friend, Dominic Miles had been an enthusiastic supporter of many of my paddling exploits and is a genius in website design. Assisted by computer wizard Simon Lawrence, Dom has turned his passion for computers and the internet into a successful company: Icetea – Web Management and Ecommerce and he created a website for me; www.expeditionkayak.com. This became the single most important feature of the whole project. The ability to communicate with people around the world and receive their messages of support became as important to me as food and water. The knowledge that I had thousands of people monitoring my progress and willing me to succeed was all the motivation I needed. The plan was to carry a laptop computer with me in the kayak and to connect to the internet via a mobile phone. This would allow me to send and receive emails and update a web diary. I wrestled with the issue of how I could re-charge this and all the other electronic equipment I would need to take with me. It seemed impossible to generate sufficient power to charge the laptop from solar panels fixed to the deck of the kayak or a small wind generator. I found a neat bit of kit called an iSun supplied by Dashmount who agreed to supply me with it free of charge. A small solar panel with an integral battery charger capable to charging up to twelve re-chargeable AA batteries, it would be ideal for charging my mobile phone, VHF radio and the batteries for my digital camera. By taking photographs with a digtal camera I would be able to write thses to CD’s which I could then send to Dominic for loading onto the website. I found the ideal camera, a FujiFilm S5000 with a 10x optical zoom which was small and light enough for a trip like mine. It proved to be perfect and coped well with the rigours of the journey without malfunction. I already owned a 35mm waterproof camera and decided to use this for all the waterborne shots from the kayak.
I began trialling my beautiful new kayak and I was delighted with its speed and responsiveness, despite its large size. Stability was excellent and this gave me the confidence to think that I really could tackle the big open-sea crossings that I would need to undertake on my own and be fast enough to cover the vast distances involved. The steering system was simple, robust and effective and I fitted a footpump that would allow me to empty my cockpit whilst paddling in the event of having to re-enter the kayak whilst at sea. I fixed a small mesh bag to the deck in front of my cockpit which would hold my camera, snacks, sunglasses and sunblock. I like to keep my foredeck as clear as possible – less drag in wind and waves so I stowed my emergency paddle – another wing paddle split in two, on my rear deck within reach should I lose my normal paddle in strong winds or big surf. I clipped a dry bag containing a selection of flares to the rear deck, alongside a Platypus drink system to keep me hydrated.
YAK continued to give me tremendous support, supplying me with all their latest paddling gear including a gorgeous Kalyx sea touring cag and Konvoy buoyancy aid. I traveled to a marina on the River Hamble on the Solent where I met professional photographer Ingrid Abery who had been tasked by YAK to make me look good. We loaded my kayak onto a large RIB which whizzed us down to one of the most familiar coastal landmarks, the spectacular Needles stacks and lighthouse off the western tip of the Isle of Wight. We were blessed with sunshine but very little swell so it was hard work getting the ‘extreme’ shots she was after. I could not help but think that the next time I would see the Needles lighthouse would be towards the end of my journey in September, if all went well.
Another sponsor came on board: Wholebake sent me boxes of their delicious Nine B and NRG bars. As well as a desire to support their good work I had an alterior motive for choosing the RNLI as one of my charities. I would be impossible for me to carry six months worth of food in the kayak and I did not want the hassle and expense of having to purchase food on the way. I pre-packed 15 plastic storage boxes with supplies including maps and charts. Dave Nicoll negotiated with RNLI head office on my behalf and it was agreed that my boxes would be delivered free of charge to various lifeboat stations that I had selected on my route which have full time staff. Dave wrote to each of the coxswain/mechanics explaining what the box was for and this simple plan worked without a hitch. Dave’s energy and enthusiasm throughout this planning phase was inspiring. He introduced me to Simon Rabett, the District Operations Manager of the Marine and Coastguard Agency at Falmouth who agreed to act as my liaison throughout the expedition. I registered my Personal Locator Beacon and signed up for a VHF radio operator’s course. There was so much to do!
I wrote an article for the April edition of Canoe Focus, the magazine of the British Canoe Union (BCU) and Paul Owen, Chief Executive of the BCU put some very kind comments in his editorial. Having the support of the BCU was very important for me and it was brave of Paul to place his confidence in me. The solo nature of my journey went against all the advice that BCU had ever given on sea paddling but Paul recognised that people paddle alone on the sea all the time and that my journey was a good example of how it could be done in relative safety.
Another hero was Tim Guthrie who runs a local company Design and Print in Hayle. His staff designed a sponsorship form for me and he found a local firm that printed 10,000 for me free of charge. A sponsorship form was enclosed within every issue of Canoe Focus magazine and Linda’s parents sent a thick wadge of forms to every canoe shop and adventure centre all around the country.
Life was very hectic and Linda stated that as far as she was concerned I had effectively already departed, my head was so full of the expedition! I was under pressure at work to clear my desk before I left on six-month leave of absence. Linda’s job as Head Teacher of a large primary school was quite stressful and very demanding and we both knew it was going to be difficult for her when I was not there to ‘sound-off’ to. It is never quite the same conversation over the phone. So as the time for departure approached I began feeling increasingly guilty about ‘swanning off’ for the whole summer. Linda was fantastic though, only occasionally commenting as I purchased yet another bit of expensive ‘must have’ kit.
With a week to go most of my preparation was complete. I packed the C-Trek kayak with all the kit I intended to take and was relieved to see that it still floated – even with me in it – a real bonus! In fact it seemed to handle really well and I still had a little room to spare. After some late nights I got all my technical kit working; as long as I could keep the battery charged up on the laptop, and find a signal for the mobile phone, I would be able to access the internet and my email throughout the expedition. I had no idea at the time that the ability to read the messages of support from folk who were following my progress on the internet became crucial to maintaining my morale. Whenever I was feeling low I would read the messages and know that I had to keep going and finish what I had started.