It’s November 21st 2009, around tea time. I’m in Morocco, and I’ve just missed a call on my phone. It’s from a friend who knows I’m away... Why on earth? A mistake, surely? But it’s the weekend: is something wrong? I send a text asking if he called me by mistake and the phone rings instantly. It’s Andy. Is everything ok? ‘It’s Chris’ the voice on the other end of the phone tells me. ‘He’s dead.’
Photo credit: unknown.
I have no memory of the rest of that phone call. I remember Andy’s voice sounding shaky and tearful, but can’t take in what he’s trying to tell me. In a guest house in Imlil, I collapse to the floor in tears and am physically picked up, rescued if you like, by Ben and Rachid, our guides on my ‘holiday’.
The six months leading up to that call had been rough, to say the least. My long term partner and I had separated, in difficult circumstances, and the following weeks & months saw many of the circle of friends I relied upon, for friendship and adventure buddies, desert me in favour of his new pairing. I felt alone, left without partner, home, friends, living in a place to which I now felt no connection. I had lived for paddling- both sea and white water, driving tens of thousands of miles a year for adventures all over the UK- and now I had no-one to go on those adventures with.
I didn’t hang around though, I found new adventure buddies, did new things. This trip to Morocco was an attempt to return to my adventurous self.
And now this... I couldn’t grasp the reality of it. Chris Wheeler had been a friend, a role model- and a mentor of sorts. We were vastly different in background and outlook, but in his quiet, measured way he had provided me with the ‘I want to paddle like that’ role model, with encouragement to try new things, to venture into playboating at Hurley, something he cherished- and with a gentle, honest and faithful friend through the last, tough months.
And now? He was gone. Drowned on our ‘home run’, a river he had paddled hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. For goodness sake it was a river even I’d run… How could I still be here, and he- invincible in my eyes- be gone?
Over the coming months I re-examined my relationship with risk; I asked questions of why, and how, and came to a conclusion. I sold my white water kayak and kit; decided I simply couldn’t face the idea of getting back on a river. The risks outweighed the benefits for me. I threw myself into hillwalking and sea kayaking: grasped every opportunity, made the most of every moment- but walked away from rivers.
Fast forward eight years... to late October 2017. I’m on the Findhorn Gorge, a classic section of Scottish white water, and I’m grinning from ear to ear. It’s a beautiful autumn day, the trees are dripping in red and gold, and showering leaf confetti down upon us. I’m here with Matt Haydock, a close friend, superb paddler and coach who’s been instrumental in getting me to this point; I’m paddling reasonably well- though this is a step up from recent rivers I’ve run- and I could hardly be happier.
So how did that happen? How did I get from vowing never to get on a river again, and being terrified and emotional at just the idea- to grinning my way down a Scottish grade 3/4 classic? It’s been quite a journey- and I wanted to write this to document a little of that journey, in the hope that it might help others suffering from a crisis of confidence to understand that its possible to overcome that hurdle, no matter how high the barrier might feel. It also, I must admit, has been cathartic to say the least.
Life has changed beyond recognition since the day of that phone call in 2009: I moved to my spiritual home in the Scottish Highlands, took voluntary redundancy from my office-based job, and turned myself into a full-time sea kayak coach and professional paddler. I’m paddling at the top of my game, doing a job I love, and living in a stunningly beautiful place with a partner who loves and understands me, and is impressively tolerant of my constant need to push for the next goal.
Around the time I decided to leave my previous job and move north, I started as a long term student for a coach going through the old BCU Level 5 Sea Kayak Coach process: it was rewarding, and fun, and I learnt an enormous amount. My kayaking took off and I developed a passion for coaching. Nick knew my story, and was aware that I’d wondered about overcoming my white water block. Towards the end of the Level 5 process, he asked if I’d be interested in running a river again. I didn’t need long to decide… 5 years had gone by, and the wounds were healing. With a borrowed boat and paddle, we ran the Middle Findhorn at a good medium level. It was tough, but I loved it. I cried and cried, both before and after: it felt like a massive step, but I’d broken the spell.
So a couple of years later when my friend Matt was looking for students to go through his UKCC Level 3 White Water, I jumped at the chance. I’d only been on a river a couple of times since that day with Nick, and although I was keen, I was still very, very nervous. My emotions were always close to the surface at even the idea of paddling white water - and the thought of doing it with anyone who didn’t understand my story- and I hadn’t developed trust for- wouldn’t even cross my mind.
Matt started slowly with me. We got on easy white water- where he was very confident I would cope- to build up technical skills, and begin rebuilding my confidence. There were occasional tears, with which he coped admirably, and he began to give me the tools to deal with anxiety in the white water environment. Breathing exercises helped; as did having the opportunity just to talk about why it was hard to put myself through this. We also looked at warming up- both physically and psychologically – and I began to construct the building blocks for the future.
