Tribe Adventure: Em Bell on kayaking Lands End to John O’Groats

In the first of our Tribe Adventure posts, Tribe’s friend Em Bell writes about her journey kayaking the length of Britain, alongside Sean Conway – the first man to swim the distance...

Standing on the beach at Lands End with a bunch of guys I had never met before, about to step into a kayak for (basically) the first time, I did wonder what the hell I was doing! I have a pathetic fear of water and I was about to spend 2 (what turned out to be 4 ½) months kayaking the length of Britain, sleeping on a 72ft sailing boat that we bought for pennies on eBay. 

I was bloody terrified, but having paddle boarded down the Missouri River the year before, I was determined to keep saying yes to opportunities, to make sure I was making the most of life. Plus I wanted to get rid of my inexplicable fear of water. 

There was no entry point at Lands End and the fishermen refused to motor us there (as they said it was too dangerous!), I started paddling, with swimmer in tow, back to the start of our adventure. We shot back to the start-point grinning from ear to ear – this is going to be easy! But then the tide changed, numerous fins started splashing around me, the rain started to pour down and any cockiness was immediately drowned.

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The next 4 ½ months were some of the toughest I have ever experienced. And I always thought I could handle anything. Barely a day went by without something going wrong – engines broke, anchors got stuck, ropes got wrapped in all the wrong places and tides weren’t what they were supposed to be. Living on such a tiny boat with so many people, dealing with cold temperatures I had never experienced, living off packets of dehyrated stew, getting into wet wetsuits and paddling at whatever time the positive tide was – 1am, 2am, 3am. And then 12 hours later 1pm, 2pm, 3pm… It was continuous, it was exhausting and it was the biggest test of strength I have ever endured.

My apparent negativity is uncharacteristic of me, but the trouble was that we had no one to ask for advice. No one had swum the length of Britain before and we were repeatedly being told that we couldn’t do it. So we winged it, with nothing on our side but grit determination.

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Reminiscing now, I would say it was incredible. I had never been to Ireland before and instead of flying to Dublin for a weekend of Guinness, I kayaked there! The Cornish coast was such a joy. The Scottish lochs blew my mind.  We were spoilt with fresh lobster, scallops and monkfish from fishermen, we were taken in by family after family and given free food from local restaurants when we were stranded without our support boat. Deep down there was an element I relished – the fresh fish, the crystal clear water and the simplicity of doing the same thing day after day.

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Other than the fact I spent an extraordinary amount of time dreaming about rare burgers and steaks, the beauty of the coastline, the generosity of the people and the strength of a random little group of four, made the whole trip unforgettable. And I wouldn’t have experienced any of that if I had just stayed sitting at my desk thinking about how scary the water is would I?