By Katie Ellis
As 2015 arrived Katie was still looking for a paddling partner to accompany her on a looming UK Circumnavigation trip. She met Lee Taylor on a paddle to Lundy Island in February, Lee decided there and then to join the party and a plan began to form. The intrepid pair set out on from Falmouth in April, only 2 months later. Katie’s article tells how the new friendship coped with the stresses and strains of 128 days and 2000 miles on the water… PSK
This article has been heavily influenced by a talk Lee Taylor and I were asked to give at the Sea Kayaking Cornwall symposium in Falmouth in October last year. I was really excited that we’d been asked to give this talk, as I thought the talks at symposiums were reserved for world famous sea kayakers on ground breaking expeditions. We definitely did not fall into this category, so it was a great privilege (if a little petrifying) to stand up in front of so many sea kayakers who I really respect and attempt to deliver an entertaining presentation about our 4 month circumnavigation of Britain. We weren’t out to break records, we weren’t the first, nor the fastest, we definitely won’t be the last, but we made the trip ours, and somehow (some days I really have no idea how) we started and finished at the same beach on the same day in Falmouth.
One of the talking points in the presentation was about how Lee and I didn’t always see eye to eye. In fact at some points, it got so ridiculous that on one day, I was paddling along, unable to remember if I was meant to have fallen out with Lee or if we’d made up again. At the end of the talk Lee and I gave, during the questions, I distinctly remember a male voice at the back of the room asking “How did you survive spending that much time with each other?” My reply to this was “chocolate and tolerance,” which someone then announced would be a good name for a book. Whilst I have no plans for a book at present, John Willacy asked if I’d consider writing an article for PSK, and I thought that while many articles in canoeing magazines that I’ve read deal with the practical aspects of expeditions, I thought I’d try to discuss the more psychological factors at play during a trip which by anyone’s standards, took us a fairly long time; 128 days to be precise.
We did however, have some fantastic shared memories too. I’ll never forget the feeling of elation when we landed after our first open crossing to Wales. Any cross words we had on the crossing were forgotten about once we stepped foot on Welsh sand and realised we had officially committed to this trip. No-one was coming to bail us out now, we were on our own and we had both made it to Wales.Before I left on the round Britain trip, experienced sea kayakers had given me words of advice about expedition life. I knew that both Lee and I would see each other at our best and worst and that we would undoubtedly fall out as well as sharing many happy memories. What I could never have prepared for was the emotional impact of landing on an isolated beach in howling winds, freezing cold and absolutely soaking, in torrential rain, with just a wet tent for shelter and a full day’s paddling to look forward to. In these moments, Lee and I usually looked out for each other. The consequences of not pulling together as a team were not worth thinking about, and at times like this I was grateful for Lee being there. Tasks that were usually something to look forward to became unbearable when we were exhausted though. Forcing ourselves to cook a hot meal some nights was such an effort as we just wanted to sleep, but we learned the hard way one evening when we skipped a meal. We paid for it big time the next day; our energy levels in the morning were dire, and we ached all over.
I was aware that this expedition would be mentally and physically tough, but having never been on a long expedition before, I was really heading into uncharted territory. It taught me a lot about perseverance and I became aware that most days, as more experienced paddlers had warned me, it was a mental challenge, not a physical one. There were a few days where my body was complaining or rebelling, but most of the time, it was my own motivation that I was relying on to get on the water and continue the journey. The weather defeated us some days, and this is when I felt most frustrated. I’d got used to moving on each day, slowly chipping away at our goal and in the early days I was pretty good at seeing how each day on the water helped us get closer to our end goal of landing again in Falmouth. While paddling up through Devon and South Wales, after the initial excitement of starting the trip had died down, the reality of expedition life set in. There was a long old slog ahead, and so far we’d been lucky with the weather. Once we reached North Wales however, our luck changed and the wild wind set in, keeping us on land for the longest stretch of the trip – 4 whole days. This really got to us as we had pitched the tent on a tiny patch of grass above Amlwch harbour outside the public toilets – yes we were classy campers. The wind was howling and it rained relentlessly. We were literally holed up in the tent, unable to escape each other and both becoming increasingly frustrated at our lack of progress.
