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.”

Finding Focus

The summer is speeding by for me. This is probably a good thing in a way, because it means that I'm living it fully. I think this is probably true, though I have difficulty in recounting what I get up to each day. Not a huge amount to be honest. 

Anyway, I've recently returned from a journey down south where I gave a presentation in Aberdyfi about my 3 Peaks by Kayak journey, visited my parents in Herefordshire and then spent a few days camping with a group of friends in Pembrokeshire. This journey turned into a rewarding experience for me where I gained significant insights which I believe will be useful for me in my future. 

My presentation in Aberdyfi turned out to be an unqualified success. Seventy or so folks came along to the Yacht Club in the village to hear me give an illustrated talk about my 3 Peaks adventure. To be honest, I hadn't really prepared in any detail what I was going to talk about. I had chosen a number of photos to show and these would offer me prompts to recount anecdotes from the journey. I did have the intention of speaking about how profound the journey was for me and how I gained deep insights into my mental health recovery process as a result of it. As the presentation unfolded, I found myself speaking with eloquent openness about my struggle with my depression, ideations of suicide and how powerful moments of insight into these were highlighted by incredible experiences I encountered. Without preparing for this, I found my voice and it carried impact. 

The feedback I received afterwards was difficult to accept because it was so effusive in its praise. Such is my low sense of self-worth that I literally had to force the compliments into my 'memory banks'. It was when people I had never met before came up to me and spoke of the profoundness of my talk, that I realised that I had given something worthwhile. This was a good feeling for me. 

A few days later down in Pembrokeshire, the compliments continued to roll in and this time they were more thoughtful because folks had given time to thinking about the impact of my presentation. I couldn't help but glow with a sense of satisfaction that my voice had such impact. My intuition that sharing my personal struggle with depression and suicide as an adjunct to the powerful experiences I encountered during my kayaking journey had paid off. With relief, I realised that my desired future path of publicly sharing my outdoor adventures as a source of inspiration for others struggling with mental health issues and general self awareness, was a good one for me to pursue. 

Driving north to the Isle of Mull, I pondered on how I can build on this and make it happen.

Writing seems to be the most obvious pathway. I like writing but I'm not good at focussing and completing writing projects. However, recently submitting an article about my recent kayaking trip to the notable sea-kayaking publication, Ocean Paddler, and having this well received, with an invitation to submit further articles, has boosted my confidence and provided me with the incentive to approach my writing seriously. I have a number of books I would like to write and of course, many shorter pieces specifically about the transformational power of Nature, the outdoors and adventure per se. 

Public speaking is also an obvious route to embark on. I have come to accept that I'm adept at this and I can hold an audiences' attention through my voice and story. I have much to say and I do enjoy sharing my views and tales when these moments arise. However, I'm slow to grasp opportunities to speak publicly or even seek them out, instead waiting to be invited to do so. This will be a challenge for me, to publicise myself as a worthwhile speaker, worthy of hiring. 

Running workshops was another consideration of mine. I enjoy being a facilitator, managing group process and working with the 'here and now' material as it arises. Again, like my writing aspirations, I have a myriad workshop titles in my notebooks. The key here is finding a market for these and more to the point, a relevance for them. In my time, I have worked as an independent workshop provider and facilitator but I found this a stressful process for me. I'm not business minded enough to have made this a success and this dissuades me from following this path. 

Of course there is social media where I can highlight what I have to offer. My Twitter account is a healthy one with wonderfully meaningful engagement with friends, acquaintances and strangers. Here, I largely present myself as I am, not really hiding much away. It would be easy for me to build on this online persona and 'market. what I want to offer. Facebook is a little different and since the international wrangle with 'false news' and manipulation, I'm wary of this platform. I am on Instagram but I don't engage with this as best I could.

Then there is this website and developing my 'Life Afloat' brand. This is an obvious point of reference for what I want to develop and share. Like my writing, I will need to focus more on this, developing useful content and make it an interesting resource for folks to want to visit and remain connected with.

Finally, my Blog. I simply need to keep up with this and keep writing material for it.

If you have ideas and suggestions in response to what I've shared here, then please drop me a line through my contact page. I welcome any feedback you may wish to give me. Thank you.  

Ground-rush

In my life so far, I have completed only two parachute jumps. The first as a fund-raiser for a friend and the second the day after the first, because I had enjoyed it so much. They were static line jumps from two thousand feet high, involving the classic process of pushing out of an open light aircraft door, arms and legs akimbo, yelling (or screaming) - "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand..... check canopeeeee....!" These jumps took place in 1986 and so the mists of time have mellowed my memory of them since then. However, I do recall that I felt more fear during the second jump than I did the first. 