It was really important that I was allowed to progress at my own pace: I’d realised that, in previous years, I had spent a lot more time being scared than enjoying myself. I didn’t want to do that now. Since Chris’s death, that line where fear begins has come into very sharp focus for me- and consequences are very much more real. Whereas before 2009 a more ‘hardline’ approach from a coach might have worked with me- now I needed a softer, subtler method of coaching where I could back away from the challenge if I needed to.
Relatively early in the process Matt surprised me by taking us to the Etive. My reaction when he told us where we would be going was very instinctive and fairly dramatic- he spotted straight away that I was panicking at even the idea. However, just the suggestion of it confronted me with a challenge: consider it, or walk away. It was a very low water day, with little in the way of other options – and we headed there to consider the use of key strokes in a site-specific session. I didn’t get on the water that day, but I did surprise myself: I took away the idea that I might, eventually, consider running this type/grade of river again, having written it off for myself previously.
We then went back to looking at technical and tactical choices- and later headed to the Spean Gorge. It was quite a step up for me both technically and psychologically- and I struggled whilst being led by another student, feeling under-confident and not in control. The day crossed my metaphorical line further into ‘fear’ than ‘fun’- but it did allow me to challenge myself and realise that whilst it needed to be a slow and gentle foray into higher grades, I did in fact want to push myself and my paddling.
I began to venture out with other friends, away from the safe environment of coached sessions. The first time was tough: I was two hours late because I was so nervous I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. My partner held me while I cried and cried- but in the end I knew I had to go. We had chosen our river carefully; I told my story to my adventure buddy for the day, and we had a chilled out, sunny and fun day on the river.
Towards the end of the coaching process we started to work in real independence: removing my ‘safety blanket’ to help me get on the river with confidence in myself, rather than relying on others. And I started getting excited about paddling with other people again; getting out on the amazing rivers that I now live so close to, with friends.
And since then? I’ve managed a couple of trips, with friends I trust implicitly, and on beautiful days. I’m being careful but adventurous. I’ve learned to objectivise my fears, and each rapid that I come to; to rationalise the river if you like. I’m learning to ask myself where the actual danger is, and whether I can honestly make the move required to avoid it; to assess my own performance honestly rather than allowing lack of confidence to hold onto me. And if the answer is no? Well, I portage. Sounds simple doesn’t it?
So is that it? No, it’s not. Chris’s story and the memory of him will come with me on every river I paddle. It’s just that these days he’s back to his old self: quietly willing me on.
At Chris’s funeral, his bereaved partner chose to have one of his favourite songs played: Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’. That song has become an anthem for me... “Throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year will keep me right...”. And oh my, how right those words are.
Still smiling at the end of the Findhorn Gorge.
Photo: Matt Haydock.
With huge thanks to Matt Haydock, Gill Berrow, Dave Rossetter and Nick March for sharing and helping me through the journey, and to Mark Brown for simply being himself.
There are so many elements to planning a sea kayaking trip, it's amazing we ever get anything done. Weather, tides, swell, time off, the right partner... the list goes on. The more challenging the trip, the rarer the opportunity.
Just occasionally though, it all falls into place, and dreams are realised. And so it was for me this week.
The island of Hoy is an advanced sea kayaker's dream. Within the Orkney Islands archipelago it is an oddity: mountainous and remote, with little of the low-lying land to be found elsewhere in those islands. It specialises in drama: the highest vertical sea cliffs in the UK at St John's Head, exposure to Atlantic swell and the fast, committing and complex tides of the Pentland Firth, no-landing zones of over 10km, the stunningly beautiful Rackwick Bay, and to top it all, one of the most iconic rock formations on the planet: the Old Man of Hoy.
Friend and colleague, Matt Haydock (Rapid Development Coaching) and I set off on Monday, planning a two day circumnavigation to beat the incoming South-East gales forecast for Wednesday. Paddling out into a glowering, mizzly Sound of Hoy I felt apprehensive: had we made the right call, choosing this trip? Was the weather on it's way in early? I doubted myself and the forecast... With the right paddling buddy though, teamwork and decision-making come easily: we would carry on with the plan. Was it really apprehension, or simply butterflies at the prospect of achieving a long-held dream?
Round - or should I say through- the Kame of Hoy and it's two large tunnels, and round the corner to our first view of St John's Head wearing a hat of cloud, and the Old Man. The sheer scale of the place is hard to comprehend, impossible to put into words. I try to photograph them, with disappointing results: they create a feeling images can't convey. A picture of Matt though, when I look at it later, reveals a smug grin. My thoughts exactly!
We camp at the stunningly beautiful Rackwick Bay, above a white sand beach and a steep bank of storm-worn, sea-tossed boulders, molded into stripey dinosaur eggs by the huge waves that crash here in the winter months. What little wind there is drops, and we both retire to our tents early, chased in by the notorious Hoy Midge.
