Simon Everett reports on an epic tale of human endurance to paddle, by sit-on-top kayaks, from Swanage to Alderney.
It all started from a casual call for some local knowledge and help with the end point arrangements. Mark Harding is the proprietor of Alderney Angling, based in Bray, the island’s capital. It was a busy Monday morning and the call was just one amongst a plethora of catch ups after the weekend orders, general enquiries and stock ordering calls.
This one was different, Barry on the end had met Mark previously on fishing visits to Alderney and then went on to explain that he and Chris, another forces veteran were planning to paddle the channel at the wide end to raise money for Heroes On the Water, a charity that provides a programme to help rehabilitate people who have suffered mentally or physically through an act of public service and also Macmillan Cancer. Barry then went on to ask if Mark could help with advice on a suitable landing spot on the island and any contacts for people who may be able to help and even sponsorship.
Mark only took in half of what had been asked because of trying to deal with humdrum of a Monday, his head was in a work whirl and this needed thinking about and he wasn’t able to give it undivided attention just then, so mark said he would give it some thought during the day and call him back that evening. He put the phone and remembers thinking these guys must be mad kayaking from Dorset to Alderney but what the heck, they’re doing it for a good cause.
At the time of that phone call Barry didn’t know that Mark was recovering from chemotherapy, it was just three months after his last dose and his body was beginning to repair itself. Now, although Mark had said he would call back in the evening, after he put the phone down the enormity and significance of this challenge hit him like a demolition ball. After just a few minutes Mark had this nagging in his head, what an opportunity it would be to return some of the help he had received and to thank people for all their support during my treatment.
His mind was racing round in circles: Could he paddle the Western Channel? He couldn’t wait until the evening to ring Barry back, he managed to hold off for about an hour before he was dialling the number to ask if he could join the two of them in the Channel crossing and of course he would facilitate any support they needed in Alderney and could help with the fund raising too.
The next few moments were surreal. Mark has a line of three computers at work, Matthew, to his right, was tapping away at work speed on his computer while Mark spoke to Barry. As the conversation progressed, remember Barry was unaware of Mark’s situation at this stage, Mark could see in his peripheral vision that Matt was starting to go in slow motion, to the point his tapping became almost stalled in disbelief as I finished my conversation and placed the phone down. He turned with a dropped jaw and said ‘I can’t believe you have just done that… your gonna paddle the English Channel?’. My reply was ‘Yes I am… if I am accepted’. It was a most unbelievable moment of tension and nervousness I have felt in setting a personal goal so high! Matthew despite this backed me from day one with 100% support.
I’ve not mentioned my beautiful partner Fieona neither. Fie wasn’t around at the time but when I spilled the beans she was horrified and somehow understood at that point, more than I, what I’d committed too. She’d been to hell and back the previous year and saw how the chemo undone me. This challenge was going to be time consuming with the training and a hindrance to those around me if I was going to get to the level of fitness I needed too. She backed me!
Barry got back to me in the evening after speaking to Chris and I was accepted, for ever grateful for that. It was at this point I found out that no one has ever achieved crossing the Channel in sit on top kayaks. We’d be the first maybe. Training started immediately, I walk the dogs every morning, live in a beautiful place and the morning walk takes me up and down cliff ridges, covers around 2.5 miles and was taking me around an hour and 10 minutes to complete.
This time needed to be improved for cardio purposes and with 22lb of lead weight in a rucksack it’s an opportune moment to improve leg and torso strength without committing additional time. My goodness… I was shattered! Next step was to set a gym up which I did in a friends house nearby. The next six weeks I focussed on this but time nor weather never allowed me to get in the yak. Christmas food was banned and I remained on the same anti oxidant diet I’d been on since diagnosis of cancer earlier that year. And so the strength increased, the cardio improved, and more weight dropped of all of us… oh yes the dogs. They never knew they could knock off 15 minutes of their walk! They looked fab for it too ☺
In between all this there is the organisation of the fund raising, planning ahead, promoting and lots of exchanges of emails. Our marketing lady Alex Flewitt did a grand job organising a ball night for fund raising, it was a great evening and help launch the awareness of what the three of us were taking on.
