World Mental Health Day - A Sea Kayaking Parable.

I wrote this as an article which was published in Ocean Paddler magazine.

Three Peaks by Kayak

The storm is unrelenting. I have been caught within it for what seems like an interminable length of time. There seems no way out and it takes every ounce of my energy to struggle through. Every opportunity to escape seems impossible and the only solution it seems, is to give up. To resign myself to the force of nature and let go. In fact, this is really what I desire, and I begin to allow myself, battered with fatigue, to drift away from reality. Somehow, a glimmer, a spark of fortitude remains, and I grab onto this at the very last moment. I reach out, I call out and assistance is there. Safety beckons and with my last reserves of energy, I embrace life and allow myself to accept the truth. I cannot do this alone and I require professional intervention. 

Ben Nevis from Loch Linnhe

The above is not a dramatic account from one of my sea kayaking adventures. It is in fact a narrative of my battle with clinical depression last Autumn, my strong desire to complete suicide and my eventual admission into a psychiatric ward for my safety and recovery. I live with depression which from time to time is severe enough to see me admitted to in-patient psychiatric care. It’s an illness which has dogged my adult life and one I struggle to overcome.

The clinical term for my malaise is ‘treatment resistant depression’. This means that the myriad interventions I’ve received have so far been unsuccessful and future options are diminishing. In the end though, I invariably make it through the worst of the debilitating episodes and I return to healthy normality somewhat battered, but inwardly stronger for the experience. The problem though, is the danger I face when I sink into one of my suicidal phases. The desire for death is so emphatic and real, that unchecked, I may in one irreversible moment see this through.

Fast forward to 15th May this year and I’m standing on the shores of Loch Eil about to embark on another of my long sea kayaking journeys; the Three Peaks by Kayak. This was a fund-raising venture for Odyssey, a small cancer charity I have worked with and continue to be involved in. There was a back story too, linking the Outward Bound centres of Loch Eil, Eskdale and Aberdyfi by beginning at the first and finishing at the latter. I am a former Outward Bound instructor and had long wanted to undertake this challenge when working for them many years ago. There was also another reason for undertaking this journey, one of recovery. I find solace through my immersion in wild landscapes and sea kayaking offers me the purist way to connect with my world around me.

In many respects, the challenge of kayaking from Fort William to Aberdyfi in mid-Wales and climbing the mountains of Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon on the way was a straight forward venture. It turned out to be a kayaking distance of eight hundred and thirty-two kilometres with some challenging windy conditions, the usual tidal gates to pass through, a few long open crossings and Liverpool Bay to traverse! I paddled this expedition solo and set myself the arbitrary timescale of a month to complete it, (which I managed to do with a few days to spare). I’m no stranger to solo expedition kayaking having visited in 2015 every one of at the time, forty-seven RNLI lifeboat stations in Scotland, an unsupported kayaking journey of 2960 kilometres. In 2017 I kayaked the route of the Scottish Islands Peaks Yacht Race and climbed the mountains of Ben More on the Isle of Mull, the Paps of Jura and Goat Fell on the Isle of Arran. Paddling solo is my preference.

Jura Sunset

An account of my Three Peaks by Kayak journey would be one of many perfect sunny days, unexpected and challenging strong easterly winds for much of my traverse of Scotland, incredibly beautiful and dramatic coastline of course, meeting fantastic people and plenty of humorous anecdotes. It was very much a typical sea kayaking adventure; packing, kayaking, decision making, some eventful seas, beautiful campsites and so on. However, it was far more than all of that. It was in fact a hugely profound experience for me.

When I worked for Outward Bound in the eighties and nineties, the seminal book about our profession at the time was; “The Conscious Use of Metaphor in Outward Bound” by Stephen Bacon. I even went to a training workshop run by him. Very simply, we were encouraged to frame the outdoor activities our students were presented with as metaphors in the hope that this would enable them to establish useful links between their Outward Bound course and their lives at work and home, thus making meaning of their outdoor experiences. Ever since then, I’ve lived my own outdoor life metaphorically, gaining insights about myself and how I relate with the world through the experiences I’ve encountered. It was no surprise then that this adventure would be the same. What I didn’t expect was how incredibly therapeutic it would be.