We're up early next morning. Neither of us really do mornings, and the midges are fierce, so it's a handful of peanuts, some water and a snack bar for the buoyancy aid pocket for me, then midge net and drysuit on for the boat carrying & packing mission. Not many words are needed. We need to be on our way by 7am to catch the tide round the crux point of our trip: Tor Ness.
The entry in the Admiralty Pilot warns of death and destruction lurking beneath the waves at Tor Ness during the West-going tidal stream. We were choosing to travel anti-clockwise, so using the East-going flow- but could find no information on what we might find when we got there. Huge breaking waves? We didn't know: but we were confident that the plan would work, and we could deal with whatever the Pentland Firth decided to throw our way.
Onwards, past more enormous, vertical and impossibly smooth cliffs. We really are on our own down here: nowhere to escape should anything go wrong, and little chance of communication through VHF or mobile phone. An awe-inspiring sense of remoteness and commitment. We feel movement in the water- but is it doing what we expect? A kick to the west suggests a peculiar pattern, but we're shifting along... Looks like we've got it right.
Round Tor Ness, and... well, not a lot! A few breaking waves, with flow in a variety of directions: but all very satisfyingly within both of our comfort zones. Time for coffee!
Onwards... but now we're finding the tide flowing against us. That shouldn't be happening...? Do we stay close inshore and fight the tide through the eddies forming all along this stretch, or do we head out deeper into the Pentland Firth, where we might be pushed away from our objective and towards the mainland? We decided to go for the harder work, but safer option: stay inshore and knuckle down for a slower few miles.
The cliffs are lower lying now, but still impressive, and we're working out what we can see in the Firth around us. We both know the area a little having paddled, and been trained and assessed for various qualifications here. Memories are shared, stories told. Have I told you about the time when...?
Round Cantick Head, and we're heading north at last. We're both in need of a rest and food after our early start- then on towards Scapa Flow. Weaving a path through the islands, we pass evidence of the strategic importance of the place: the Martello Towers guarding the entrance the Long Hope, gun emplacements and lookout stations on the many headlands. Scapa Flow itself looms large, like a small sea enclosed by history. It's a busy place still, and as we cover the final few miles we cross paths with a ferry, fishing boats, pleasure boats and a yacht or two making the most of the light winds before tomorrow's forecast storm.
Tired but satisfied, we pull into the Bay of Houton... So what will the next adventure be?
I've always dreamed about being able to head out on an expedition longer than the standard 2-3 weeks that was available to me while working a 'normal' job. So inevitably, when I took the plunge into the freelance life, I set out making my dream happen.
Poring over Google Earth, I just kept coming back to my home country... And so the idea of Right Round Scotland was born.
Now for the preparations stages...
How long will it take?
Check out the tides & commit...
And finally... Pack!
Sounds simple, hey?!
I set off tomorrow, from Berwick upon Tweed, hoping (with a fair wind) to make it to the west coast in a week or so where we will start paddling. I'll post on here as often as possible, technology permitting.
I hope you'll follow the journey, and if you enjoy it, perhaps consider donating a little to Scottish Mountain Rescue through my Just Giving page.
Five Star Sea Kayak Leader is seen by some people as being an unachievable aim. For me it was the end of one long journey, taking me to extraordinary places with incredible people, and the start of another, passing on those experiences. I wanted to document a few of the most memorable moments on that journey, both to share the joy and wonder of them, and to show that the aim in itself is very achievable, with effort and determination.
In 2003 I went to Gordon Brown for a two day introductory sea kayak course, and after the second day Gordon gave me the perfect advice: Go and buy a boat, and go paddling.
I set off racking up the miles... Solo trips to begin with, until I found Mallaig Canoe Club and a few choice paddling buddies willing to do longer trips with me.
Over a thousand miles in the first year, and a trip to Barra and Mingulay in 2004, followed by a trip to Lewis. Befriending the Stornoway Canoe Club gang got me into all sorts of trouble...
Photo courtesy of Gordon Brown... This picture has come back to haunt me many times!
Moving south for work, and I discovered the sublime sea kayaking on Anglesey. Despite living in Bournemouth, wild horses couldn't keep me from that beautiful island, and I fled up there every other weekend for over a year. Tide races, surf, rockhopping and lots of fun just kept me returning.
Some longer trips took me to Ireland... Both the West coast, and the North coast of the Emerald Isle discovered, and later a longer trip up the west coast of Scotland.
My lowest ebb came with the need for outside assistance. A rescue on Anglesey, involving the RNLI & RAF Rescue helicopter. It was the toughest day of my paddling career, but we survived, and we learnt from the experience. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Photo taken by Maurice Hoare.
A visit to Shetland established the northern isles in my mind as my favourite paddling location in Britain, and I vowed to return as soon as I could. Little did I realise that a few years later I would be dreaming of taking clients to those fabulous islands.