There are many advantages to paddling with someone else. Aside from the safety aspect of having someone to look out for you on the water, there’s also someone to talk to, bounce ideas off and make decisions with; to convince you that you can handle the sea state, or that it’s safer to stay on land. Shopping trips become more efficient and jobs around camp can be shared out. It’s also pretty useful to have someone who recognises when you’re becoming tired and delirious or to let you know your lips are actually blue. However, there are also times on expedition when you’re probably better off being left well and truly on your own.
I can honestly say, I don’t think I’ve ever before felt the severe exhaustion that I’d felt after paddling into horrible headwinds for a full day. At these moments, once we’d reached land I was not much fun to be around, I was irritable and grumpy, and having someone else who had different ideas about what to have for dinner, or where to pitch the tent was a recipe for disaster. We fell out over everything on this trip. You name it, we argued about it, but it usually never lasted longer than a few minutes. We realised that staying cross with each other didn’t help and wasn’t conducive to a successful expedition, so we managed to laugh it off. One of the many reasons chocolate became a big part of our coping mechanism was that when we’d fallen out over something and couldn’t bring ourselves to discuss it or apologise, whoever was feeling brave would usually source some chocolate from somewhere and present it as a peace offering or olive branch. No more would be said about the fall out, but the chocolate made it ok and we resumed expedition life. Despite our petty arguments, we did also share many amusing moments.
From very early on in the trip, we developed a few strange habits to our paddling day. These became like rituals, and if they didn’t happen during a day on the water, we began to worry about whether we were going to be ok. This may be really strange, and possibly a side-effect of spending so long paddling, but I’m willing to bet that other people sing when they’re kayaking too, so I’ll share our songs. The first was “On the road again” by Willie Nelson I think, which was sung without fail after the first few paddle strokes of the day, once we’d found a rhythm. The unfortunate part of this was that we didn’t know any other lyrics to the song apart from this, so it became a bit of a humming game. Still, I can’t recall a day where one of us didn’t start off the day with this little gem. Another song which to this day still haunts me is called “Lime and the coconut” and is one of the most bizarre songs I’ve heard. For some reason Lee and I would sing this at the top of our voices and it became particularly important down the East coast of England for some reason. It kept us happy, and despite hearing it far too often, it still makes me laugh now.
We had a psychological boost when we met up with Nick Blowfield and Duncan Johnston, who in a massive coincidence were paddling the same route as us in order to complete a circumnavigation of the roof of Scotland. We combined our teams and journeyed together with them for about 3 weeks. Everything became a little easier with 4 of us. Carrying boats became a doddle, as did cooking and setting up camp. We shared out food, collected water together and we had new people to chat to and experiences to share. We also felt safer in a larger team. All of a sudden there were two groups of two buddies to look after each other, someone could scout sections ahead, and someone could bring up the rear. We worked well together and I think we helped each other along the way too. One particularly memorable day that will be hard to beat in terms of great paddling memories, was on the North coast of Scotland near a notorious reef called Brims’ Ness. The swell had been building all day and our only bail out options were now a significant way behind us. The swell was easily 4m high and was occasionally breaking side on to us. Somehow, the fact that there were four of us calmed me down slightly, it also meant one of the lads was asked to hold Lee’s boat instead of me while he took an extreme ‘danger wee’. It didn’t take away from the fact that our next safe landing option, Thurso (also our destination for the evening) was still a few hours away and that the swell was building, creating incredible waves that I’ve never experienced before.
After the excitement and stunning beauty of Scotland followed by arriving back in to England to see my friends in the North East of England, the endless slog of paddling in flat seas resumed. At this point, I did lose motivation down the East coast. Mentally, I gave up. I was completely fed up of paddling and I couldn’t link the day to day paddling with the end goal of finishing in Falmouth. We’d had a horrible experience of being attacked in our tent in Skegness, and both of us were shaken up by this. It seemed that home was a long way away and our tempers began to fray. We were falling out over ridiculous things and making silly errors because of our lack of motivation. I distinctly remember a conversation with Lee where we tried to sort things out. We decided that regardless of the fact we weren’t getting on amazingly well at the moment, we’d come a long way together, and frankly, even if we weren’t going to be best buddies when we got home, it was probably worth trying to make the last few weeks of the trip as friendly as possible, because we didn’t want to look back over the last few weeks, only for it to be marred by petty disagreements. We did well with this, and eventually we worked together and forgot our differences.
During the miserable few weeks on the East coast, I plotted an escape at one point, happily day dreaming about catching a train home from Whitby and leaving my boat at the RNLI. It didn’t cross my mind that I’d be throwing away my dream or leaving Lee to continue alone, I just wanted out. I’m embarrassed and slightly ashamed to admit that I had completely lost my love of paddling. I was no longer paddling for fun; it was just what I had to do to get home. Without wanting to sound overly dramatic, I genuinely do not know what kept me going at this point. Somehow, getting up and getting on the water was just what I did each day, and frankly this was the only way I was going to get the boat home, so I was resigned to plodding on and eating up as many miles as I could each day. At some of the worst points I recall thinking I was going to have to continue because kayaking was now my job. I saw it like this; Mike Webb had paid me by giving me a boat and I’d promised him I was going to paddle this shiny Taran around Britain, so I couldn’t exactly let him down. I was far too scared to have to phone him and say I’d given up, so I plodded on. My motivation had pretty much deserted me after Skegness and I was fed up of the whole trip. Lee was unnervingly quiet for about a week after the Skegness incident and I didn’t know how to help. It was a pretty miserable week, but somehow we still made progress and we dragged ourselves out of this hole, realising that after Dover home really wasn’t too far away. The realisation that despite taking nearly a month longer than we wanted to, we were still going to finish what we started was a big motivation once we hit the South coast. The Westerly winds were relentless and I remember bawling my eyes out at the end of one day on the south coast after nine or ten hours of paddling with just a thermal on. The salt had dried under my arms and was rubbing my skin raw, creating a bloody mess that was stinging more with every stroke. Lee came to the rescue with an emergency Mars Bar, and I temporarily forgot about the pain. Somehow it didn’t matter now, we were coming home.
We landed a few minutes apart in Falmouth, on 9th August because I slowed down when some of my friends paddled out to see me. I didn’t mind this though, considering what we’d been through together and the fact we were strangers in February 2015, who had just completed a 4 month expedition together, I think we did fairly well to land on the same beach on the same day. We’d done pretty well at working together, relying on each other for all sorts of things and not abandoning each other when sometimes this would have been the easier option.
I don’t think either of us knew how to feel on the final day. Everything we’d been working towards over the past few months had come to an abrupt end. Our journey was complete and we’d come full circle. It was an amazing feeling to see our friends who’d turned out to welcome us home, and we were chuffed we’d completed it, but I did spend the next few weeks feeling more than a little strange.
Now the expedition is over, it’s just how I thought it would be; I look back and forget the tough bits. I remember the beautiful sunrises and sunsets on the west coast, the stunning beaches in Scotland where we set up camp, made fires and had beaches to ourselves, I recall the amazing feeling of being alive, running for all I was worth into sand dunes to hide after landing in big surf on the East coast during a lightning storm and I remember the kindness of the many strangers we encountered on Britain’s coastline who offered us food, shelter and compassion when needed it most. This adventure taught me many things, one of which is the importance of tolerance, for despite our differences, the emotional support of someone else can make a huge difference on expedition. It also taught me that sometimes, when for whatever reason things are tough and you’ve lost sight of the end goal, just getting up and making whatever progress you can make is the best thing you can do, because usually problems sort themselves out, the end goal becomes clearer and you rediscover why the journey was important to you. Kayaking for days on end becomes a sort of meditative practice and as with life, you have to paddle through difficult times to appreciate the better times. All journeys have difficult parts, whether you are on an expedition or living life back on dry land. The lessons I’ve learned from this expedition are still revealing themselves to me now, and I’m sure they’ll come in handy in the future.
Katie Ellis – Feb 2016