Lumpy Seas

Standing on the slippery rocks of the Loch Eil foreshore, about to climb into my kayak and set off, I realised how low I was feeling. I didn’t want to leave the safety of my home and the companionship of my wife. I was unsure of my ability to successfully take on the challenge before me and unusually, I felt fear. I was fearful of the seas and the potential hazards ahead. I wasn’t experiencing the excitement and the anticipation I hoped for which would see me cheerily on my way. Instead, I paddled the eight short kilometres from Loch Eil Outward Bound to Fort William conjuring excuses and reasons to abandon the expedition in its early stages. Then, I climbed Ben Nevis in the small hours of the following morning, arriving as planned at the summit as the sun rose. There followed two wonderfully calm days of kayaking southwards reaching as far as Knapdale on the Kintyre coast. My spirits were lifted and I easily settled into my familiar life of an expeditionary sea kayaker. A 4am encounter with an Otter visiting me in my tent on the Isle of Luing, while I was drinking coffee highlighted the joy of the experience. From Knapdale onwards the challenges set in and so did a resurgent struggle with my depression.

The winds and the seas picked up and I found myself struggling to make headway. The bonhomie with the world I had been enjoying over the previous couple of days dissipated, to be replaced with a familiar depressive malaise. I was shaken by how easily my depressive thinking surfaced and at one point, I was frightened to find myself considering how easy it would be to capsize my kayak in the heavy seas and to drift away down into the Irish Sea. My inevitable death would appear to be a dreadful kayaking tragedy. When this thought occurred, I was heading for Machrihanish, still about nineteen kilometres away. With waves breaking around my waist and realising that a huge swell would make any landing down there hazardous, I decided that I needed to make for the shore well before then to sit out this bout of bad weather. I shifted my thinking from self-annihilation to self-preservation. It was that simple. A rocky reef provided me with the break I needed, and I landed on the Kintyre shore with the merest of ripples to contend with. That night in my tent, I reflected on what had occurred and with a surge of powerful realisation, I recognised my innate desire to remain alive.

Ahead of me, twenty-seven kilomteres away, loomed the Mull of Kintyre and its fearsome tidal race reputation. To make the tidal gate here and get through it safely, required an extraordinary early start. This meant waking at 2am and departing at 4. The forecast was for easier weather, so I decided to make this happen. The early morning rise, breakfast and packing in the dark was not as arduous as I anticipated. In fact, it was quite the opposite with a sense of pleasure at heading out to sea while the world around slumbered peacefully. The sun rising and bring light and warmth to the day as I kayaked along the Machrihanish Beach emphasised the joy to be gained from this type of experience. All went according to plan and I rounded the Mull of Kintyre just as the tide turned against me, gently and without the roaring tide race I have yet to encounter there. I repeated this experience for my traverse of the Mull of Galloway, this time an hour earlier. Again, I was rewarded with wonderful early morning solitude as a nearly full moon slowly descended, seemingly disappearing into a mirror calm sea. In fact, pre-dawn starts became the norm for this kayak journey as I repeated them several times further along the coast.

Arriving at Ailsa Craig

What I took from these experiences was a powerful reinforcement that I have it within my ability to make positive things happen. I could easily have chosen to tackle the tidal gate later in the day, accepting I would round the Mull in the late evening and arrive at Southend almost in the dark. By motivating myself to rise early and set off into the dark, I gained a fresh perspective on my journey and found myself enjoying this. I recognised too a sense of personal pride in my determination to grasp the challenge. I learned that this translated easily for my recovery process from my depression. The opportunity for change always exists, it’s up to me to seek it and make it happen.

Landing on the iconic island of Ailsa Craig with its cacophonous gannetry was a highlight of this adventure. I had long wanted to visit the island by kayak, and achieving this after a thirty kilometre crossing from Southend on Kintyre was especially rewarding, particularly because regular squadrons of gannets flying low overhead appeared to be welcoming me in. It was here where I noticed my solitude on this trip. Descending from the 338 metre high summit of the island where I had enjoyed the most incredible sunset over the expanse of an empty Firth of Clyde, I slipped on a patch of bluebells and tumbled headfirst down the steep slope, manically attempting to protect my camera and binoculars in my hands. I ended up in a crumpled heap a good few metres downhill with an excruciatingly painful elbow. The next morning, I was greeted with the sound of a gusting force 5 and the awareness that the pain in my elbow had worsened. It was tender to touch and very painful to bend. With a sense of panic, I assumed the worst and rather stupidly posted my concerns on my Twitter feed. I then found myself reassuring concerned followers that I was safe, well provisioned and didn’t require rescuing by the RNLI, who ironically, came to my rescue on Twitter by tweeting an acknowledgement of my ability to care for myself.

