Adventure or Misadventure

A while ago, in late July, I sullied my sea kayaking record. It feels like I am an advanced driver who has been caught speeding and received points on my licence. When kayaking along the Pembrokeshire coast I was caught by a huge breaking wave, was capsized, exited my kayak and ended up swimming. This is the first time this has happened to me (when not playing) in 25 years of sea kayaking. In my defence regarding not rolling my kayak and having to swim, my paddle was broken during the incident, hence not rolling upright. However, I have no defence regarding being caught by the wave in the first place. I hold my hands up and admit to being inattentive and being too relaxed. 

Phil in his element along the Pembrokeshire coastline.

My good friend Phil and I had completed an enjoyable and challenging circumnavigation of Ramsey Island off the Pembrokeshire coast. This was the first time that I had paddled this route despite having regularly visiting the infamous Bitches tide race in Ramsey Sound to surf the waves there. The seas off the west coast of the island were lively to say the least and this with a fiercely running tide, made paddling conditions pretty exciting. I'm an experienced sea kayaker and I can hold my own in variable conditions but even then on this occasion, I was surprised by some unexpected bouncy waters, steep standing waves and some fierce tidal eddies which, at one point, spun me 180 degrees! Needless to say, Phil and I whooped and hollered our approval at being tested in this way.

Our history of enjoying shared adventures goes back over thirty years. It has become something of an 'in-joke' amongst our friends that when we get together, there'll be high adventure of some sort. It's not that we egg each other on in a macho fashion to achieve the impossible, we simply embody a strong spirit for adventure. When we come together we somehow match our aspirations for a day of enjoyment and excitement in the outdoors. We are well matched skills wise and probably more importantly, we are well matched judgement wise too. We each have the innate ability to anticipate the likelihood of success or risky failure when looking at the activity we are planning to undertake. What we end up doing is taking ourselves to the edge of the adventure and flirting with misadventure. 

Thirty years of shared adventure.

One story to recount is the time we set out to kayak to the Shiant Isles just off the Isle of Lewis across the Minch from the Isle of Skye. At the time I lived on the Black Isle near Inverness and Phil lived in Kendal. This meant that by the time we had met each other and travelled to Skye, we were running behind time. We packed our kayaks in a hurry and hastily launched into a lumpy sea in the hope that the last of the tide would set us up nicely for the long crossing to the Shiants. It wasn’t until we were well into the Minch that we realised we weren’t making any worthwhile forward progress. The far hills of Harris steadfastly held their position on our port beams. Additionally the sea state was deteriorating and we were threatened with the prospect of arriving at the far off islands in the dark. We decided to turn tail and head for the nearby Fladda Chuain islets five miles off the Sky coastline. Eventually after a total of eight hours hard paddling we pulled ourselves ashore, staggering and slipping up the slippery boulder beach of the main island. We made camp and turned our attention to making a restorative pot of tea. “Have you got the water?” I shouted across to Phil who was pegging out his tent. “No, I thought you had it” he responded. We looked at each other aghast. Here we were, two seasoned adventurers without any drinking water on a small waterless island in the Minch! We berated ourselves but couldn’t help laughing at our predicament because thankfully, before leaving the Black Isle, we had purchased six bottles of Black Isle Brewery beer. We wouldn’t die of thirst. Our journey continued the next day and ended safely though we never did make it out to the Shiants. We ended up paddling along the Skye coastline instead.

Finding myself swimming in a restless Pembrokeshire sea and knowing that Phil was in the water too was a salutatory reminder of the fine edge I sometimes traverse between enjoying high adventure or encountering misadventure. All worked out well. We self-rescued and we were on our way again, somewhat chagrined but none the worse for the incident. However, since then I have gone on to replay the event in my mind, berating myself for my inattention. Truthfully, I was a little shaken too.

Reaching the Shiants in 2015

I am predominantly a solo kayaker and there have been a number of times during long journeys where I have found myself coping with tricky situations. Every time I have coped well and come through unscathed, largely because I am an able kayaker well used to facing uncertain situations. Nevertheless with each of these moments, things could have taken a different course and I would have found myself possibly dealing with far more than I would have liked.