There was though the element of worry from the other lads. Big concerns about the kayak I wanted to do this in. My yak is a Hobie Outback, built for fishing and stability, it is heavy and wide with a massive amount of drag. There is an advantage, if perceived to be, in that you can pedal and paddle these craft. I love it and wanted to stick with it. Barry and Chris encouraged me to change. ‘Let’s see how I get on with the training and get paddling times back to you’.
Kayak training started in earnest in January. My first session was memorable in as much I was only 2.5 hours at sea, when I arrived back on the slipway I was exhausted… I mean exhausted. I was on my back trying to recover and thinking how on earth was I going to be ready for the first attempt of a 22-hour crossing in June? My good mate Norman saw me, I could see his bewilderment looking at the state I was in. I know what he was thinking but not saying.
Alderney is eight miles from France, it is in the open sea with one of the fiercest tidal races in the world. It’s winter, the sea is never calm and we are severely exposed to winter sea conditions. When you’re working it’s always dark. Regards training, Fieona’s earlier words back in November were bouncing around my skull. I knuckled down though. I grabbed time on the water when I could, sometimes 5.30am starts in the dark, sometimes after work in the dark. I surprisingly felt comfortable, I don’t know why though.
In my dry suit I was taking a pounding as there was always swell and chop. After sessions finished I always had salt crystals hanging from my eyebrows, my eyes were salt sore, my under clothing wringing wet with sweat, pins and needles in my feet and very often having to manage cramp. As my sessions extended, the cramp got significantly worse, at this time Ian Smith and Mike Stroud had joined the team. Both men bought with them credibility to what Chris and Barry had started. Mike particularly is well known for his exploits of running seven marathons in seven days, accompanying Sir Ranulph Fiennes on his expeditions and also as a world expert on hydration and nutrition.
A quick exchange of emails put me on the right track. The pins and needles were as result of post chemo, the cramp though was not connected and was a result of me not replacing my salts and sodium during training. This was easy to resolve by way of adding tablets to my water of which I was consuming two litres every three hours. By the end of February I was doing three to four-hour sessions and longer sessions beckoned. My weight in the rucksack increased to 26lb and the reps increased in the gym.
Still the choice of kayak rumbled on. This time Ian showing concern that I could be going to all this effort and then through the choice of kayak failing to keep track with the team and thus having to abort to the safety boat. My reply was that it is all in the training, I was convinced if I trained hard enough I would be fit enough to endure such a long crossing. Train, train, train!
Come March I was out of the dry suit and in to my cags. Sessions increased to six hours but my timings weren’t accurate due to the tides. With tide runs up to seven knots here and being an island there is nowhere to run for cover like a protected harbour, an estuary or a river. I was concerned as to where I actually was time wise with my average speeds conscious that we all agreed at the start of this I needed to be averaging 3.5 knots! So it was at this point I decided to get boring… extremely boring.
Our harbour is fairly protected, depending on the wind direction, the tide runs clockwise for 2/3 or ¾ of the tidal flow so if I paddled anti-clockwise then I am not kidding myself on the speeds. It proved a master stroke for resistance training plus I had the added element that the harbour is too small for long distance paddling but if I used the outside down to the NE side and back across to the breakwater it was a two-mile circuit – plenty long enough. Boy it was boring and tedious. However I could see my times… I was on course and now I just needed to extend my sessions but did I have enough time?
By now I was getting more attached to my Hobie. I was sat in her seat more than I was my own office chair, more than my car seat and my sofa! At the end of each session I’d pack her away like… well like something more than a kayak. Was I falling in love or was it because she really is an ugly duckling? She could do both jobs, she is a fishing machine and I was going to make damn sure she’d get the credit she deserved and make sure she’d cross the 80 miles we needed to cover to cross the English Channel. I definitely was bonding, strange after seven years together!