What followed was an enforced day of rest, allowing me to explore my castaway surroundings. The abandoned Northern Lighthouse Board buildings were fascinating with remnants of the keepers’ lives lying in the rooms where they had been used. The wild flowers were delightful. The 16th century castle tower was incredible and appeared to have weathered the centuries better than the contemporary buildings. The bird life was spectacular and coming across a large slow worm basking in the warm sunshine, was a particularly intimate encounter. Exploring all of this on my own with the sense that I was indeed a castaway, was incredibly rewarding. Reconnoitring the ‘Temple of Doom’ like walkways along the eastern edge of the island I happened upon an obviously injured gannet perched upon a rock, its head tucked deep under its bloodied wing. At first glance I thought it may be dead but then the slightest of shivers which ruffled its glorious feathers, showed me this was not the case. I stood stock still, suddenly deeply impacted by the painful reality that for this poor bird, there was no future. It had chosen to perch on the rock to wait for its inevitable death.

The Dying Gannet

There was nothing I could do. Any means to put it out of its misery would be brutal and anyway, I didn’t want to play ‘God’ and hasten its death unbidden. I walked away back to my tent, the angry white capped sea to my left emphasising the potent force of Nature. This was a powerful moment for me, the issue of death being forced into my consciousness again. It occurred to me that unlike the poor gannet, humans are afforded the opportunity to choose the manner of our death. Faced with the inevitability of a dire diagnosis or indeed, suicidal desires, we can choose to curl up and wait for the inevitable end, even hastening it, or raise our heads and face it head on, living our lives as fully as we can before the moment arrives. We can fight too. We can medicate ourselves, undergo surgery and accept professional intervention to prolong or overcome the illness we are faced with. On Ailsa Craig, alone, almost like a shipwrecked mariner, I received the most illuminating awareness of the whole adventure. Choose life!

A few days later, after rounding the Mull of Galloway in the mid-morning after a pre-dawn start, I was faced with the twenty-seven-kilometre crossing of Luce Bay – against the tide. The weather was benign, and the sea was calm. The forecast for the following day was for force five easterlies, so I either set off there and then, or accepted I would be stuck by the Mull of Galloway for at least another day. I vacillated. I was weary and I knew that the tidal stream flowing out of the Solway Firth would be tough to contend with. However, I wanted to press on and make it at least to the Isle of Whithorn where I could sit out the strong wind next day in relative comfort. There was an hour or two of tide left in my favour, so I set off. Indeed, I made it across to the eponymously named Scares eleven kilometres off the Mull coastline in good time. However, after I had made it through the churned waters around the rocks with some nervousness, it seemed to me as if all progress was halted. The hazily indistinct coastline was sixteen kilometres away and regular glances at my GPS showed my progress was counted in metres not kilometres. While checking my GPS, I would drift backwards!

My heart was heavy. This moment seemed interminable and hopeless. I rued my decision to set out and began to consider returning to the Mull of Galloway with the tide. Somehow though, I kept going one slow, heavy paddle stroke at a time. The sun burnt down from a cloudless sky, my hydration bag now empty of water and my throat parched. It seemed as if the gannets and the cormorants swirling around the Scares still only metres away, were in fact vultures waiting for my demise. My spirits were at a low ebb. Then, because it was the nature of this adventure, I began to view my predicament in a different vein. Of course, it was tough. I was fatigued, and I was desperate for the eventual comfort of my tent. However, this moment would not last for ever. Eventually, in only a few hours, the tidal flow against me would ease and then change direction altogether. There would still be plenty of daylight to see me land at the Isle of Whithorn. If I could sit with my discomfort, then all would be well. This then, was another compelling lesson for me to embody. On the back of the insight gained on Ailsa Craig to choose life, sitting with my discomfort knowing that this will not last for ever, was powerfully enlightening. Those words, “will not last forever”, were often spoken to me by the nurses on the psychiatric ward when I was in hospital. They made sense then of course but sadly carried little weight. Now though, in the middle of Luce Bay, with a powerful tide against me, I understood them completely and laughed with joy at their enduring simplicity and truth.

