Before we start – just let our readers know a little about yourself, family, background, etc.
Originating from the UK and now a resident of Marin County, California, I began kayaking at the age of ten with 1st St. Austell Scouts. I was extremely fortunate to have the late Martin Compton as a Scout leader and he was passionate about kayaking and especially kayak racing. I took part in my first kayak race in 1978 and have competed in many disciplines of paddle sport since then including marathon, sprint racing, whitewater slalom, downriver racing, wave ski, surf lifesaving spec, ocean surf ski and surf kayaking with some success at national and international level.
How did you start out in what is a very successful career in sea kayaking?
I spent many happy hours exploring the South Cornwall coastline as a kid, at first in a general purpose kayak, then a tippy K1. I was always very comfortable on the ocean and it did occur to me back then that if I kept paddling around the next headland, I would eventually arrive back where I had started having paddled all the way around Britain. But I thought that sea kayaking was for old men with beards and definitely not for me!
Training for long distance races like the 125-mile Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race gave me an excellent endurance base. In 1992 I joined the Devon and Cornwall Police but kept paddling and whilst training at Exeter Canoe Club I met Robin Feloy, designer of many excellent sea kayaks including the Inuk, a high performance sea kayak. I was immediately intrigued to discover how far I could paddle the Inuk in a day and in 1997 I set myself a challenge to paddle around the coast of Devon and Cornwall, including the Isles of Scilly as quickly as I could. I found that it was possible to paddle well over 50 miles a day using a wing paddle and a fast cadence, but I also found out that your body quickly breaks down if you push a heavy sea kayak too hard for too long.
In 1998, together with two friends, Ian Wilson and Jim Morrissey we set a record for the fastest crossing of the Irish Sea from St. Davids to Rosslare of just over 11 hours. The following summer Ian and I completed a 500-mile circumnavigation of Northern Scotland starting at Fort William and completing the circle using the Caledonian Canal.
Having gained experience and confidence in navigation, in 2004 I achieved my childhood dream by completing the first solo circumnavigation of the UK and Ireland by sea kayak; the first ever to include all of the inhabited islands. The 4,500-mile expedition took 183 days and is the longest kayak journey ever undertaken in British waters.
Kayak surf to sea kayaking and now SUP – anything else in the pipeline to surprise us with?
My two kids keep me pretty busy now so my days of breaking records are definitely over but I am having a lot of fun teaching them to surf and paddle. I can only hope they’ll love paddling as much as I do and then who knows what they’ll do. As for my own paddling, I like to mix it up as much as possible and my wife and I are having a lot of fun learn to SUP surf but if the waves are good, I will always want to be in a kayak or on a wave ski. I certainly haven’t given up competing and hope to represent the US West team at the World Surf Kayak Championships in Northern Ireland in 2017.
What was the main reason for emigrating from Cornwall to California?
In 2005 I helped Valley design a surf kayak called the Rush. In 2006 I came to California to compete at the Santa Cruz Kayak Surf Festival, the largest surf kayak event in the world. I didn’t do very well in the competition but I did meet Gina Troiani, who was also competing. I’m not proud of the decisions I made next since I was already married and my ex-wife certainly didn’t deserve the emotional trauma that I inflicted on her. But within a few weeks I had resigned from the police and purchased a one way to California! I couldn’t be happier with the end result!
What’s the most enjoyable encounter with wildlife that you’ve had at sea?
I have had so many it is hard to pick one but one of my favourites was paddling through a pod of about half a dozen blue whales on my way from Catalina Island, back to the mainland. I was just a couple of miles offshore, on my own having paddled to six of the eight Channel Islands of California. It was my first encounter with a blue whale and was staggered by the size of these leviathans. One passed right underneath me and it looked like the fuselage of a jumbo jet in the clear blue water. It occurred to me that I was within sight of the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. I wondered how many of the 15 million residents know or even care that these magnificent creatures live in their neighbourhood.
You famously circumnavigated the UK and Ireland in 2004 – was there a stand out moment for you on the expedition?
Reaching St. Kilda was without doubt the highlight of an amazing journey. It wasn’t a great summer as far as the weather was concerned so I feel blessed that we got the weather window we needed. I had agreed to have a support boat for the crossing to and from the archipelago and that was the only time that season that Murray McLeod and his boat Sea Trek made the 40-mile crossing to St. Kilda. The conditions were almost perfect for both crossings and for day exploring and circumnavigating these stunning islands. Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the 11 plus hour crossing by kayak, I would absolutely encourage every sea kayaker to put a visit to the islands on their bucket list. Gordon Brown and others lead trips there most years.
If you could capture just one ‘feel good’ moment in your time on the ocean – which would it be and why?
Paddling under the Golden Gate Bridge is always memorable, whatever the weather and sea conditions. I have had the opportunity to lead many paddlers under the bridge for their first time and it is always such a privilege. There are very few man-made structures that complement the natural landscape but I would argue that the Golden Gate Bridge is one of them. The art deco design and international orange colour of the bridge, the imposing Marin Headlands, the skyline of downtown San Francisco, the strong currents, powerful Pacific swell and the characteristic fog and wind all combine to make it a spectacular and often challenging paddle.
When preparing for a multi-day expedition in challenging conditions – what are the qualities you look for in a fellow team mate sea kayaker?
The ability to paddle hard and good sense of humour! I have done most of my major trips solo because I actually enjoy the experience of paddling solo and I am not a very patient person. Ian Wilson was THE BEST team mate you could wish for. Not only was he a very strong paddler, he is also hilariously funny and during our trip around the north of Scotland he was able to make me laugh even in the most challenging circumstances.