Sure one or two bits failed on her but its fair wear and tear, I was also clocking up more miles than any Hobie would be used to. Sessions now were 25 to 35 miles long, I was putting her through her paces averaging 3.5 knots and sometimes just short of four. We were both on it. She’d been taking me through wind and rain, through literally mountainous swells, severe chop that swamped us both continually for hours on end in some sessions especially on the early sorties… no wonder I felt a bond!
Whilst all this was going on the ball passed of successfully. Many thanks to the donors and buyers for such a successful night. I met Barry and Chris for the first time and we talked navigation whilst the rest of MacDonalds looked on! How far the tide would drag the kayaks west to east or east to west was high on the conversation, it really all was guess work as it then depended on wind direction and speed but a passage plan was needed so we had something to guide us. Barry took this responsibility on and fair play to him went back to the class room to learn a new skill to help us all.
The training was getting harder but needed to be continued. It was hard, it was uncomfortable, it was unnecessary… I was going to fail anyway, the task was too big. Fieona found herself having to push me out the door and negate my excuses as to why I couldn’t go. The gym sessions had increased to an hour and a half non stop, the weight in the rucksack increased to 28lbs and the dogs were dragging behind! The sessions in the kayak got more boring and arduous as the sessions got longer.
By May though I was now minus my cags and enjoying the sunshine – bonus at last but with this came further complications at the pace I needed to work at to maintain my speed with my yak. Further obstacles needed to be surmounted with hydration and nutrition, eat and drink less was the key but more frequently so Fieona packed my food parcels as packets now! More water was carried as well so I could sup away. Every session now was over eight hours, average speed was dependent on my attitude and motivation, which was hard to maintain to such a high standard and then I hit a 14-hour session unintentionally.
I did a Forrest Gump… just kept going well in to dark and yes I could have kept going too. Better than that my average speed was close to four knots! Elated I knew at this point the back of the training was broken. I WAS going to cross the channel IF I could keep pace with the lads in their racing machines!
No let up though in the training, had to maintain what I was doing. The first window was cancelled by the weather forecast, the second though had unexpected consequences. We were due to depart Swanage on the 21st June, a Saturday. I took a chance and left the island on the Wednesday, so hard to go back and forth from here but the forecast looked so good. On the Thursday we heard our safety vessel supplied by a Poole training school was not going to support after all. All this training, all this planning with Press, all the involvement with other people and this commitment that had been in place for eight months was not going to be upheld.
We were devastated, who on earth is the sort of person to do this? The high anticipation of ‘this is it’ to the low of not only the embarrassment caused by this outfit acting so unprofessionally but the ordeal of further commitment of time towards training was numbing to say the least. The team took stock, tried so hard at short notice on a perfect weekend to find a replacement boat but of course none was available. I’d personally had wasted upwards of £500 plus the time away, what a weekend. Ian suggested we all get afloat anyway and we agreed to meet at Christchurch harbour. If nothing else we could see how we could operate as team and see if my Hobie would fit in to the Epic outfits speed wise.
On meeting at the slip I inadvertently run over a £300 paddle that I never saw laid on the floor, this added to the tension and then when my kayak came off the roof of the car my yak was yet again in for some kicking with Chris saying ‘Talk about making a difficult task more difficult’ as he looked at her on her belly – yes the ugly duckling scenario against the sleeker Epics. As an outcast we both joined in the session to see how we would shape up. Suffice to say we did OK, we weren’t short on pace, we weren’t short on stability and I could eat and drink whilst I pedalled! We were both though short on looks! The lads packed in after three and a bit hours and I stayed out for an eight-hour session not wanting to compromise my training. As the sun started to sink I was contemplating we really should be crossing the English Channel now. If only Absolute Aqua hadn’t backed out!