Birkdale Beach

Again, a few days later I was landing further up the Solway Firth on the depressingly rocky shore of Rascarrel Bay. I had struggled for the previous couple of hours against a force six headwind and an accompanying lumpy sea. Suitable landing places were almost non-existent, let alone those with good enough spots to camp. Rascarrel had seemed the most likely option and when I arrived, the tide was way out and I was faced with hundreds of metres of large weed covered and barnacled boulders over which to carry bulging IKEA bags and my kayak. It was also pouring with tropically intense rain. I set about unpacking the boat, knowing that in these conditions there was little hope in keeping things dry, when suddenly a pair of wellies appeared in my peripheral vision and a voice asked, “Would you like a hand?”. Angels it seems, wear wellington boots! I was warmly welcomed in by the Smith family, third generation hutters of Rascarrel Bay. They invited me to camp in their garden and fed me jam and ham sandwiches!

Again, I was confronted with a convincing metaphorical awareness, that when the chips are down, there will be moments of unexpected help. By now, over two weeks into my journey, I had at last found the joy and the pleasure to be gained from the adventure. I had faced many dark moments. I had also allowed myself to accept the many nuggets of Nature’s instruction offered to me during these. As a result, I was strong again.

The subsequent days and kilometres drifted by, each with substantial challenges, but all faced with equanimity. In fact, I sought some of these challenges before they presented themselves, culminating in an eighty-six kilometre penultimate day of my journey when I kayaked the full length of the Lleyn Peninsula and then crossed Cardigan Bay to camp on Shell Island beach. The final day of the adventure was particularly fitting in that I arrived to a warm welcome from friends at Aberdyfi, the place where my professional life in the outdoors began in the mid-eighties and where a portion of my heart will forever reside. After all I have been through, it was affirming to be welcomed so warmly and to celebrate my achievement of completing the Three Peaks by Kayak, a challenge which nearly a month earlier, on the shores of Loch Eil, I doubted my ability to accomplish.

One of the tasks presented to us as Outward Bound instructors was to facilitate the transfer of learning from an Outward Bound course to the students’ home or work, so that new awareness and opportunities for change were enduring. Having presented the activities they encountered metaphorically throughout their course, this process was not too difficult to manage. Now that I’m home after this kayaking adventure, I too am confident that the self-awareness I gained from this venture will be long lasting. My recovery from my clinical depression will never be straight forward, but now, I have powerfully metaphoric memories to recall when those tough times revisit me in the future.

"if

the ocean can calm itself,

so can you.

we

are both

salt water

mixed with

air."  

~ Nayyirah Waheed

I was raising funds for Odyssey, a charity which provided transformational outdoor courses for people with or have had cancer. My fundraising page remains open - here. Thank you.


 

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.

Gratitude

It's just a few weeks until I set off on my Three Peaks by Kayak adventure raising funds for Odyssey.

Any venture such as this requires top notch equipment to ensure my safety and the possibility of its success. I have received incredibly generous support from kayaking equipment providers and individuals over the past few years and I'm indebted to them for this. Without their generosity, it's doubtful that I'll have been able to resource myself adequately to undertake the journeys I have. 

I am always grateful for sponsorship and receiving much needed equipment. In return, I hope I offer useful publicity to the businesses and providers who help me. More than this, I like to think of any sponsorship arrangement as an ongoing partnership where I hope to continue to acknowledge their support long after my adventure has taken place. 

For the Three Peaks by Kayak, I am truly grateful to Alan Hinkes for agreeing to be the Patron for this particular adventure. We met during my 2015 journey around Scotland and it's an honour to have him on board. His mountaineering achievements are inspirational as is his continued work encouraging people to make the most the outdoors has to offer. 

I continue to be indebted to Sea Kayaking Scotland for 'Sahwira', my NDK Explorer sea kayak. She has served me faithfully through my 2015 journey, my Scottish Islands Peaks last year and innumerable trips in between. I think we've paddled over 3000 miles together since April 2015. 'Sahwira' by the way, means 'lifelong friend' in Shona, a Zimbabwean language.

Leonie of Art & Sea - Custom Vinyl Graphics is generously supporting me yet again this year, gifting me free graphics for new sponsors and sea slates for me to write essential notes & times on my deck. The graphics she provided for my 2015 trip are still looking excellent despite the wear and tear they have received.

An exciting new partnership has come into being with Gael Force Group who have generously provided me with an Icom hand held VHF radio. I am looking forward to our developing relationship over the coming years, especially since I worked for them way back in 2013.

Reed Chillcheater presented me with a spray-deck for my Islands Peaks challenge last year and this excellent piece of kit is now a firm favourite of mine.

YB Tracking sponsored my unit and tracking for my 2015 trip and assisted me in purchasing a YB unit with a donation of 100 credits for my Islands Peaks last year. I'll be using this again this year.

