It took a while for people to grasp precisely what I meant when I talked about undertaking an expedition from Land’s End to John O’Groats in a straight line. Most people pictured a route that passed though Manchester but the reality was quite different. The line, initially drawn on a road atlas by team-mate Ian O’Grady (a former pro-kayaker) included enormous open sea crossings, a traverse of Britain’s second-highest mountain, and a cycle ride through Scotland’s largest city.
Thousands of end-to-end journeys have been undertaken since brothers John and Robert Naylor walked from John O’Groats to Land’s End in 1871. However, the concept of making a straight-line journey between these two places in kayaks, on bikes and on foot was new. For me, the prospect of an adventure on home soil, linking two iconic landmarks in a way that had never previously been attempted was incredibly exciting.
The first few days of ‘Beeline Britain’ would pose the biggest challenge of the entire route as the straight line required us to undertake the longest open-sea kayak crossing that is possible within UK waters. Although I believed that it must be possible to paddle the 200 kilometres across the mouth of the Bristol Channel and on to St David’s Head at the southern tip of Wales, several world-class sea kayakers questioned the feasibility of our project. To be fair, I had little in the way of sea kayaking experience. I also suffer badly with motion sickness, but this was insignificant in comparison to the challenges faced by team-mate and rowing Paralympian Nick Beighton, who had lost both legs above the knee in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. The final member of our quartet was Adam Harmer, a kayak coach at Plas-y-Brenin and a senior lecturer in Outdoor Education at Liverpool John Moores University.
Upon arriving at Land’s End, I looked in astonishment at one of the flattest seas I had ever seen. The conditions were exactly what we needed: a slow-moving, high pressure weather system with light south-south-westerly winds. If ever there was going to be an opportunity to complete the mammoth sea crossing, this was it. I watched nervously as our support team lifted our sea kayaks from the roof of the support vehicle so that the vessels could be packed with supplies for the crossing.
My mind was spinning as it played out hundreds of different scenarios about the crossing – 36 hours of non-stop paddling lay ahead of us. I wanted to ensure that I had the right kit in the right quantity in the right place. Opening the kayak hatches in anything other than perfectly calm conditions would be difficult so we had to be creative in the use of space on deck and in our cockpits. I stuffed dehydrated meals under my seat, squished several bladders full of isotonic solution and water behind my seat, crammed jelly energy blocks into the pockets of my buoyancy aid and attached thermos flasks to the deck.
The hardest kit decision we faced revolved around what to wear. While training in the winter months, and during the later kayaking phases of the expedition, full drysuits were the only sensible option. However, as the temperature reached 25°C at our launch point in Sennen Cove, we knew that, to begin with at least, we had to wear something else. What garment combination would see us through the heat of the day, the cold of the night, and an unknown quantity of wild waves that could threaten to capsize us? I started out by wearing fleecy leggings and a white, long-sleeved T-shirt made from synthetic fibres. I simply could not risk overheating.
Once we left the beach, I relaxed. Deep down, I was sure that we had everything we needed. And I was confident in our ability as a team. Not only that, but our safety boat, the Lady Kate, followed behind to offer support in the event of an emergency.
We had made a conscious decision to use two tandem kayaks rather than four single kayaks. We needed a kayak that would offer us a significant degree of stability, and allow the more experienced paddlers to partner with the less experienced team members to produce two vessels that could travel at similar speeds. In addition, we knew that having only one other kayak to look out for in poor visibility, rather than three vessels, would be less taxing. Our deck-mounted sails became an important feature during the crossing, not only for aiding our progress northwards, but also for spotting the sister kayak in a heavy swell.
We quickly settled into our tried-and-tested routine of stopping to eat and drink every hour. Nick kept time and limited our breaks to just five minutes to minimise the degree to which we drifted off course. Our kayaks had been modified so that we could raft up together by clipping karabiners on elasticated tape to reinforced loops on the decks. This arrangement enabled us to keep hands free for eating and drinking, as well as adjusting the angle of the sail. Every four hours we stopped for a longer break of up to 20 minutes, during which we used a Jetboil stove to boil water for soup or to rehydrate a dried meal. Cooking was dependent on the sea state and involved a significant level of trust between Nick (seated in the other kayak) and myself as we passed a container full of scalding water between us.
Our first big milestone came at nightfall. I was excited by the prospect of paddling in the dark. Most of my adventures have included an element of travelling at night. For me, it evokes a unique emotion, like entering a mysterious world, in which your senses are heightened.
We prepared for the night shift by attaching glow sticks to our buoyancy aids and securing torches and strobes to our heads and bodies. I also pulled on a fleece top. Every wave that advanced on our kayaks and washed under the hull seemed to make more noise than during the day, often prompting me to adopt a brace position in order to prevent the kayak capsizing. After dark, we discovered an additional and unexpected source of light in the form of phosphorescence. A glowing ball of bioluminescent organisms would swirl along the length of the kayak each time I planted my paddle in the water, providing Ian (who sat in the stern of my kayak) with a spectacular light show.
I wish I could say that over the years I have found a way to combat sleep deprivation. I never have. It’s when dawn breaks that I am at my most vulnerable. After 19 consecutive hours of paddling I was struggling. Suddenly, a pod of dolphins joined us and leaped across the bow of our kayak. I sat bolt upright, with eyes that were now wide open, in the hope that I might be able to obtain a better view of them.