I returned to the island, spirits were low at this point, training took a back seat. The next window came round and it was a 50/50 call on the weather. We did though have a safety boat ready to go and it was close to this point that the team all agreed this the right direction. A massive thanks to Glen and Zac Cairns of Valkyrie Charters from Langstone for picking up the baton. With that agreed, training continued. A 10-day break from kayaking (albeit I still continued with the other stuff) was too long so a six-hour session, an eight and ten were done. A quick ten hours too, averaging over four knots! In a Hobie guys, in a Hobie! My physique had changed so much too, in a year I’d gone from a 89/90kg frame to 82kg with no shape to 76kg of rip roaring tanned muscle… easy girls 😉
The next date came round, the forecast was looking good, final preparations were being made. It was nerve wracking! We were crossing to the UK this time on a mates Targa 25. Matt and I got the yak on the boat, did some boat checks and a run. Fie got my food ready (not a five-minute job!) and drinks, all put on ice. We got every conceivable spare we needed for the yak as back up, tools, tapes, batteries. Three spare changes of clothes for dusk and dawn. Creams, sprays, floss, toothpaste… this was down to military precision, I wanted nothing negative to foil me in that moment of failure when I needed to dig deep… NO EXCUSES! Failure was not an option… I trained to hard to have the disappointment of failure. We were ready… or were we?
The day dawned. Strange but I knew this event was going to happen this time but we had a massive obstacle to get round… we just didn’t quite know it yet! Such was my anxiety, that when I woke at 3.00am I never could get back to sleep, I was so excited, my heart was racing, the anticipation was immense. As an adult I have never felt this way before. Matt, Mark Smith who joined us as more cover, Jake Woodnutt cadging a lift and myself boarded our support boat in Alderney at 8.00am.
Plenty of time to get to Swanage and get ready for a departure time of 16.30. I was pensive, I couldn’t wait… hang on what’s that smell? We slowed the engine, looked under the cover, we’d barely covered 15 miles and we had an oil leak… unreal! Cut the next bit short as it was all mechanical but my mood changed. I was now very anxious, the change in emotions was unbearable as I was looking down the barrel of a cancelled trip again! The team would leave without me. We coaxed the Targa across the Channel without comprising our safety and the boat itself. On arrival at Swanage at 1.00pm we hatched a plan to drop me off to meet the boys, for Matt and Mark to go and refuel and top up with oil. My kayak and some bits were dropped off so I could prepare. Valkyrie had not arrived and was due in an hour, the boys were stuck in traffic but not late. It was all going to tie in.
At 13.30 my phone rings and it is Matt, guess he is going to tell me he is on his way back? Nope… fan belt gone and batteries flat. Noooooooooooooooo! Devastated surely we had reach the point of no return? I could start but I never had enough clothing with me, enough food nor drink. I was heart broken but never counted on the resolve of three guys that so badly wanted this to happen. Matt, Jake and Mark busted their balls off to get a mechanic to do the work, get a spare battery changed and by 16.00 the phone call happened to say they were on their way. Certainly not the best way to prepare for a challenge such as this. I was emotionally drained now and needed to lift myself and the best way was to do what I have been doing for 18 months… get on with it!
After a bit of scrabbling around organising the last bits the team grouped together and we all dipped our paddles in the same direction. Valkyrie and the Targa flanked us as we rounded Peveril Point and in to the open sea. This was it. The pace was set and we were on it! In a dropping sun we carved our way through the light chop and headed on 186 degrees which was the course we would take as best we could all the way to Alderney. Every now and then the yaks would dip in to a short swell reminding us that this was a sea crossing.
A mile or so out the crew from San Gina wished us well as we passed. It must have been strange to them that at the end of their day fishing they were seeing us start our voyage in to the night with 80 miles of sea to cover in front of us. A few miles further Steve Porter on his vessel True Blue returning ironically from Alderney located us with horns blowing, whoops of support and waves of good luck. And then it was just us as we disappeared in to the vastness. Before we knew it we had done our first hour and earned our first five-minute break which zipped by. Not sure what I did with that five minutes before I was getting shouted at to keep up and reminded that was in fact 12 minutes? What? Too quick!