Do you have any favourite conditions for sea kayaking or are you happy with whatever Mother Nature bowls your way on the day?
Living in California has definitely softened me to the point where I now have to look for challenging weather conditions to paddle in. That said, the swell can be enormous here on the west coast and whilst big swell will make it impossible to enter the rock gardens, it is often possible to ride some of these monsters at places like Point Bonita (in a sea kayak) and Steamer Lane (in a surf kayak). I do enjoy the thrill of surfing big waves although I am often humbled.
For rock gardening, a small, long period swell (something like 5’ @ 15 secs) will allow you to get into all the fun features and still have plenty of time and energy to run some big pour-overs.
Ever been scared out there?
Yes, way too many times. When I first started teaching it took me too long to realize that not everyone feels as comfortable on the water as I do and how fear is a barrier to learning. Anyone who has read my story in the book ‘More Deep Trouble’ will know that I am capable of making a bad error of judgment. I was terrified of losing one of my students during that fateful incident and it had a major impact on me as an instructor.
As for my own personal safety, I have paddled out to Mavericks several times now but have yet had the courage to take the drop. It is such a beast of a wave, with potentially deadly consequences for a surf kayaker if you don’t make the bottom turn and reach the safety of the shoulder. I can’t stop thinking about it but that is probably as far as I will go now I have two kids that need me fit and healthy.
Tell us a bit about your coaching setup and how you help others to improve?
Right now I am taking a break from teaching regularly as Gina needs me available to take care of the kids. But once her schedule settles down I will be focusing on instructor training and personal coaching. I believe that developing a long term relationship with your instructor is the best way to make significant progress. Whilst there is value in taking one-day classes and attending sea kayak symposia, there are too many students that take lots of classes without practicing in between.
Whilst it helps to keep paddling schools in business, I feel that it would be more beneficial for the student to be given tools/drills/concepts to work on and more use made of video analysis and 1:1 coaching over a period of time. I will also look to provide personal guiding locally, for visiting paddlers or anyone looking to get beyond their comfort zone. There is so much exceptional paddling right here in the Bay Area and whilst I have limited ability to travel, there is plenty of opportunity to teach and guide in my own back yard.
Do you have an ultimate achievement and if so what?
Whilst there has been a spate of circumnavigations of Britain and Ireland recently, no one has attempted the big circle – all the inhabited islands – since I did it in 2004. It was without doubt the most audacious and gratifying achievement of my paddling career and I look forward to seeing someone else having a crack at it and including the Channel Islands, which I missed out on including during my journey. That really is the ‘ultimate’ circumnavigation.
It took me seven years of trying to win the Men’s High Performance category at the Santa Cruz Paddle Surf Festival. I don’t know if I will ever be able to repeat that win but I will keep trying.
Sea kayaking, kayak surfing or SUP – which gives the most pleasure?
Surfing a large, clean wave and getting airborne in a surf kayak or on a wave ski. I am not there yet on an SUP…
What projects are you currently working on?
- Teaching my kids to surf and paddle. If they really get into it, I will start up a youth paddling club locally as there is nothing in our area for kids.
- SUP surfing and open coast/downwind paddling. I’ll race SUP once I feel ready.
- I have a new wave ski on order so getting air on that will be my next challenge before I am too old!
- Continuing to develop my ability to coach and not just teach and growing a client base of long term students.
- Resurrecting the US West Surf Kayak organization and helping the team get to the Worlds in 2017.
- Paddle Golden Gate 2018.
What do you do when not kayaking?
Work on our house and take care of the kids. Our town of Fairfax and the hills of Marin County are the birthplace of mountain biking. I am still finding new trails to ride.
I’m a paddler and going on vacation, where would you recommend apart from your own backyard?
The Mendocino Coast of Northern California. Hit up my friends Jeff Laxier and Cate Hawthrone of Liquid Fusion Kayaking. Whether you want surf, paddle rock gardens or whitewater, they will show you a great time in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Or go to Pembrokeshire, Wales or Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, or the west coast of Scotland, or South West Ireland or…!
What’s the one location you haven’t paddled that would be on your bucket list?
Australia. Any or all of it!
If you could paddle with anyone in the world dead or alive who would it be?
Pick two celebrities to be your parents.
Barack and Michelle Obama. I don’t know if I want them as my parents but they would certainly do as surrogate patents for our kids if anything happened to us.
Which one sportsman or woman has inspired you?
Seb Coe. Fierce competitor, superb technician, incredible talent and when I was racing K1, I would often imagine I was Seb Coe in a kayak!
Are you a bathroom/shower singer and if so what do you sing?
No, but I work out to Stereophonics.
Name one actor/actress you would love to get naughty with?
I’ll decline to answer this one for my own personal safety!
Top Gun (see above☺).
Cats or dogs?
Two Brittany Spaniels.
Facebook or Twitter?
Facebook – I still haven’t got into Twitter.
An ideal night out for you is?
Watching the Giants at AT&T Park with Gina and the kids.
What one luxury item would you take with you on a desert island?
Maui Jim sunglasses.
What’s in your fridge right now?
Ninkasi Brewing Co. Dawn of the Red.
If we came to your house for dinner, what would you prepare for us?
If you could be a wild animal – what would it be?
Who are your kayaking buddies?
Gina and the kids, Kelly Marie Henry, Bill Vonnegut, Kenny Howell and anyone else that feels like going for a play.
What’s the most boring question you are often asked?
Are you Australian?
What three words would you use to describe you?
Finally, any final shout outs?
Kokatat, Werner Paddles.
Many thanks Sean for all of your help on this – we really appreciate it.