The buoyancy aid and kayaking trousers I use were provided by Kokatat for my 2015 trip and these are going strong.

My paddles too, from my 2015 trip, have many paddling miles left in them. They were sponsored by Celtic Paddles.

I still wear the three T-shirts given to me in 2015 by Gael8 Designs - they are old favourites.

And finally there is YOU - all of you who support me with warm words of encouragement, by making generous donations to my fundraising effort and for showing an interest in my mad cap ventures.

Thank you to everyone. Thank you! :)

A Fresh Start

8th May 2106! That was my last blog entry and what a lot of water has flowed under my bridge since then. I'm not certain where to begin, so I think I'll resort to a hasty summary of what has happened since that last post.

I ended up staying in hospital well into the summer and returned to our home in the marina on Loch Fyne. My recovery was well under way and it was wonderful to be home again but I still had a way to go before I could confidently say this bout of depression was at an end. It wasn't long before we were making plans for a move to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull as well as making ready for the arrival of our new yacht too. Karen had found a job in Tobermory which suited her down to the ground and the opportunities for work there for me were far greater than they were on the Cowal Peninsula. So, in August 2016 Karen moved to Mull and I waited for the new yacht to arrive which it did at the beginning of September. It was a momentous moment when along with a friend I cast off from Portavadie Marina to sail our Colvic 33 to Tobermory. Four days later our new home was safely berthed on the pontoons in Tobermory Harbour.

There followed a period of settling in where I took time to establish myself in the community and sadly continued to struggle with severe bouts of depression. Thankfully I was well supported by the community mental health nurse and the psychiatrist. Despite the periods of deep lowness I found myself enjoying my new surroundings. The Isle of Mull is a lovely island with so much to explore and enjoy. The walking is second to none and the coastline is one of the finest to explore in a sea kayak. As the winter deepened we hunkered down in our boat and safely rode out the passing winter storms.

The new yacht has transformed our live aboard life. She is twice the size of our previous yacht and is well appointed with two sleeping cabins, two heads, a shower, hot water system, a lovely saloon and an excellent galley. She is also a lovely boat to sail - seaworthy, which is ideal for us. The extra space has allowed us to live comfortably with a sense that we are definitely in our home and not in a small yacht.

On our mooring in Tobermory Harbour.

On our mooring in Tobermory Harbour.

When the New Year arrived we found ourselves becoming accepted by the Tobermory community. I became involved with the local lifeboat fundraising committee and from this I was invited to become a Deputy Launching Authority for the Tobermory Lifeboat. An honour and a responsibility I'm proud to have taken on. In doing this I have found my social circle has widened to the point where I can't remember enjoying the company of so many friends for many years. It is a wonderful feeling to go about my business around the town and always be bumping into folks I know and who know me. Another important aspect for me is the fact that folks are interested in me and for the first time in a long, long while I feel acknowledged for who I am.

At the beginning of the summer I established a sea kayak guiding service in Tobermory with the generous assistance of Chris of Clearwater Paddling. Essentially I am working for him as a guide here on the Isle of Mull but without his generosity in agreeing to set up a Mull wing to his business, I would not be doing something I love - sea kayak guiding. So far the business is going well and there is a lot of interest. It is lovely to take people out and around Tobermory Bay, showing them the sights and sharing with them the joys of sea kayaking on the west coast of Scotland.

I am free of my deep depression at the moment and I look forward to the coming months with hope and excitement. There is a lot to be joyous about living here and there are many times when I pinch myself to make sure that I am where I am.

I look forward too to writing many more blog entries with a more upbeat tone to them.

Digging Deep - A Sea Kayaking Parable

A few days ago my wife took me to the beautiful wee beach at Kilmory on the Kintyre coast between Loch Sween and West Loch Tarbert. It feels like a secret idyll which involves a ten mile journey through some of the finest wooded and coastal landscape that Scotland has to offer. The lovely white sandy beach faces west with the panoply of the Islay and Jura skyline dominating the view across the breezily ruffled Sound of Jura. We had taken a picnic and we settled back to a wonderful few hours under the strengthening early summer sun. It was glorious.

Proaig Bothy

Looking across the ten miles to the Isle of Jura I was reminded of the day last year when I kayaked forty seven miles from Proaig Bothy on Islay via the lifeboat station at Port Askaig, back down the Sound of Islay into the Sound of Jura, across to the mainland and then northwards to Crinan. The day before I had kayaked forty five miles from the Mull of Kintyre to the bothy on Islay. These were to be the longest mileage days of my trip.

