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Following a Dream

The Somerfield-SPARKS Canoe Challenge '96

(Cirumnavigation of Mainland Britain by Sea Kayak)

My name is Steve Macdonald, originally from Merseyside, and last year I became the first registered blind person to circumnavigate Great Britain by kayak. This took eight months in the planning, five and a half months in the execution, and gave a lifetime's experiences.

The idea came about in a pub around Christmas '95. I had just finished a walking expedition and wondered what to do next. I chose this particular expediiton, I suppose, to: a) fund-raise effectively; b) set a challenge; and c) discover this island I was born on.

After meeting with many charities I found their to be a mutual interest with SPARKS - SPort Aiding medical Research for KidS. So I started planning the expedition full time for them on 1st September 1995.

I began with everything to do: find a route; secure equipment, (a double Sea Kayak for starters); Establish a team; obtain the sponsorship; Interest the media; and develope mechanisms for fund-raising and PR.

I was asked at the time, where would I start. Well I simply picked up the phone, shook the dust from the word processor, and contacted anybody and everybody, and kept on doing this until I enbarked on the expedition. That may be an over simplification but basically that was it. Contrary to advice, the task was acheived most efficiently by working on all aspects of the project at once, all the components being inter-linked. As time went on the elements fell into place.

There were set backs and disappointments. I received letters advising me not to go ahead, this was dangerous, it would take five years to organise, and my blindness would be a problem. For a long time there was no Sponsor, until Somerfield agreed for their staff to help raise £50,000 in return for PR at their coastal stores. Then with only six days to go a company sent the spray deck template back (having had it for a month), claiming they just couldn't help. So with less than a week to go I had no means of keeping water out of the cockpits. After some frantic phone calls Phoenix of Nottingham came to the rescue..

The Launch day arrived (15 May '96), with all the dignitaries, speeches, cameras, and yes the nerves. The route was finalised, simply go to the end of Thames, turn right keep the land on the right until we see Tower Bridge. I had the team established: Peter Bray, as front paddler, (ex SAS soldier); Catherine Bond, as PR support, (no previous PR experience but enthusiastic); Paul Weaver, Practical support, (competent paddler and practically minded); and myself as Project Leader. The Kayak had been designed and built by Dan and Karen Trotter (materials donated by Freemans), the paddles were donated by Lendal, some clothing by Trax, and at short notice the spray decks were made by Pheonix of Nottingham. There was a growing mass of media support. We were going to begin, ready or not.

My nerves were calmed as Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent was speaking, with the realisation that this was a magnificent event, for medical research, for disabled people, and one that would leave lasting impressions with many people. Looking across to Dan and Karen I remembered their words of wisdom, "You'll get to the start day and there will always be somethings that have not quite been tied down, but just get in the kayak and wave goodbye, its your trip, enjoy it". And so I did, but not before lots more hugs, smiles for the camera, and all the while the Fan Fare, composed in our honour, playing in the background. But yes, then we were off.

Paddling down the Thames, at a snails pace with the wind blowing strong in our faces, I did wonder about the sanity of paddling right around the coast of Britain. We were still in the Thames yet water was already breaking over Pete's shoulder. But at least we were free from the drudge of nine to five.

The first month was dreadful, we found ourselves weather bound again and again. The most serious case occurred while we were paddling near Dover. The harbour master, seeing the deterioration in the weather, suggested we paddle on the inside of the break water, so he could keep an eye on us. As we got to the exit the controller wished us luck, and by God did we need it! Due to the wind and the callapitous just outside the break water the sea condition was now a snappy force 5. Once through that the sea state had picked up for real to a good force 6. We stood still for an hour then managed to increased the speed to 7 mph. We eventually made it into Folkstone but not before nearly being run down by a Sea Cat, who had no chance of seeing us behind the waves. We were to stay there for five days, land locked, like real men of the sea.

We got going again and turned onto the south coast, just as the wind changed to westerlies. I began to wonder wheather Britain would have a summer this year, and it came as no surprise when I found out that May had been the worst May for 72 years. But it wasn't all doom and gloom, as long as you forget about Dunginess, (the place the sea threw back, and lets be honest, who'd blame it).