Analysing this now, I make the assumption that the first jump was one of pure excitement and because I had never jumped before, I really had no fearful expectations apart from the possibility that my parachute might malfunction. The rest of the experience was purely an adrenalin fuelled moment, which I had longed to complete ever since I was a young boy. I loved flying. I had been an Air Force Cadet at secondary school and I took any opportunity I could to fly in the ancient Chipmunk aircraft on summer camps and regular unit trips down to the nearest RAF airfield. I also gained my Glider Pilot wings before I passed my driving test, flying solo at the age of sixteen. My solo flight lasted just over sixty seconds and earned me the right to volunteer at the RAF Gliding School every Saturday, with solo flying at the end of the day, for two years after. My first solo glider flight is worthy of a separate story in itself.

So, by the time I found myself shuffling towards the gaping doorway in a Cessna aircraft, high above the quintessential rolling Herefordshire countryside, I was an avid aviator of sorts, who wondered what it would be like to hurl myself from an aircraft and drift down to earth under a silken canopy. I felt no fear, simply excited anticipation. The poor man who was sitting beside me on the cabin floor was weeping silently. Our relative perceptions of this mutual experience couldn't have been more different.

The first jump itself was everything I had hoped for. The complete exhilaration of sitting in the open doorway, my legs dangling with nothing below them until the ground far below and then the command, "Go!", followed by the few seconds of buffeting mayhem as the parachute snapped and cracked open and my body hanging motionless beneath the ochre canopy. These were the days before the 'square' canopies and the large round billowing mushroom above me spilled the air softly, just like the handkerchief parachutes I used to make for my plastic soldiers when I was a boy. What will remain with me in memorable crystal clarity for ever, is the silence. For the brief minute or so I was drifting earthwards, I was suspended in a solitudenous silence which, quite simply, took my breath away. It was one of those perfect moments of absolute awareness. It was probably the first time in my life where I was conscious of all that was occurring - around me, to me and for me.

Less than two minutes after leaving the plane, I neared the ground and seconds later, I saw the hardened grassy surface of the airfield rushing to meet me. With a thud which extorted an unbidden, "Ooft!" from my lungs, I hit the ground and I executed what I thought to be a worthy parachute roll. The air in the canopy dissipated and it collapsed in a whispering rustle beside me. My first ever parachute jump was complete and I was elated!

Imbued with confidence, back at the parachute club offices, I readily signed up for another jump the next day!

Twenty four hours later and once again I'm sitting on the cabin floor of the Cessna aircraft and this time there isn't a weeping man beside me. Instead, it's me who was feeling the nerves. With the naïve and excited anticipation no longer present, I was free to contemplate the possibilities of risk and failure. My stomach was tense and I was not enjoying the moment as much as I hoped I would. The moment of the jump arrived and instead of sheer exhilaration swamping my senses, I was agitated and matter of fact. I want the jump to be over. What I remember of that moment is fearing the landing. I looked forward to the moments of hanging silently beneath the billowing canopy but it was the final seconds and the rush to the ground which filled me with fear.

Needless to say, everything was fine and the jump was effortless and enjoyable. Even my landing was not as I had feared, though I do remember thumping onto the airfield as hard as the day before. 

Now, in the present day, I'm about to embark on my third major sea kayaking fundraising trip and I'm feeling the nerves. There is no longer first expedition naivety to mask my concerns and I am finding myself dwelling on aspects of my forthcoming journey which require particular attention because of possible hazards and the risks involved. Similarly too, I am worrying about my overall ability to pull this venture off - to succeed in its purpose. I worry that because I have been successful in past sea kayaking adventures, folks will have expectations of me doing so again and I have much to live up to. I realise that more than anything, I am expecting a lot of myself and it is actually myself who I don't want to disappoint. As the departure date for my journey draws closer, I am experiencing a sense of ground-rush, time concertinaing and the many important preparatory tasks rushing towards me. The memory of my parachute jumps thirty two years ago reveal themselves clearly in my mind and it is the memory of the ground-rush which I feared the most.

What I realise though, is to hold onto the recollection of that incredible moment hanging in space under the parachute canopy, alone and in awe of the world around me and below me, enveloped in peace and serenity. For it is this experience of solitude, alone on the vastness of the ocean, which fills me with this peace I crave in my life. This is why I return to these journeys in my sea kayak, time and again. The senses of fear and the ground-rush of anxiety then, are merely distractions which serve to heighten my preparedness to safely enjoy my oceanic solitude.

The moment I scrunch my kayak off the shore and into the sea on the 7th May, will be like the moment I'm dangled my legs out of the aircraft door for the second time all those years ago. All that awaits is the final push, and I'm away, encompassed in a world where anything is possible.