For example, during my 2015 sea kayak journey around Scotland, along the east coast of Harris, I found myself caught out by a huge ‘boomer’. This is where a usually submerged rock is suddenly uncovered by a receding wave and then covered again with the booming wash of a replacement wave, often accompanied with spectacular bursting white water. I had just rounded a small headland and hadn’t seen this particular spot, so when I suddenly found myself seemingly in mid air above a rapidly exposed barnacled and weedy rock, I knew what I was in for. With instinct more than anything else, I threw my weight to my right and readied my paddle to support me on the wave which inevitably cracked ominously at head height and broke onto me, sweeping me down and towards the exposed rock. Supported by my paddle and leaning onto the raging surf, I tensed myself for the inevitable dreadful crunch when my kayak would be crashed hull first onto the ragged rock. I was resigned to a severely damaged boat and possible injury to myself. Instead with incomprehensible relief, I realised that instead of the crunching crash, I was simply surfed over the rock and into a patch of lively and disturbed water where it seemed that once spent, the waves gathered to recompose themselves. I had survived and so had my kayak.

The consequences of crashing into the rock can only be imagined. I was in a remote and unpopulated section of the Harris coast where my predicament would have gone unnoticed and rescue would have been a long time in coming. There were no beaches to haul myself onto and the rocky cliffs were being pounded by hungry waves fed by a force wind. I would have found myself in a tricky situation - there is no doubt about that. If my kayak had been damaged and was unseaworthy and I was in the water unable to self-rescue, I would have had to deploy my emergency personal locator beacon and call for assistance on my VHF radio. The Leverburgh Lifeboat (which I had just visited) would have taken an hour to reach me.

Of course none of this happened and I went on to complete my 1850 mile solo journey without ever having to use my emergency equipment. This isn’t to say I didn’t face further moments of peril. When thinking about my mishap on the Pembrokeshire coast in late July, I reminded myself that I had coped with potentially more severe situations without trouble. The event with Phil had occurred because I had switched off and relaxed. Normally, when I’m paddling on my own, I’m far more wary and observant. However, the potential for misadventure is always there. This is because I’m naturally drawn to extending myself, to exploring the unknown and to testing my ability. During my 520 mile Three Peaks by Kayak journey this year, I noticed how willing I was to put to sea in conditions I would have avoided in 2015. This is a result of my increased confidence in my ability and a strengthened fortitude to face more challenging situations. I’m not over confident or braggartly blasé, but rather more self assured. As I grow into my sea kayaking, my wisdom, my judgement and my ability match pace. It’s only natural for me to continue to extend myself.

Reflecting on this, I accepted that eventually I would find myself overstepping the mark and calling upon every level of skill I possess to resolve a tricky predicament. I accept that this is the nature of my adventuring and in fact of my personal growth too. It is often my mistakes and mishaps which provide powerful learning. Rather than continue to give myself a hard time about breaking my non-capsize record, I instead have chosen to look at this Pembrokeshire event as a rich source of helpful information. For a start - even when relaxed, maintain a level of alertness. There are many small but important steps I would take differently based on the learning I have drawn from this one event and as a result, I’m confident that an occurrence of this nature will not happen again.

Cape Wrath

My accrued wisdom however, informs me that there will undoubtedly be another time some where in the future where I slip on the tightrope between adventure and misadventure. I’m confident though that when this happens, like this time in Pembroke, I’ll be well equipped in mind, in skill and safety kit to deal with it. This is what adventure is about. As Phil and I say to each other every time we embark on a shared journey into the outdoors - “An adventure is an experience with an unknown outcome.”

Adventurer

The Cambrian News described me as an adventurer when they wrote an article about my 3 Peaks by Kayak fundraising journey, (link here). It was strange for me to see myself described as such and this made me think about the concept of adventure per se and that of being an adventurer. 

Strangely, despite having lived my life immersed in the outdoors working as a guide and outdoor instructor, experiencing myriad incredible adventurous experiences for myself and undertaking some fairly major expeditions, I have not viewed myself specifically as an adventurer. This is a title I bestow on others who I deem more worthy of the description than me. I guess, I consider my efforts benign in comparison to what other folks have achieved. Seeing the word attributed to me in the newspaper article at first caused me to cringe a little, but then I glowed with a sense of self-recognition. I'm interested why this simple attribution is important to me. 

