Land’s End to John O’Groats charity kayak challenge reaches Argyll

ardrishaig 7 july 2013 3

Silhouetted against the sun yesterday morning, 7th July, coming in to the beach at Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne from a night at Portavadie after lunch on a beach in south Bute, Nick and Philippa Arding’s Around Britain 4 Britain – a kayak challenge from Totnes in Devon to John O’Groats in Caithness – is moving through Argyll.

hancocks round britain 4 britain

The husband and wife team made landfall at Portavadie on Saturday night and met up with us at Ardrishaig yesterday before setting off on passage through the Crinan Canal.

This morning, 8th July, they are now on their way to Oban on what they describe as ‘a glass calm sea’ and will spend some time there – which looks as if it will include a beach clean on the Isle of Lismore – before going on through the Sound of Mull to Tobermory and onwards to the north.

Look out for two kayaks – one yellow and longer, a Rockpool Taran, the other a red Nigel Dennis Explorer. Nick is in the Taran and Philippa in the Explorer. They’ll be glad to talk to anyone. A lot of the landside fun of this challenge is the people they meet on the way – and Ardrishaig certainly didn’t let them down on this.

AroundBritain4Britain is fundraising for two charities, CLIC Sargent, for children with cancer; and the Marine Conservation Society – which is why beach cleaning is a major focus of the expedition. They aim to raise £25k from the paddle itself. Donations can be made here at the online JustGiving website. The total donated will be divided between the two nominated charities.

A meeting of minds

On the pontoon above Lock 4 on the canal, to which they trolley-hauled their kayaks up from the beach, they met Ardrishaig residents, Jimmy and Caroline Woolf , taking the sun on board their boat, Bolthole.

James and Caroline Woolf wit Nick Hancock

Jimmy, a Glaswegian, built a 40′ steel boat which he sailed to Cape Town. There he met Caroline – and later built Bolthole there, a 27.5′ steel boat, which they both sailed back to the UK.

This was a six month voyage, starting in April and ending in October on the Isle of Man. Awful weather in that early winter of 2008 saw them leave the boat there for a while. They decided to settle in Ardrishaig, Jimmy later going back to bring Bolthole up to Loch Fyne. With their children now independent, Jimmy seems to have another adventure in the back of his eye – but is saying nothing – yet.

At Lock 4

This was a meeting of fellow spirits on the pontoon, people who make the rest of us wonder why we are often a little over-fearful.

The challenge

This challenge has been two years in the planning and was originally to be paddled by Nick Arding and Lee Pooley – whose back was already in trouble before they set out from the River Dart on 17th May. In spite of this, Lee paddled for three weeks, from Totnes on the south coast to Tywyn, near Aberdaron on the Lleyn peninsula in north Wales.

At that stage and in severe pain, Lee was seen by an orthopaedic specialist who told him to stop paddling for fear of permanent damage to his spine.

Nick decided to carry on solo – an even riskier business. However, almost immediately, Phillippa – who had not kayaked for around five years but who simply could not accept the possible failure of the mission, offered to step into Lee’s place.

Hancocks round britain 4 britain 2

Before she did, she saw Nick off from Aberdaron on his first solo passage after Lee’s departure – a trip around the end of the Lleyn peninsula which reminded  Nick of what he could expect of flying solo when the elements decide to assert their authority over human impertinence.

This was on 10th June and, for kayakers and armchair adventurers like ourselves, Nick’s own description of the experience on the AB4B challenge’s  Facebook page, is a ‘fasten your seat belts’ moment:

