This August I paddled 260 miles around the entire Cornish coast and into North Devon. I didn’t do it for fun, or for a personal challenge, and in fact didn’t really consider the magnitude of the challenge until about two hours into setting off, dripping in sweat, hyperventilating and shovelling Kitkats into my mouth, head down paddling into 20 mph headwinds. A sign of things to come!
I had never undertaken a challenge like this before, but the reasons behind it had been brewing for a while. I wanted to find a way with which to empower people to make a difference to the health of our oceans. We are told relentlessly about the marine litter crisis and the amount of plastic in the oceans, but rarely are we shown simple solutions as to what we as individuals can do to help alleviate the problem! I wanted to bring a message of positivity that actually there is one really simple thing that we can do, as ocean lovers, to help protect our oceans; our beloved playground.
It is estimated that we use thirteen billion plastic bottles a year in the UK, 13 BILLION! They are one of the most common things that wash up on UK beaches, and pollute our oceans. Many of them are single use water bottles. And yet, in the UK we are blessed with clean, safe, abundant drinking water in our taps. So do we really need to be using so many? In exchange for my challenge, which really did turn out to be rather challenging, I challenged my followers to go the summer without buying a plastic water bottle, and instead to use a refillable bottle, and to save money and reduce plastic pollution at the same time.
I set off from Wembury, with a great send-off from my fellow Surfers Against Sewage regional reps, full of energy, enthusiasm and sandwiches, for the first leg across Plymouth Sound to Cawsand. It was just a short six mile stretch, and initially it was lovely gentle paddling! In fact I remember my buddy saying to me 'Cal, I think this is going to be easier than we thought!' How wrong he was. The wind picked up out of the shelter of the bay, and so ensued twenty days of headwinds, overhead swell, fog, rain, and about three days in total that I would have actually chosen to go paddle boarding. And I wouldn’t change any of it.
Because the paddle was being used as a vehicle to deliver a message, and to engage as many people as possible, we had organised community beach cleans along the way, and so we had a schedule to stick to. This was one of the toughest aspects of the paddle, as we couldn’t just amble along in our own time. This made the unseasonably strong headwinds and swell even more inconvenient. I learnt an incredible amount while in the water, about tides, swell, wind, headlands, how to paddle, how to catch mackerel and not your own fingers, and perhaps most importantly, how vulnerable you are on a paddle board in the ocean. I strongly believed that I could do anything I put my mind to.
Mother Nature had other ideas, and I found this out the hard way on more than one occasion while trying to paddle into headwinds, against the tide and around headlands. I remember well the moment of realisation that my body was unable to perform to my mind’s expectations, and how terrifying this was when the other eventuality was being smashed by six foot waves into sheer cliffs. Fortunately I got into our destination unscathed on that occasion, but it has certainly filled me with respect for the ocean and its immense power. This was incredibly humbling and drove home the truth of the matter which is that you cannot fight the conditions on a paddle board, however much you grit your teeth and scream.
We were hoping to paddle twenty miles a day, which varied in time taken from eight to twelve hours. One day we paddled three miles in four hours before giving up for the day, sweaty, exhausted and frustrated. We simply couldn’t fight the winds, despite our absolute determination. There were constant decisions to be made; cut the bay and save three miles paddling, or paddle into the bay and it take twice as long but be much safer; attempt to paddle twelve foot boards with kit on the front through 5 foot waves, or sit out and get a cream tea; surreptitiously eat the last piece of flap jack before my buddy turns round and sees me, or paddle over and share it.
We also had some amazing days, and I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity to spend so much time in nature. The world and all its issues seemed so far away, apart from, of course, the marine litter crisis, which was staring us in the face at each beach we came to. We found hundreds upon hundreds of plastic bottles in coves and beaches only accessible by water; they had all washed in there from the ocean. We took as many as we could on the front of our SUPs to be recycled, but simply were not able to make a dent on the amount on some of the beaches we stopped at. Each plastic bottle we found was once in someone’s hand; it seems so wrong that something we are using for a few minutes on land can pollute our oceans for hundreds of years. The simplest way to stop plastic water bottles from ending up in our ocean is to stop buying them - ditch the single use plastic bottles for good, and use a refillable bottle instead!
Some of our best days involved the local wildlife. We saw tens of sunfish, dolphins and porpoises, and lots of seals. Perhaps one of the scariest, and, looking back, more hilarious, moments was rounding Lands End, revelling in our achievement as I had been having nightmares for weeks about 6 foot standing waves, whirlpools and tidal races dragging me out to sea, and coming across a colony of seals which in comparison seemed like a delightful alternative! Until, one by one, they belly flopped into the water and began chasing us, tails splashing, snorting and swimming pretty fast towards us. Turns out it was mating season making them angry, so I dread to think what was on their minds when they were chasing us!
Another favourite moment was accidentally paddling through an international surf contest at Fistral beach to get into Boardmasters festival, on a twelve foot SUP with a bright orange survival bag full of plastic bottles lashed to the front. As I was paddling in through the swell, a small hole appeared in the bag, which got bigger and bigger and could have resulted in quite a spectacle, given the mission we were on. Fortunately the bag held, and I did not accidentally re-distribute those carefully retrieved bottles back into the ocean amongst professional surfers and hundreds of spectators.
I am really touched by the amount of people who have come onboard with the expedition and the campaign. So many individuals have offered help and support by buying reusable bottles and offering words of comfort and encouragement as we dragged our battered bodies, bleeding feet, and exhausted minds up the beach with our heavy kit and small prospect of tasty tea. If you take nothing else from this, please think twice about the next plastic water bottle you buy, and its potential to end up polluting our planet. Better still, get your hands on a reusable bottle, and get in the habit of taking it with you and refilling it! And if you have ten spare seconds, which I’m sure you all have, please head over to messageinabottle.org.uk to support Surfers Against Sewage’s campaign for a plastic bottle deposit return scheme. Your name on that petition will really help the campaign for massively improved recycling rates and a huge reduction in the waste ending up in our beautiful oceans. Thank you.
Thank you so much to Palm Equipment for kindly and generously supporting the expedition, and for being behind the message being delivered and standing by your own environmental stance and doing your bit to protect our oceans. The fantastic kit kept me warm, dry and safe, and made a very difficult three weeks remarkably more bearable! Thank you.
Facebook: Paddle Against Plastic 2016