First of all, it is important because it is a form of recognition. There is a drive within every human to be positively recognised for who we are. We consciously or unconsciously live our lives in such a way so that we receive attention and acknowledgement which can only be provided by another person or people. I'm never going to be recognised for academic prowess or business acumen, so finding myself acknowledged for achieving something worthwhile in a field I'm adept at is particularly rewarding. 

Secondly, as I reach the later years of my life, I realise the importance of my legacy - the story or stories which will be recounted about me after I have departed this world. I don't want to pass through this existence without a worthy epitaph to mark my presence. This may seem a vain aspiration but as with being recognised for who I am in this present life, I would like there to be a memory of me having contributed meaningfully during my life. If this is as an 'adventurer', then I'll be happy with this. 

Ever since I stopped working for Outward Bound twenty years ago, I have struggled to define myself with any certainty. I suppose rather tongue in cheek I could confidently call myself a Jack of All Trades. I tried my hand in the Mental Health sector, trained in psychotherapy and ran a private practice for a few years, developed a form of 'wilderness therapy' and when I ceased this, a number of other minor job roles including sea kayak guiding. I wouldn't say that I was unsuccessful at any of those roles, it's just that I didn't fit them - they didn't fit me. Maybe I'm a rolling stone, unable to settle in any profession. If this is the case, then defining myself as an adventurer will be the ideal solution, for this is exactly what the specifications for this title demands - a person willing to roll as a stone, meeting and overcoming uncertainty along the way, maybe living with discomfort and undertaking arduous ventures. 

I have to admit there is an element of discomfort for me with the term adventurer. In this age of social media sound bytes and instant fame, there appears to me to be commodification of adventure as a means of shameless self-promotion. The outdoors becomes a playground, the environment barely given a second glance in the race for the perfect adventure photo, for example a blazing camp fire on virgin Hebridean Machar or a dune buggy roaring over pristine sands. I'm not suggesting that adventurers are disconnected from nature but it pains me when I see Nature being exploited for purely egoistic gain. Maybe I hold a naïve view that to be an adventurer who journeys through the wild and natural realms, one needs to do so with reverent mutuality, viewing Nature as an equal partner in the enterprise.

Being an adventurer carries responsibility and it's role which can be a force for good. People look upon adventurers as sources for inspiration. This is one of the responsibilities I find myself accepting with serious intent. Particularly so because I have chosen to associate my endeavours with raising awareness about mental health, depression, suicide awareness and recovery. I recognise that through my profile I have a stronger voice to air my knowledge about these important subjects. Actually, this is one of the motivating factors in me deciding to follow the path of becoming an adventurer - to use this as a platform to highlight the issues surrounding depression. 

Of course I can only be an adventurer if I continue to embark on adventures. I don't anticipate this being an arduous arrangement to fulfil but it does come with costs and these aren't just financial. I will be required to be away from home and separated from my wife for long periods of time. This is probably the toughest aspect of adventuring for me. I feel guilt at not being home to assist with daily home life, particularly since we live on a boat and this requires some extraordinary chores like having to row Ziggy ashore for his walks. This can become an arduous chore if it is not shared. Of course separation is tough and can put strain on the marriage. I have many times wondered how early explorers managed to maintain successful marriages despite living abroad for months if not years at a time. In this day and age though, our means of communicating with loved ones is far more advanced. I am thankful and grateful that Karen supports my desire for adventures, recognising this as a positive force for my continued good health and personal growth. Being away for long periods of time also impacts life in general; missing friends, missing out on social events and negating community voluntary duties such as the RNLI Tobermory Lifeboat in my case.

As with any chosen path in life, the benefits have to outweigh the negatives. It's not as if I am consigned to this role against my will, being the only opportunity within my grasp. The choice is mine and if the costs are too great then it's a simple decision to take a step back, reassessing what's important and what changes can be made. For the moment, though much of my life has been leading to this, it feels like the early stages of my embarkation along this route. It's as if I have just been offered the role and have accepted it. 

In reality, no such role exists and it's not a paid job. I am an adventurer in name only, an attribution pasted onto me by a supportive newspaper article and I have wrapped myself in the glory of it. Whether I can make some kind of living from this only time will tell. It's purely down to me and how comfortable I feel about making this happen. I am a humble soul, not one to seek fame or glory. Yet, for the first time in many years I find myself enjoying discovering a sense of identity and pride in these three words:

Nick Ray, Adventurer.