‘With a tide race off a headland looking ‘tasty’ from the passenger seat of your van from 3 miles away it is a pretty good bet that it wont be ‘super calm’ when you get there! With butterflies in my stomach, I carried the boat down to the beach with Pa [Ed: Pa = Philippa. Explanation later] at Aberdaron. I headed across the bay against the back eddy, into a stiff breeze, just one look back to wave. I could see spray going up in the ‘race’ (not a great sign) but I couldn’t see around the corner – did it calm down or even get worse? 150 meters to go, I still couldn’t see around the headland and ahead looked unpleasant. 100 meters to go, dry mouthed, I had 3 things on my mind – I wished Lee was there, I wished I’d asked Pa to walk up onto the headland to ‘see me’ around, and I wished I’d changed my blades (paddles) from ‘wings’ (great for going forwards) to ‘flat’ (even more great for staying upright!). 50m to go and I was in the main flow, totally committed. Now I saw the reason for all the spray; a head on breaking swell being met at right angles by the rebound waves off the cliffs, at which point there would be an explosion. Then I was in it, full volume, just reacting. At one point, 2 waves met under the Taran, and we shot upwards like a champagne cork! With a couple of mates it would have been quite cool, but on my own with the main flow heading out to sea it was decidedly tricky. I could see out to the right now, it looked better, when all of a sudden any control I thought I had was removed and it felt as if a giant hand was shoving the back of the Taran – we shot out of the ‘race’ onto a glass calm surface. Silence, confused, I was still ‘hands to punching stations’ but the bell had rung… ’round over’ and I was still standing! The rest of the day was quite ‘pedestrian’ by comparison; a gentle coastline with beautiful beaches, a pub for lunch at Morfa Nefyn, all under the shadow of ‘Yr Eifl’ – the first mountain that I ever climbed at the age of 10.’

This somehow compresses the terrors, the thrills, the survival strategies, the essential aloneness and the many and varied rewards of sea kayaking – a huge growth sport in Argyll waters.

Nick says that for the first few days, while Philippa got back in touch with her paddling skills, he could stop for a bit of navigation and catch her up fairly easily. Since then, he’s been having to work hard to keep up.

Philippa spent a formative two seasons working with John Ridgeway in his adventure school up at Ardmore in Sutherland and says that it was this experience that hard wired her own life to outdoors activities. With a three mile hike just to get in to the remote Ardmore, the first test to pass in any job interview is simply getting there.

It was during her time at Ardmore that Philippa was christened ‘Parr’ [long shortened further to Pa]. Her constant energy levels are so high that one of the guys at the salmon farm there said she ‘was always buzzing around just like the wee parr.’ Parr are young salmon at the stage of maturity just before they migrate.

With Nick having spent 23 years as an officer in the Royal Marines, ‘dauntless’ doesn’t come close to describing either of them. Both are keen climbers as well as very capable kayakers.

When Nick kept his past very quiet

Not once, but twice, on the adventure to date, the kayaks have paddled through military firing ranges closed for live firing.

Nick and Phillippa leaving Ardroishaig

Once was in the Castlemartin range in Welsh waters, in the early morning. A range boat zipped over to issue a polite chastisement.

The second time was in the Kirkcudbright Firing Range in the Solway Firth. This time, when they saw the Range boat head in their direction, Nick told Philippa to keep on going while he stayed to take the flak. Ready Steady went off like one of the projectiles on the loose on the range. Nick got an angry slap on the wrist for fouling a range and causing firing to be halted.

These were two occasions where the ‘I used to be…’ and ‘Do you know who I am…’ lines could hardly have been further from uttering.

Good hearts and hospitality

On the expedition together since 10th June when Nick set off for the solo white knuckle ride around the tip of the Lleyn, they have met with almost universal hospitality, good will and helpfulness. People have let them camp in their shoreside gardens – and as conservationists they are guaranteed to leave everything in good order. They have been offered showers – total and utter bliss in getting rid of the salt encrustation the rest of us never even imagine. They have been invited in for meals. They cannot speak highly enough of the interested engagement of everyone they’ve met.

Nick and Phillppa Hancock near Oakfield Bridge

Oddly, the sole rebuff they received was when the National Trust for Scotland – a charitable organisation supposed to be for the common good – refused to allow them to camp overnight on the shore at its grounds at Culzean in Ayrshire.

On Saturday night, before we met on the shore at Ardrishaig the following morning, 7th July, Nick and Philippa landed on the shore at Portavadie, went to ask for permission to camp and were offered showers and dinner by  – Eve MacFarlane, with whom For Argyll has recently been liaising over the fabulous classic Fife yachts’ regatta around Argyll’s Secret Coast.