Even if there wasn't the weather, the mere hint of summer, got people into a holiday mood, and we found ourselves talking to more people when landing and launching from beaches. One afternoon we came ashore and two girls came up and asked how much a tour of the bay would cost, (thinking I had taken Pete for a quick spin, I presume) I didn't have the heart to explain.

Our route took us out to the Isle of White where we had a mornings PR set up. Crossing from Seaforth, a ten mile trip dogging ferries all the way, we arrived in East Cowes in time for a quick wash up before meeting Paul and Cath off the Ferry. The owners of the marina never having seen a craft like ours before, gave us a berth for the night and a place to set up camp. We had a great night but paid for it the next morning. Some advice, never go sea kayaking with a hang over.

On to Weymouth and around Portland Bill, the place were rabbits are called bunnies because they were responsible for the collapse of the mines. It is said that there are those that have lived on the bill all their lives and never ventured from it.

When we reached Land's End our spirits were high. We sat for a while looking back at what was the south coast and looking right to what would make our west coast journey, quite a milestone, and a real feeling of doing something special.

The next day we paddled from Sennon Cove to Newquay, 36 miles, and with a south westerly we were flying. Well, until the last few miles when we discovered a hole in the kayak. Luckily only one of the five compartments was flooded. No problem though, we had arrived in Newquay, it was 1.30am so no blonde haired babes, but they were to come.

We were taken in by the Newquay Rowing Club which has the sign hanging on the door, "There are no strangers here only friends you haven't met". They took us out in a traditional gig, Pete being described as an "enthusiastic Rower", and then threw a party in our honour raising £100 for SPARKS. I'll never forget these kind people that really capitulated that sign on the door.

On up the coast and we were grounded again. This time for eight days while waiting to cross the Bristol Channel. We eventually went for it with a forecasted 2 to 3. It turned out to be a force 4 to 5, and instead of us drifting down stream with the strong Bristol currents we went straight across from Illfracombe to Rhossili. Hard work but we had made it to Wales. We worked our way up the coast of Wales and then it happened the dreaded Tinisighnivitis which had hampered my training. My left fore arm ballooned up, aching during the day, and being heavily strapped and rested during the night. Like most I was sceptical about crank paddles, but Lendal persuaded me to try them, and I can't talk more highly of them now. The pain disappeared completely.

In North Wales there was near disaster, when against all advice Pete insisted on trying to launch with a force 6 blowing on shore. We got in the kayak only to be dumped time and again back on the beach. At the end of that little episode, I had snapped a paddle, ripped my spray deck, and grazed various parts of my body. Perhaps I had been right after all.

Then north past Liverpool, Southport to Whitehaven were we sat for five days, teased by glimpses of the misty Scottish lowlands across the Soleway Ferth. We were happy here having had a formal introduction to the Sea Cadets bar, but we yearned to be in Scotland. I hesitate to speak of the next leg, and the wonders of Scotland, in case too many of you decide to go there. But it is impossible not to mension this beautiful, rugged, wilderness. At times an unforgiving, but always spectacular country.

On the west we picked our way through the many islands. There were exciting tide races, and some commiting crossings. The wildlife was amazing, on the way to Arran, we came across a group of basking sharks, flolopping about in the evening sunshine. Only youngsters at 17 foot, they seemed not to mind our presence at all. Then we had frequent escorts by seals in and out of camp sites. There were playful dolphins and porpoises, and beautiful birds from Eagles to Puffins.

North to Cape Rath, the most north easterly point of mainland Britain, where the cliffs rose higher than anywhere else on the mainland, a staggering 1,000 foot. I felt terribly humble sitting at the foot of these natural giants, that stand steady against all the elements.

Contrary to popular opionion the East of Scotland also has a lot to offer. On the far North East we came across an amazing collection of caves, pinnacles, sea arches. Even for a large kayak like ours there was plenty to keep us entertained, playing hide and seek with our friends Dan and Karen behind the cliff face. I will certainly be returning here.

Coming down the coast there was: Invergorden with its high population of dolphins; Aberdeen and Edinburgh; and even here there were touches of wilderness. And throughout Scotland we met only with acts of friendship.

It wasn't all beautiful birds and rugged scenery, at times there were life threatening situations. There was the Mull of Galloway, and the Mull of Kintire to get round. At the Old Man of Hoy huge waves beat down on top of us, the faces of which were taller than the length of our Kayak.

We proved the capsize drill worked about three miles outside Montrose. We were reaching the end of the day's paddle, with the sea state no more than a force four, and all was fine. Except maybe for that sound of breaking waves, perhaps too close to be breaking onto the beach. Then all at once Pete and I were fighting to stay upright. A huge breaking wave swept from left to right and took us with it. Before we could regain control another arrived from the rear and we were under. Time to go through the drill. As I got out of the kayak, the undertow was tremendous, I struggled to keep hold of the boat. But there was no way I was letting go of my only flotation aid, no matter how quickly, or how far we were dragged. We took quite a battering before being able to climb back aboard, bail out, and continue to the end destination, of Montrose harbour.

Paddling into Berwick upon Tweed we breathed a sigh of relief. Not that we were glad to see Scotland go but the weather window was breaking up and we needed to get South before it deteriorated further. If I'm honest the window was never more than ajar this summer.

Matters had gotten worse with our support vehicle breaking down just north of Aberdeen and it wasn't to return until just north of Skegness. Also on reaching England we realised there was a large hole in the back hatch. But with no means of keeping the area dry for repair, we had to perform the highly tricky manouvre of pushing the effected end of the kayak into the highly inflamible tent, setting light to it, putting on the gel and then setting light to it again to dry it. It would have been a cold night if we had got that wrong.

Oh yes, we were really on expedition now, waking up cold, putting on wet kit, paddling in all sort of weather, eating De-hi food and then getting our heads down early in a tent to get ready for the next day. With all this the PR appearences went on relentless.

I don't know whether our feelings were due to the lack of a support team, the grey landscape, or the knowledge that we were on the last run home. But Pete and I decided that the stretch Sunderland to London, was probably the worst bit of the British coastline.

Our paddling became more deleberate the closer we got to October the planned finish. We were thwarted by bad weather all the way down the East coast and with any slight break we would paddle hard. Our shortest day came in this period paddling only two miles because of weather and our longest day came here too from Weybourne to Lowerstoft covering some 42 miles.

We found ourselves racing for the schedule, that which Ffyonna Cambpell had suggested I throw away in Scotland. But the finish date was now set for the 18th of October and we tried our hardest, paddling when we could driving back and forth from store to store. But unfortunately the British weather got the better of us and we had to have the official finish at Tower Bridge and then a few days later when Huricane lilly had blown through, have our own finish. And perhps this was the best way, finishing quietly as a team, rather than as a PR stunt.

The expedition proved to be a success, we raised £60,000 for SPARKS, gained a great deal of publicity for our sponsors, and acheived a world first by having a blind man kayak right around mainland Britain. I have perhaps painted a pesimistic picture of the expedition talking about bad weather, capsizes, and tinisignivitis, but these are the deciding factors in success or failure for an expedition by sea. There were many positive experiences though, and if given the chance I would undoubtedly do it all again.

As for why I completed such an expedition? Well, that's really too complicated a subject to cover in this short piece, but I, like most expeditioners, have an internal force driving me on to new and bigger challenges. And I think it had something to do with showing people, and not just the disabled, that anything can be achieved if one only puts ones mind to it.

I am for ever grateful to: SPARKS who had the foresight to take me on; Somerfield and their staff for helping to raise £60,000 for vital Medical Research; Dan and Karen Trotter, for their beautiful Kayak and friendship; Freemans Chemicals for the donation of fibreglass; Lendal for the new crank paddles; Trax for clothing, second to non for warmth; and to all those of whom we were befriended by along the way.