Never mind, I was pedalling at this stage so had food and drink in take inside. The sea conditions improved and the light chop became a slight chop, our pace was good and we were sticking together as we should. Our next break and I had a good massage on my legs and then swapped to paddle. The Hobie is a tough paddle when used in this way but I found dropping the rudder kept me on a good line and I was able to keep pace with the Epics. This was good.
Three hours in and I felt good, we were on a longer break so I massaged some more, rubbed some sport cream in so I retained the heat in the muscles so they’d remain loose and fit. The weather improved further and the team were setting a hot pace, it was in fact difficult to hold back. We were averaging close to four knots. It was turning in to a right jolly, a magnificent sunset and we couldn’t be in a better place. This was awesome. You know when you are doing something special, or your in a place you always want to be, or you find yourself somewhere where no-one can touch you? This was it, this was tranquillity at its best and it was just the eight of us experiencing this and no one for miles… bloody miles! The sea went smooth as darkness fell, our lights went on, as a group we tightened up to make it easier for the safety boats. Our speed increased further, we were flying and the ugly ducking was holding her own… easily and much to everyone’s relief.
Six hours in during training was always my nemesis and we were approaching that mark when I started to seriously assess myself. I was looking for tiredness, aches and more. Normally I have found myself to be wanting at this point and having to re-build my mental state and physical levels of which I’d get back on track during the eighth hour, but on this crossing I was nowhere near this fatigued stage. The crossing had been such that with no wind, no oncoming tide and great weather I was full of beans. Yes I had beans in my ‘picnic’ too ☺.
The darkness passed quickly with no issues at all as Zac on the safety boat kept us from all shipping traffic in great style. He would radio ahead and explain that we were five kayaks and two boats in a group, and with ships on collision course some six or more miles away they were ok to steer clear of us. It could have been so much worse. Dawn had arrived and a look around and we weren’t so fresh as a group. Something else though was fresh… the wind.
We had the first taste of breeze for some five hours. Due to our drifting with the tide as we crossed the Channel and with the speed we had accomplished the crossing, miles wise we were ahead but the yaks were in the longitudal position which was to north of Alderney. Or so we thought, we needed to cover more ground to the west otherwise when swept east we maybe to far east, but the wind was from the east so how far west do you go? It was unanswerable. This was now the best bit, a test of character. The team talked it through as a team would, cross referenced everything with our support guys to come up with an agreed answer.
No-one questioned the final decision whether it was right or wrong. We did this every hour and at one point half an hour till we got to a point we could turn.
This leg of the journey was tiring, this was the most enduring part so far. We’d been pushing tide, the GPS’ that had been telling us we’d been doing four knots, five knots were now telling us ‘you’re only doing two knots buddy’. Demoralising but this was ground we needed to cover. With the sloppier sea state too the Epics were harder to control with the tired bodies, none more so highlighted so than when inexplicably Ian fell in. It did show we were vulnerable. He managed to get in with the Hobie alongside to provide that stability for his tired body.
Ian was also suffering with his joints, a condition he does have to manage so hats off there. Humour was spread amongst the group, goals were set and we tried to switch off exactly where Alderney was, for now that wasn’t the real target. The good thing was we had turned and were now travelling back across the tide, and now we had to hit the final waypoint for the journey in to Alderney. Our current position was still north of the island and we had to get east of it.
I started to feel fortunate that I was with my ugly duckling. I was fortunate that despite the weight and width of my yak I was able enough to keep the power on but of course also aided by the fact I could share the work load between my arms and legs. The sea conditions now favoured me too as I was stable in the chop. I could phaff around with my massages, take on fluids and solids, wee when I wanted too with ease and also I flossed and brushed my teeth to freshen myself up, oh and yes changed my clothes for the third and last time. How did I feel? Elated… it was the furthest and longest I have ever kayaked for and I WAS going to make the finish WITH the team.