I had set off from the bothy at six in the morning and paddled against a gusty wind and the makings of a strong opposing tide. I hopped through the eddys along the shore delighting in the sculpted cliffs mottled with intriguing caves. At my passing, seals sloshed off the rocks into the sea and inquisitively trailed in my wake. Slipping neatly through the swirling tidal waters into Port Askaig I arrived alongside the lifeboat. After a quick scramble ashore to visit the lifeboat station I was soon afloat again keen to make the most of the eastward tide down the Sound of Islay.

With a strengthening following wind and a favourable tide it took me only an hour to paddle the eight miles to the tip of the island of Jura where I turned northwards into the Sound of Jura. Now, as I kayaked along the eastern coastline of the island the wind was on my port beam and as I emerged from the shelter of the various skerries I was almost bowled over by the gusts. The forecast was for strong winds reaching twenty five knots. What had been plain sailing now became something of a struggle, maintaining steady headway while coping with the forceful gusts. Reaching the Small Isles which guard Craighouse Bay I drew deep breaths while I rested and smiled at the antics of the Common Terns and the eponymous Oystercatchers. My plan was to kayak along the Jura coastline to the narrowest point of the Sound and find a camp spot. The next day I would hop across to the mainland and make my way along the north Kintyre coast to Crinan where our yacht, my home, was moored on the canal - and where my wife was waiting.

By the time I reached the open mouth of Lowlandman's Bay the strength of the wind was beginning to really dog me. I began to lose the will to continue and I debated with myself about pulling ashore at the earliest opportunity and calling it a day. There would be no shame in doing this especially while the conditions were like they were. From time to time fierce rain squalls would sweep down on me from the Paps on my left and make life pretty miserable. I plodded on - slow paddle stroke after another. By the time I reached Lagg four miles later, I was about done in and ready to stop.

Then, seemingly from nowhere the decision to make the six mile crossing to the mainland occurred. It was rash and possibly unwise given the strength of the wind but I went for it anyway. I had a desire to spend my night on the mainland with only a few remaining miles to complete before reaching home the next day. What followed was an exhilarating (if frightening) hour and a bit blast across the Sound of Jura to the safe haven of Keill Chapel harbour. The sea heaped up around me and surfed me along. From time to time the odd wave collapsed onto my stern deck and at times my spraydeck causing me to reach out in an urgent brace. I couldn't relax for a second wary of rogue waves which threatened to slap me over. It doesn't do to look behind when kayaking in a large following sea - it is ominously frightening! I made it safely across and breathed a huge sigh of relief when I was finally sitting in the calm waters of the harbour. I set about scanning the shore for a suitable place to camp but could only see watery bog fringing all around. I was worn out but there lay within me the desire to keep going. Looking out I saw the sea smashing itself furiously against the natural rock harbour walls. It seemed fearsome and I really didn't want to head back out into it. I sat still and pondered my situation.

I could camp here. I had camped in worse places. I could paddle further and stop at the next most suitable spot but this was likely to be five miles away. I could keep going all the way to Crinan and then I would be home. I tussled with these choices while around me the wind and the sea roared their advice - egging me onward.

Then it happened - I dug deep into my resources, executed a purposeful sweep with my left paddle blade and headed back out into the wild seas.

Within me the desire to reach home had strongly outweighed my weariness and my respect for the conditions. It was going to be a demanding few hours but I knew I had it within me to cope. I set off for Crinan, counting each mile as I completed them and realising that I was relishing this particular challenge. I was paddling along a lee shore so the conditions were incredibly rough. Despite this I made excellent progress and three hours and ten miles later I was pulling into the relative calmness of Crinan Bay, eventually landing on the slipway at nine in the evening. I unloaded the kayak and was enjoying a welcome glass of beer with my wife in the hotel bar by last orders!

I recalled all of this while sitting on the beach under the warm sun with the light glinting off the calm waters. Before me now, lies another challenge of sorts. I begin my series of ECT (Electro-convulsive Therapy) treatment for my depression and an extended stay in hospital. However I feel I have reached the end of my tether with hospital life and I am definitely ready to return home. It feels to me that I can't take much more of this - the confined space, communal living, regemented routines and being indoors instead of out. Yet the goal of recovering from my depression is extremely attractive and seems after such a long time (years in fact) to be within my reach. It's there if I can stay the course - if I will stay the course.

I'm sure you can see the link - all I have to do to achieve this is to dig deep, head onward and take my chance while I have it. The reward is plain to see.