So now we know – the welcome is real and permeates the Secret Coast. Nice one. Nick and Philippa were overwhelmed with the instinctive warmth of their reception.

A most appropriate mascot

Philippa is not alone in her kayak. There are three on this trip.

In the years of planning for this challenge, their group was kayaking off the Isle of Wight and, being passionate marine conservationists, they inspect and, where possible, collect flotsam and jetsam. In the middle of one floating batch of rubbish was a sodden little grey teddy bear. Since his life with them began in his emergence from jettisoned material, he was the perfect mascot to travel on this expedition which is raising money for two charities, one of which is the Marine Conservation Society – hence also the beach cleans en route.

So, with Philippa’s kayak called Ready Steady, the little bear is Ready Teddy. He’s seeing more of the coast of the UK than the rest of us will ever even know about. He’s sharing the sunsets and the ‘dry mouth’ moments all kayakers know too well when they are at the absolute mercy of the elements.

Ready Teddy    Hancocks around britain 4 britain 56

Yesterday – on a glorious hot, calm day on the shingle beach south of Ardrishaig pier, Ready Teddy copped a quick nap, one eye open and, taking over the driver’s seat, making sure they couldn’t leave without him.

The kayaks

Both of the kayaks used are expedition craft. The Rockpool Taran is designed to go as fast as possible and chop through heavy swells rather than ride up and over. Nick’s report on its performance so far is wholly enthusiastic. Philippa’s Nigel Dennis Explorer has no sideways rock n’roll motion and is a very stable kayak, although its hull form does mean she rides up and down the waves.

Rockpool Taran bow /stem Ready Steady bow/stem

If you look at the two kayaks side by side, you can see the strategic difference in their bow / stem shapes- one chopping through, the other sliding up and over.

The beach cleans

The beach cleans that they round up local groups to do with them as they progress northwards are all part of drawing attention to the problems we create by using the shore, rivers and sea as places to leave or even dump litter and waste.

Nick and Phillppa Hancock near Oakfield Bridge 3

Groups involved so far in beach cleans with Nick and Philippa have been community groups, community service groups and youth groups. With CLIC Sargent, the charity for children with cancer, one of the two charities this challenge’s fundraising is supporting, youth groups on beach cleans pull it all together and are particularly close to the expedition’s heart.

The power of the Marine Conservation Society’s annual logged beachclean day can be seen in the fact that, in the 2011 one, the third of the ten most frequently found pieces of litter was cotton buds. People flush these down the loo, drop them in drains and they get stuck across grids in the sewage system, eventually causing back flows.

By being able to demonstrate the prevalence of this bad habit after the 2011 day of national logged beach cleans, the Marine Conservation Society saw cotton buds drop out of the top ten altogether – down to 13 – on the 2012 clean up day results. This work is far from a ritual gesture. It carries real clout.

And thanks to the Marine Conservation Society’s relentless focus on littering, we now know that beach cleans need to pick up,  not just the obvious big things but  the little, apparently harmless, items like bottle tops.

Stay in touch and get involved

Because Nick and Philippa will be getting to nooks and crannies on the Scottish west and north coasts, seeing sights and enduring fearsome challenges, often unexpected – none of which are available to most of us, we’ll be staying in touch as they press on for John O’Groats: ETA 12th August – but weather determines all. They’ll be sending us reports and photographs as they go.

Under  Oakfield Bridge

You can also catch up on the entire saga to date, from 17th May to yesterday – and from now on by hooking in to their Facebook page here.

The skills and sportsmanship, the will and the giving of this expedition combine to make their mission to raise funds for two such worthy charities – CLIC Sargent for children with cancer and the Marine Conservation Society – an immediately compelling one.

Please help by contributing whatever you can afford – and every £1 helps – at the JustGiving donations website for AroundBritain4Britain [AB4B].

The photographs accompanying this article were taken at Ardrishaig and on the Crinan Canal, at and leaving Lock 4 at Ardrishiag; and approaching and leaving Oakfield Bridge at Lochgilphead.

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