A Different View – an interview with sea kayaker Mark Rainsley

Earlier in the year, the Editor of Canoe & Kayak UK Magazine suggested interviewing me for their annual sea kayaking supplement. I pointed out that the last thing anyone needs or wants is any more of me talking about me, but he was insistent. Below is the interview; CKUK mercifully edited out some of my self-indulgent rambling before publication, but this is the whole thing…

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‘Sea kayaking’ is quite a broad term, so for the sake of this interview, how would you finish the sentence “sea kayaking is…?”

…hiking and backpacking; only you get to enjoy the views whilst sat inside your rucksack, instead of lugging it around. Plus, the hills are all flat. Disclaimer: other brands of sea kayaking are also available, but this is the one which works best for me.

As an accomplished whitewater paddler, what initially made you decide to give sea kayaking a go?

If ‘accomplished’ just means that I’ve had embarrassing swims on rivers in exotic places, then it’s an appropriate label. Anyway, when I left university, with blinkered tunnel vision I only applied for jobs in places close to decent whitewater. No one would employ me and the only job I could get was in Dorset, which I honestly couldn’t locate on a map. All was not lost – Dorset turned out to be only a couple of hours from Dartmoor’s fantastic whitewater. However, it was also right beside something large and wet called the ‘sea’. Having grown up a few miles from Britain’s most inland spot, this was quite a culture shock. The local paddlers let me try out their long pointy boats, and I was instantly hooked. Suffice to say, I was staggered by what you found when you paddled out of the harbour and peeked around the corner.

How and why did it grow to become such a large part of the paddling that you do?

Mainly, because it’s bloody great. The sea is such an immense and mysterious thing with so many facets and moods…you become addicted. Sea paddling is so much greater than the sum of its parts; you become hooked on the wildlife, scenery, maritime culture, history, geology. Even if these things do nothing for you on paper (no one thinks they’ll become interested in seagulls), give it a try…you’ll be entranced.

One telling factor is that whilst I’ve literally travelled around the world to paddle whitewater rivers, I’ve never felt any great urge to sea kayak overseas; I’ve dipped paddles in salt water in places like France, Canada, New Zealand and Tahiti; all pleasant enough, but not a patch on the British Isles. We have it all here, no need to get on a plane! We’re lucky enough to live on a rock surrounded by the most astonishing coast, with more than enough available for all of us to explore for a lifetime.

One other reason why I’ve devoted so much time to sea paddling is because it’s something Mrs R and I enjoy together. Whilst we’ve managed to share some whitewater adventures without divorce ensuing, on the sea it seems to click together much better; we share the decision-making and planning, we enjoy the relaxed pace (dictated by weather, certainly not by me!) and she knows so much more than me about the marine environment. Both being teachers and having a quarter of the year off is also rather helpful to our sea paddling adventures…

What lessons did you learn early on? Does coming to sea kayaking as an already-proficient paddler have any disadvantages as well as advantages?

I learned from my first trip that paddling 400 miles alone with a holed nylon spraydeck, a rusting paddle shaft and a leaking kayak whilst telling no one where you are going and having no means of summoning help beyond a single out-of-date rocket flare…is unwise. I’m amazed that I survived, in hindsight. I took on so much risk partly out of a misguided confidence that my boat-handling skills were good enough to conquer any obstacle. It turns out that a strong whitewater roll alone won’t solve the problem of being miles from shore in a gale, for example.

Have you been able to bring any of the ‘philosophy’ of whitewater kayaking to how you tackle sea kayaking missions?

I’ll do the annoying ‘politician’ thing and answer a different question to the one you asked. Access to rivers has always been a real problem but things have come a long way, and one of the reasons has been that it’s become easier for whitewater paddlers to discuss and share information. I played a small part in this, through creating www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk. Ten years ago I added a sea paddling section www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk with a similar aim; to get paddlers sharing and discussing their salty adventures, and to discuss issues around the sport. As with whitewater paddling, I honestly think this has gone some way towards ‘democratising’ sea paddling.

Equally, what’s gone the other way: how has sea kayaking influenced how you approach your whitewater kayaking?

Beyond a certain degree of social ostracism (my whitewater friends still look at me funny), sea paddling hasn’t had much bearing on my whitewater paddling. Being a sea paddler has however made playboating on the Bitches tidal rapid in Pembrokeshire a lot more bearable; towing your two metre long playboat behind your sea kayak across Ramsey Sound means that you arrive a whole lot quicker, and with energy to spare.

As somebody who is in the relatively rare position of being well established in both camps, are there any comparisons to be made – favourable or otherwise – between how the developed the general standard of practice, in regards to safety and peer leadership, are in whitewater kayaking and sea kayaking? Have you seen this change over the years?

Personal experience has unfortunately made me more conscious than most, that whitewater paddling is an extremely dangerous sport. However, I believe that sea paddling in the UK has a greater problem with safety than whitewater. The numbers are worrying; an RNLI report noted that in 2010 alone they responded to 456 kayak incidents, of which 182 involved paddlers being aided or rescued. There were six deaths and the RNLI expressed surprise that there were not more. I’m undoubtedly going off-message now (I’ve been dubbed an ‘Ambulance Chaser’ by a well-known sea paddler), but in many ways sea paddling is in denial; a typical response to statistics such as these is that “it’s just those SOT paddlers”. Apart from the fact that SOT folk are sea paddlers too, the consistent trend is that many of the largest and most high profile incidents of recent years have involved ‘proper’ sea kayaks and appropriately qualified groups and coaches.

I do not know all the reasons for the high number of sea paddling rescues, nor do I possess all the answers. Nor do I have any reason to be sanctimonious; I’ve made some spectacular blunders on the sea (Google ‘Shipwrecked on Muckle Green Holm’ for example) and will probably continue to do so. But I definitely think that sea paddlers could learn a few lessons from whitewater culture. When you paddle rivers, the first and overriding principle (look up ‘C-L-A-P’) is that you paddle as a team; a small tight group constantly looking out for each another. If a paddler disappears from view or direct communication even for a few seconds, it’s rightly regarded as a major concern, and everyone’s problem. Paddlers who won’t follow this ethos, don’t get invited again. Conversely, sea paddling culture frequently accepts huge loose groups, drifting off in different directions and all doing their own thing. Often there will be a ‘leader’ to whom everyone happily abrogates responsibility; they follow sheep-like, assuming that he/ she knows what is going on with weather, tide etc. and will resolve any problems that arise…

The positive news is that there is excellent coaching and training available for sea paddlers in rescues, incident management and suchlike, alongside loads of literature and DVDs explaining all manner of sexy technical rescues. This sort of thing is essential and invaluable. It still misses a trick, however…the fundamental skill for incident-free paddling is to pick the right conditions to go paddling in; the priority is safety, not rescue. All books, courses and DVDs should begin (and end?) with the words, ‘Read the forecast. Um, that’s it.’

Before taking it up, did you have any preconceptions about sea kayaking that you’ve either confirmed or completely disproved?

The lingering preconception about sea paddling is that it’s a niche activity presided over by Bearded Middle-Aged Men with Sheds. This preconception is not without truth, as can be proven by experiment: post two questions on the internet; where would be a great place to go paddle, and which kind of skeg/ homemade Greenland-style paddle/ crossbow draw stroke works best in a nor-easterly wind? The beardie question will be the one receiving a flood of unhealthily enthusiastic responses. Thankfully, that doesn’t tell the whole story; BMAMWS are invariably pleasant and sociable, and their fetish for technical stuff doesn’t mean that they appreciate the coastal environment any less than others. More crucially, a lot has been done to make our sport accessible and to challenge the myth that sea paddling is complicated and hence exclusive; images in the media and advertising now show all forms of human life enjoying sea paddling, with barely a beardie-weirdie to be seen. Manufacturers are mostly now producing comfortable, user-friendly and even fashionable equipment. The better videos and books demystify sea paddling and show how simple it all is. There is an increasingly wide choice of coaches and guides encouraging folk to get out on the water, a significant proportion are young in body (or mind at least) and some are even girls. The only major factor still holding the sport back from becoming truly accessible and universal (as it should be) is the cost, which bars most young participation. Someone needs to figure out how to produce an affordable sea kayak…

How’s your “slowest circumnavigation of the UK” record attempt coming along?

Slowwwwwly. I told myself I’d be finished by my 40th, but I’ve missed that deadline (I’m just a garden shed away from being a BMAMWS). I’ve made some progress, doing a few weeks of solo paddling at a time. I did SW England in ’97 and have since extended that journey in stages with plods around Wales and NW England, W and N Scotland, and most recently E Scotland. That leaves about 600 miles left, back to my home. The problem is that I get distracted to do other interesting things; for example, having reached John O’Groats, I was so entranced by the northern scenery and culture that I spent two summers in Orkney and Shetland, something of a detour…anyway, I hope my wife isn’t reading this, but I plan to eventually go back and attempt it all over again, but in a single journey; I have a vague dream that my currently very young daughter will accompany me in this…

Is this thoroughness in approach born of a thirst to explore everything our coastline has to offer, or is there a sense of satisfaction to be had?

When I set out from Bournemouth, I simply wanted to experience a bit of the South West, my new home. I continued paddling around Britain because I want to explore as much as possible of my country, not to reach the finish line of some arbitrary race…there is no rush. One of the dilemmas of long trips is that you get into baby/ bathwater situations; do I paddle around this bay and actually see the area and meet folk, or do I cut straight across and get home faster? After a 30 mile crossing of the Firth of Clyde, I felt pretty hollow at what I’d missed (not least incredible Ailsa Craig). Recent circumnavigators have tended to skip the entire Irish Sea coast by making huge open crossings via the Isle of Man and Ireland; an amazing feat but…well, I quite enjoyed the Irish Sea coast, is all.

All that said, I am tremendously inspired by the attitude of some paddlers who’ve made the trip recently. John Willacy (www.clockwisekayak.blogspot.co.uk) smashed the record, yet his lively accounts of people and places encountered proved that he was anything but a monomaniacal speed freak. Michal and Natalie Madera (www.homeseahome.com) had only been paddling a few years yet completed the trip in idiosyncratic style; their blog was laugh-out-loud hilarious and dispelled the notion that paddling around our nation is some kind of elite Mount Everest challenge. Indeed any competent paddler can make a start on it, tomorrow…

The range of places you’ve visited in your sea kayak during the attempt must have yielded some memorable and surprising moments?

I spent five days camped on a golf course, waiting for the wind to ease enough to cross Fleetwood Bay. My friends were paddling mad whitewater in Norway, and helpfully texted me daily updates, along with incredulous ‘WTF?’ queries about why I’d chosen Lancashire over Scandinavia. I had no idea TBH, but no regrets either.

The highlights? I could (and probably would) go on forever, but here are an abridged few; seeing the Northern Lights whilst on the toilet in Ardnamurchan; gliding through rafts of puffins in Caithness; reaching Land’s End (enough said); crossing the Bristol Channel with a paddler who was some kind of ASBO criminal; being dizzied by an encircling whirlwind of shearwaters in Luce Bay; startling the staff of Liverpool Coastguard by landing outside their HQ in the middle of the night; exchanging smiles with the skipper of a fishing boat whilst crashing through waves in the Pentland Firth; being forced to swallow more porridge than I thought humanly digestible by a kindly family in Fife; insomnia thanks to wailing seals at John O’Groats; watching dolphins perform acrobatics at dawn in the sea of the Hebrides.

You’ve organised a series of sea kayak ‘meets’ over the years that offer something a little different to more formal symposiums. What is the philosophy behind these and what motivated you to do it?

The ‘South West Sea Kayaking Meets’ were informal get-togethers in South Devon and Dorset. It was all pretty experimental; I started with the premise that sea paddlers have no friends and no social skills, and sought to redress that problem; I also felt that ‘symposiums’ (aside from having an incredibly boring title) potentially engender a culture where paddlers spend significant money to revere Famous Sea Kayakers, whilst ironically developing their personal initiative less well. I wanted to have a crack at encouraging paddlers to think and paddle independently; and therefore more safely. I have no idea whether we achieved this, but the SWSKMs got hundreds of folk out paddling, raised thousands of pounds for charities like the RNLI and if no one else did, I certainly made a few good friends. The SWSKMs wouldn’t have worked without help from numerous mates who voluntarily stuck their necks out to watch over groups, almost none of whom possessing any formal coaching qualifications (me neither!). I didn’t run a SWSKM last year, the baton was picked up by Mike Mayberry who ran a great event in Pembrokeshire; I think there are still places left for his 2013 ‘West Wales Sea Kayak Meet’! Will I do another? Maybe. Either way, I hope that we’ve demonstrated that Big Serious Symposiums aren’t the only way to get paddlers together and bring on their confidence.

For you, how much is sea kayaking a social, as opposed to a solo, activity?

It’s the best of both, of course. I can happily pootle along alone (you get surprisingly satisfying conversations!), but if I have company, all the better. Out on the water, Mrs R and I pass the hours with endless rounds of “Who am I?”, exciting folk that we are. I love paddling with groups, although you have to accept from the start that (due to the Law of Faff) not much will actually get done. Off the water, there is little better in life than lounging on a beach with mates waiting for the tide to turn (or the burger van to open, whatever) but when on solo trips I can happily go into misanthropist mode and relish the solitude; waking up on some wild beach to the sound of a flapping tent and raging seas and knowing that you can’t go anywhere or do anything is a liberating experience, although it helps if you can tolerate extended doses of Radio 4…

You’re an incredibly prolific writer of all manner of paddling guides, including authoring the Pesda Press book ‘South West Sea Kayaking’ and contributing to the imminent ‘SE England & Channel Islands Sea Kayaking’. Does writing fuel your passion for paddling, or conversely, does paddling inspire this desire to write?

I like writing for the sake of writing, and guidebooks allow me to hopefully write something useful. The work leads to some great paddling adventures. I’d already paddled around the SW peninsula and smugly assumed that I ‘knew’ the area…but researching ‘South West Sea Kayaking’ led my friends and I to discover numerous wonderful spots that we’d never otherwise have bothered with! I volunteered to research the East Anglian coast for the SE guidebook as I’d never been there, and because I couldn’t believe that there was nothing out east. My reward was to experience some simply stunning environments that the vast majority of UK sea paddlers currently miss, as they head up the A5 and the A82. Incidentally, I’ve spent this last winter researching obscure SW rivers for a whitewater guidebook; don’t ask me how many fallen trees I’ve portaged…

We wouldn’t want to be so predictable to ask you what your favourite sea kayaking trip is, but there must be a few places that remain in your memory more than others, perhaps for surprising reasons?

I’m lucky enough to live on the Jurassic Coast, featuring some of the most beautiful shores anywhere (hence the ‘World Heritage Site’ tag). I never tire of exploring the cliffs and beaches hereabouts…I’m the last paddler in Dorset never to have seen the local school of dolphins (I must have the wrong pheromones, or something?), that also motivates me to keep paddling here. However, my fantasy sea paddling trip would somehow merge the white beaches of the Isles of Scilly, the granite caves and tunnels of Lundy, the seabirds of Fair Isle, the prehistoric cliff castles of Pembrokeshire, the machair of the Western Isles, the WWII fortifications of Alderney, the sharks of Cape Cornwall, the soaring cliffs of Exmoor, the whitewashed harbours of Islay…hmm, is anyone out there actually still listening?

Thanks very much, Mark.

4 thoughts on “A Different View – an interview with sea kayaker Mark Rainsley

  1. Erm yes, really. It’s rather useful if you do a lot of solo paddling,or a lot of photography on the water, or like to eat your lunch with both hands.

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