I know the boys were chuffed to bits for me too but there were some serious problems to help these lads home such was the fatigue in three of them. So we aimed our yaks towards the waypoint we needed to get too. We travelled for what seemed an age but such was our lack of pace due to tiredness we weren’t sure if we had enough tide left to get swept far enough east. Had we travelled unnecessarily to far west earlier? We opted to start to drop south to cover distance before the West tide kicked in and drag us past the island which was some eight or nine miles away. If this were to happen we’d be at sea for another seven or eight hours minimum!
We stopped and checked our actual direction as and to our horror the tide HAD already started, we were being dragged west… anxiety for the first time crept in. Matt and Zac were doing their best to co-ordinate, we needed more speed but three of the lads were shattered, the home straight wasn’t close enough to be a serious motivator. We used a land mark to steer in, 20 minutes later we could see we were being dragged sideways. I shouted aim for 190 degrees, somewhere I got a reply from someone but that’s heading well away from the island and I quickly explained that with wind and tide we were getting dragged sideways at 6.5 knots, we desperately needed to head that way to line up our run in.
We checked again 20 minutes later… it wasn’t enough. Matt had worked out our course travelled over those last 40 minutes and worked out we needed to head to 150 degrees! Unreal but that we did. We made ground, we all made ground but the group splintered. Getting instructions and advice across was getting difficult. And then Matt hit a gem. He spotted a landmark we could position ourselves on that so long as these two objects remained in line we would hit our travel line to finish on. Lifted we all aimed for this, Barry was off up front, still with plenty in the tank, Ian somehow found new energy levels and soon followed him.
Mike was of to my left and I held back for Chris so he wasn’t isolated who naturally followed me. We were so close. We all kept, from our different positions, this hanging rock (we’re some miles out still and this rock is massive!) and the lighthouse so they didn’t move, we ignored our compass readings and just kept our eyes fixated on these two objects that after all the 75+ miles we had covered was going to bring us home.
Such basic stuff after all we had done but it is what was required. Some two miles or more of anxious paddling battling tide, wind and surf and we were on that line. Now we turn in to Alderney and we were flying with wind, tide and surf behind us. Just one more problem. The cauldron of white water in front of us to negotiate. Us being Mike, Chris and myself. Barry and Ian negotiated another way in. I called Mike towards me so as to shorten his paddle to the end albeit through this white frothing water, We both kept an eye on Chris behind us. For some distance we were surfing on these waves, we knew we were there but no jubilation yet. Mindful of the surf and the rocks we were over we concentrated on this.
I always thought that at this point I would be an emotional wreck given my journey and what this trip meant to Fieona and myself, to others too, but adrenalin had taken over. I kept watching over my shoulder at Chris, mindful as he was suffering with a sore wrist as well, come on son you can do it! Seeing the harbour right in front that had been my training ground for months was great, then I noticed our support boat do a U turn. I turned, Chris had gone! Remembering how difficult Ian found getting back on his yak I turned too to offer Chris support, paddling up against the waves was eventful but before I get there miraculously he got back on board from what looked like an impossible situation.
Chuffed to nuts for him all that remained for me to do was pick up his water bottle and in to the harbour we went. It was over. We done it! The five re-grouped in the harbour – we really had done it! Chuffed to nuts that both I and the yak performed so well after hearing so many people, question whether the Hobie could do it. The ugly duckling did and on a night when others failed the easier reverse journey too. I won’t be parted from my Hobie LOL.
Reflections – yeah… it’s been emotional. On a personal level its helped fix me yes, but my aim was to inspire someone suffering as I had done and this week I had that email from a lad suffering with the effect of cancer and chemo living in Jersey. He’s just completed his fourth cycle and has followed our story, and says he has been inspired by what we have achieved, he IS looking forward to the future as we all should. I hope we have bought awareness to the two charities Heroes on the Water and Macmillan Cancer, that the money we raised will make a difference to someone.
And lastly on a personal level again in doing this I feel I have thanked everyone for the support and love they have shown me, it’s overwhelming and I am very grateful. How often do you get a phone call you are grateful for?