Sea kayaking then took a back seat in my life for a while, and I concentrated my outdoor efforts on the hills and mountains. These things come in waves, so to speak.
In 2012, my passion was reignited by a friend's description of their trip to Greenland. I decided there and then, I wanted to go. A year later, I was stepping off the boat in Tasiilaq, joining a group led by Martin Rickard of Sea Kayak Adventures, and back at home, about to accept voluntary redundancy and step out into uncertainty.
Two weeks in my favourite environment, where I barely stopped smiling, taught me a lesson. I wanted to lead and coach people in the outdoors. To pass on my passion for the places I love most, to open them up for people and help them gain the skills and independence they need to go there themselves.
I knew I was capable of achieving that big ticket: Five Star. Simple words that had come to mean so much to me in recent months. I'd led people informally on the sea and in the mountains for years. But 2014 was a very different type of paddling year. Focussed, determined practice of the last few skills I needed to add to my paddling experience culminated in two trips. I returned to Anglesey with friends, to test ourselves in the races and surf of my favourite place South of the Scottish border. And Cape Wrath: well, you've already read about that.
Assessment weekend dawned windy. Very windy. I was nervous, but I gritted my teeth, and did my best to do what I do. Counted down the minutes to the magic words... "Congratulations, you've passed..." The sweetest ending to an amazing journey, and the beginning of the next.
I've been to some extraordinary places by kayak. Every once in a while though, an opportunity comes up to paddle, with the right conditions and company, in a place that is head and shoulders above the rest: a Holy Grail trip.
Last week, four of us ventured to the North Coast of Scotland, and with the weather looking good enough, and the Firing range silent for the day, we decided to take on one of Britain's most remote and committing sea kayaking trips, Cape Wrath.
This headland, whose name is Norse for 'Turning Point' but conjures up so much more, has been on my bucket list for almost ten years. I've cancelled attempts on it twice due to bad weather. So to finally get round was a huge achievement: there were smiling faces and whoops of delight as we rounded the Cape and glimpsed Am Buachaille in the distance.
Almost 40km of paddling, 6 hours in a boat with no possible landings, a couple of tide races, some large clapotis and four seasons in one day later, and we landed at Droman pier, with the sort of feeling of satisfaction only felt with an opportunity grasped with both hands.
This is my favourite cairn...
It sits at the top of the Fiacaill a Choire Chais in the Cairngorms, and is the point affectionately known as '1141'. Not exactly a romantic name...
But for me, it's a bit special. It's been the start and end of adventures, the beginning of a navigation leg on Summer Mountain Leader training, a spot where I've bumped into friends, a tiny haven of relative calm on a windy winter day, a place where I've had to shout to be heard over the wind and spindrift, considered crawling as I couldn't stand in the wind; and a place to linger in the sunshine. I've even done a university project studying the plants on the ridge leading to it. And when I moved to Aviemore, one of the first things I did was walk up to it.
It's just a pile of rocks. But the memories it evokes are worth so, so much more...
I've just returned from 5 fantastic weeks in Iceland and Greenland. The former the home of some of the world's newest rocks, a young landscape and and a very cool and efficient culture. The latter, home to some of the oldest rocks on Earth, and with a people who have had to develop from ancient to modern ways of life in a very few years.
The New: Iceland
We bathed in hot pools...
... trekked through other-worldly landscapes...
... forded rivers...
... and touched some of the newest rocks on the planet.
Greenland provides a different perspective on life. Seen from a sea kayak, the way inuit hunters have traditionally travelled, you feel a strong bond with the land and its inhabitants.
Ice is ever-present throughout the year.
Greenlandic people truly live life on the edge.
A stunning landscape, travelled through in traditional style, and in great company...
...with some very happy memories that will last a lifetime.
I've just come back from a wonderful 5 days kayaking around Barra, and visiting Mingulay, Pabbay, Berneray. Eriskay and the other sandy-beached, cliff-girt islands that make up the Outer Hebridean chain south of the Uists. It's a wonderland of remote beauty, only seen these days by climbers and kayakers, and day trippers to the islands when the weather is fine.
Mingulay is the jewel in the crown of this area for me, full of mystery and wonder which easily rivals its more famous lookalike, St Kilda. Inhabited into the twentieth century, the island is full of the ghosts of those who once lived here.
The picture above was taken a few days ago, and that below ten years ago. It's fascinating to see how the islands are very slowly changing over the years.
The island is now cared for by the National Trust for Scotland, and a warden is resident through the summer months. Visitor numbers are growing, and we shared the island with over thirty climbers, with another thirty or so on Pabbay in the same week. The good weather gave us all the opportunity to see such a special place without the dangers or hardships that must have been endured by those living here over a hundred years ago. Time moves on, people and places evolve, but we must take care of our history...