We did not expect the sea to remain calm for the entire journey and, in the space of just a few hours on the morning of day two, the conditions built to a three-metre swell. By now I had put on a waterproof cagoule. We were at the limit of what we could cope with. At this time, a single capsize would probably have ended our journey.
The wind created a following sea that repeatedly picked Ian up in the stern of the kayak while simultaneously shunting me through the wave ahead. Then salt water would engulf the deck, drenching me in the process. Immediately thereafter, I would be airborne again with nothing to paddle through except air.
With 37 kilometres to go to the Welsh coast, I spotted what appeared to be towers on the horizon. I was convinced they were chimney stacks belonging to the oil refinery near Milford Haven. Several hours later, I finally realised the towers were part of an oil tanker more than twice as long as the pitch in the Millennium Stadium.
On such a long crossing it was always going to be difficult to coordinate our arrival into Pembrokeshire with a suitable tide. That said, I had not prepared myself for the moment when Adam read out the distance to shore and the speed of the flooding tide. I ran the maths in my head. ‘So we might not make land?’ I shouted.
‘That’s right,’ Adam said with a tone of anger and deflation. My heart sank to the bottom of the kayak. We had paddled continuously for more than 28 hours and the flooding tide meant that we were rapidly being pulled eastwards along the Bristol Channel. There was only one thing that we could do and that was to paddle harder than we had ever paddled before. I adjusted my seating position, rolled up my sleeves in preparation for a rise in my body temperature and focused on the coastline in front of me. Eventually, we managed to cross the strongest part of the flow. Our attentions immediately turned to a secluded sandy bay close to one of Wales’ top surfing locations, Freshwater West. But it still felt like we were paddling in vain.
After several exhausting and caffeine-fuelled hours, both kayaks touched the beach simultaneously. Our 30-and-a-half-hour sea kayak from Land’s End to St David’s Head was the perfect start to the 1,100-kilometre journey. We had become the first people to complete this crossing in kayaks but we couldn’t allow complacency to set in. Four more sea kayak journeys, 600 kilometres of cycling, an ascent of Ben Macdui and another 26 days of adventure lay between us and our eventual arrival at the northernmost tip of the British mainland.
Tori James is a speaker, adventurer and consultant who has made several record-breaking journeys, including becoming the youngest woman to climb Mount Everest when she was 25. Tori would like to thank the Endeavour Fund for its support in enabling the Beeline Britain team to demonstrate what injured service personnel can achieve. More details at www.torijames.com.
Kayaking across any length of water can be a challenge, but for long distance voyages you need to make sure you're well equipped. Tori James recalls ten of the most useful pieces of equiptment she couldn't have done without, including drysuits, vital energy-giving nutrition, proper paddles, and a suitable receptacle for when nature calls.
1. Dry Suit
Palm Element Women’s Suit
£500/1.79 kilograms (medium)
This suit gave me great confidence in cold, wet and windy conditions. Its fabric makes it waterproof and durable and the smooth-running zippers on the dropseat made visits to the loo on open sea crossings more manageable.
2. Personal flotation device
Palm Kaikoura PFD
£155/1.24 kilograms (M/L)
The roomy pockets on this personal flotation device are ideal when you need to keep safety equipment. The adjustable side straps and cut of the jacket provide a close fit without impairing paddling technique.
Palm Nova Boot
These neoprene boots could be worn in all temperatures and provide comfort while paddling, as well as when transitioning to dry land. The Nova offers protection from sharp objects and can be easily pulled on and off.
4. Collapsible bowl
Outwell Collaps Bowl M
This collapsible silicone and plastic bowl was stowed behind my seat and would have been used as a receptacle had any member of the team needed to pass a stool during the crossing.
Valley Aleut II
We used two of these twin-cockpit kayaks because of their stability in rough water. The roomy cockpits allowed me to stretch my legs and I was impressed by the storage capacity.
6. Deck-mounted sail
Flat Earth Code Zero Sail 80
£198/1 kilogram (sail only)
Once fitted to the deck, this sail could be deployed and adjusted using a system of lines and cleats. When not in use, it was easily lashed to the deck of the kayak using a bungee. The sail enabled us to achieve speeds of up to eight knots, which significantly reduced our journey time.
7. Energy chews
Clif Bar Shot Bloks
A tastier alternative to energy gels, Clif Bar Shot Bloks have a mouthfeel like jelly. Each packet contains 48 grams of energy-boosting carbohydrate. I particularly enjoyed the strawberry and mountain berry flavours.
8. Nutritional supplements
Higher Nature True Food B Complex
£8/50 grams (30 tablets)
The demands of a challenge like Beeline Britain puts added strains on your body. I take several nutritional supplements (including vitamin B, vitamin C, and magnesium) to boost my immune system, maintain energy levels, and reduce fatigue.
These sunglasses were great at protecting my eyes from sun, salt and sea spray. For someone with a small face, the Swell fitted surprisingly well. They sat comfortably around my head even when I wore a hat or hood.
Werner Cyprus Touring Paddle
£400/780 grams (210cm paddle)
This carbon fibre paddle almost became an extension of my body. It was so lightweight that I hardly felt like I was holding anything. I chose a bent shaft to help reduce fatigue and to minimise the chance of developing a wrist injury. I added reflective strips to the blades for improved visibility during the night.
This article was published in the April 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine