In spring 2017, half way through walking the length of Britain, I stayed with Sean Conway who had previously swam, ran and cycled LEJOG. While at that point my focus was on getting to the end of the walk, his world first length of Britain triathlon was bouncing around in my head. As I finished the walk looking out over the balmy Cornish sea I wondered if I could do a water based adventure too.
The main problem with this idea is my fear of the sea. It's not so much the vastness of it all that bothers me, more the massive unknown. I've never surfed or been into water sports. I don't know anything about tides or waves or what lies beneath. Both my parents and I nearly drowned when we were younger so I've never viewed the sea as an inviting adventure playground.
As such I knew right off the bat that swimming it was out of the question, particularly after Sean's tales of jelly fish! But as I looked into it more I saw that no one had ever stand up paddleboarded it before. The idea of being the first really appealed - there would be no time to beat, I could just paddle at my own pace, dealing with my fear as I went and simply getting to the end would be enough.
It’s 8:30pm on Friday 20 April and I’m sat having dinner with Liam, my SUP Britain photographer. We’re in the onsite restaurant of our St Ives campsite feeling slightly out of place. Dressed as you’d expect for an adventure we look a tad disheveled, in what is a much nicer restaurant than we expected. Plus, we’ve brought all our tech in to see if we can sneakily charge everything ready for the morning.
Tomorrow is the first day of good weather for weeks. It is THE day. The start of another adventure. And the nerves are building. While Liam scoffs down a huge steak, I can barely stomach my carbonara, which he ends up finishing. I’m far more nervous than normal. Not least because I’m scared of the sea.
SUP Britain for me is my biggest challenge yet. I’m not a water baby. I’ve never surfed and have virtually no experience in the sea. Having only stand up paddleboarded on the sea 3 times before this day, the idea of being out there for months with so many unknowns, paddling from Lands End to John O’Groats in an attempt to set 3 new world records, fills me with nausea inducing anxiety.
There’s also another reason I’m nervous. Due to my inexperience, I need a support team. Preferably a support boat with skipper and photographer; to make sure I don’t die, and to capture the moment in case I do. But with less than 24 hours before I’m due to start I don’t yet have a skipper. In fact, I don’t even have my support boat sorted for the whole trip yet, or the funds to buy one.
Am I crazy? I thought the idea of a woman with little SUP experience taking on the world’s fastest growing water sport to achieve a world first would be a hell of a marketing opportunity. For a company with similar values around pushing potential, dreaming big and supporting women to believe in themselves, surely this is something they’d be keen to support. While I managed to secure some awesome kit sponsors and generate some great publicity, I couldn't find a title sponsor.
As my start date drew closer people kept asking me “aren’t you worried it won’t all come together in time?”, “at what point will you give up and call it off?”. But I never had any intention of calling it off. I wanted desperately to do this, despite my fear, paddling inexperience and lack of funds/skipper/boat. I figured, if I kept believing it was possible, I will keep making all those small actions that will eventually bring what I need to make it happen. The potential “what if” was too big not to continue.
I had to go now. I had to make a start and make sure that it would all come together along the way, to make it past the start line and 800 miles up the coast to the finish.
Two weeks later and Liam and I were back at St Ives. I set off on my SUP on 21st April from Lands End with a locally hired support boat and skipper (which cost an insane amount of money so I couldn’t do this for more than that first weekend). I managed to paddle round 20 miles in those first two days. Since then I secured the finance to make the expedition happen and bought a 32ft sailing yacht as my support boat, despite not knowing a thing about boats or sailing.
And what about the skipper? Well, I quickly realised on meeting Liam, my photographer, that his experience as a SUP instructor would be invaluable in helping hone my paddling technique. And it turned out his experience as a powerboat and dingy instructor meant it wasn’t too much of a leap for him to learn to sail my support boat in just a day.
From 6 May onwards Liam skippered my support boat and recorded my adventure. Over the proceeding weeks my confidence on the water grew and we made progress up the coast, enjoying incredible scenery and paddling in some amazing weather. On 31 June I become the first women in history to SUP across the Irish Sea, sharing my story on BBC Breakfast, and continued on to John O’Groats, becoming the first person to SUP the length of Britain on an inflatable board. Plus, added to my previous walk and cycle, I'm now the first woman in history to complete a length of Britain triathlon.
It feels incredible to think what I’ve achieved, when there were so many moments at which I could have ducked out. And no one would have blamed me. It looked impossible. It looked like it wasn’t going to work. But I’ve learnt that there’s always a way forward, and I certainly don’t need to be ready in order to start. If I really believe in something, anything is possible.
I couldn't be more proud of taking on such a scary adventure and coming out smiling.
Against stiff competition, I was awarded the British Canoeing John MacGregor Outstanding Challenge Award 2018 in recognition of my dedication, commitment and impact on the sport through SUP Britain.
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