As a sea kayaker I’ve experienced the front line of our epidemic of plastic refuse! For a long time I ignored the bottles, toothbrushes and plastic bags washed up on our beaches, but as the quantity increased it was became harder to turn a blind eye. I started to pick up floating bottles. If I choose to ignore them, I was as bad as the person who dropped it. Before I knew it, I’d clear entire beaches over lunch, cramming every crisp packet, drinking straw and coke bottle I found into my hatches.
Video and photos by @sammy.seeley
Kayakers appreciate those incredible wild pristine beaches, but they are fast becoming rare to find. Instead they lie hidden beneath plastic ladened tide lines, and storm scattered flotsam and jetsam. I could not stand by and watch the oceans I love become choked with plastic (and the wildlife that finds a home there is choked too).
Paddle Pickup was my answer! I know that kayakers care – we care about the environment because we experience it first hand. We camp on those beaches every spare weekend. We find joy in gazing through the crystal clear waters bellow our boats. And we are capable of fighting for what we believe is right.
The plan of attack was to paddle 300 kilometres across the entire width of England. Seventeen women signed up for this challenge, from all walks of life; from outdoor education students to lawyers, girl guide leaders and accountants. They signed up for an adventure with a purpose. Along our journey we would clear as much plastic as we could pick up. Palm lent our team a canoe, which soon got christened ‘The Dumpster’. Paddling this fat bottom boy ladened with stinky canal rubbish soon became the chore of the day, as the sleek sea kayaks darted around collecting the plastic and depositing it into The Dumpster’s belly.
What I never expected to happen was for the canoe to be full to the brim even before lunch. Nor did I ever contemplate that there would be so much plastic to pick up that covering twenty kilometres, whilst delving into the river bank, would take ten hours to achieve. Our days on the water were long, but our motivation was spurred on by the shear quantity of plastics we witnessed.
Our second goal was to show the world how bad this problem has become. We wanted to talk to all the people we passed, the ones who clearly find joy being on or near the water. People need to be made aware of the scale of the problem, but they also need to be inspired to do something about it. This could mean carrying your own refillable water bottle rather than buying water and discarding the bottle. It might be that when you go out to enjoy the wild and beautiful water ways, you pick up a few bits of plastic, rather than passing them by.
Elbow deep in river scum, decks piled high with bottle towers, we obviously made kayaking look good! We smelled pretty bad and our marigolds certainly turned a few heads. I forget to mention that over the course of our mission not only did we paddle 300 km, we had to portage over 130 locks! That means climbing out onto a platformed designed for the much higher narrow boats (cue the canal belly flop technique), haul out seven kayaks and The Dumpster, carry them along the tow path before reversing the manoeuvre. The locks alone were exhausting!
The women were incredible. As a coach and leader I was proud of every lock we portaged, ever kilometre we paddled and every bottle we collected. We worked endlessly, always with the biggest smile on our faces. We laughed continuously about the gems we found (Father Christmas, a unicorn, a minion and enough tennis balls to supply Wimbledon). These ladies shared in the belief that every individual can make a difference to the world’s problems if we just try.
As a sea kayaker I experienced a completely new environment. Passing along the River Avon (which seems to be an conveyer-belt of plastic bottles), a couple of the UK’s canal systems (which weave past historic towns and pubs), before finally reaching the River Thames (big houses, even bigger boats, speedy rowers, and truly beautiful scenery). As the water got browner we knew we were getting closer to London. We snuck into the city centre, my first and most stressful experience of urban paddling. Ferries charged left right and centre, waves seemed to come from every direction, pontoons pushed us out into the chaos, and we had no choice but to just go with the hefty spring tide flow.
As we passed beneath the London Eye, waved at the Houses of Parliament and finally dashed through the Thames Barrier, we knew we had done it. We’d paddled the entire width of England. We collected over 3,200 pieces of plastic from our waterways and hopefully encouraged more people to help us on our mission to make a difference.