Story: Sian Sykes
Photos: Chris at Eastwood Media and Ian Finch
I am in my late thirties, recently divorced and I have no commitments. Everyone around me is settling down, having another child, for me I am far removed from it and drawn to the attraction of a simple life, to get away from it all. I guess you can call me a free spirited soul – I have a yearning to travel, seek adventure and I am happy on my own.
SUP gives you the freedom to adventure and that’s what my recent trip brought me. I have just returned from an expedition around Wales (UK), a 1,000km journey along rivers, canals, roads and the ocean that I did solo and unsupported. I wanted to just rely on my judgement, my decisions and my ability and I wanted it to be a trip I could own. I’ve led many expeditions in the past, but this was special, it was just about pleasing me and no one else.
The trip was not only about pushing my comfort zones, testing my physical and mental ability to get on with it, the trip had a real purpose, a more deep and meaningful connection, the aim of the trip was to highlight the massive epidemic we face: single use plastics. The trip was not only about pushing my comfort zones, testing my physical and mental ability to get on with it, the trip had a real purpose, a more deep and meaningful connection, the aim of the trip was to highlight the massive epidemic we face: single use plastics.
I wanted to raise awareness of this issue. I have always appreciated the stunning environment around me, however over the years I have seen an increase of single use plastics washing up on our beaches and discarded. The aim of this trip was to bridge the gap between urban areas and the coastline. What gets dropped on a canal or in a river ends up floating out to sea. Sadly a staggering eight million pieces of plastic enters our seas every day with 80% of it is from land-based sources and I wanted to help do my bit by raising this awareness with others.
To inspire and educate consumers about single use plastics, that’s where SUP Against SUP (Stand Up Paddle boarding Against Single Use Plastics) stemmed from – to circumnavigate Wales, a 1,000km journey along the canals, road, rivers and the sea. Wales is a perfect country to highlight the connect between the waterways and roads into the sea. My mission was to make my expedition single use plastic free, which is a tricky task when you add into the mix my dietary requirements too. Luckily with a bit of research I hunted down alternatives. For example, I discovered expedition food provided in bio degradable bags, toothpaste in glass jars, suncream in a tin, shampoo and deodorant in a bar and toothbrush made from bamboo.
Before I set off, I spent a considerable amount of time preparing for the expedition – research, training, planning and exploring all potential risks and how to mitigate them. However, when the day came, I had lots of unknowns: where will I stay each night, what will I encounter, who will I meet along the way? I had a small amount of apprehension as a lone female traveller journeying through urban areas, where will I sleep and will it be safe?
However, every day was different and I never once felt threatened or indeed even lonely. I enjoyed the solitude being on the water, it gave me clarity to just focus on me where nothing else mattered and it allowed me to escape from the day to day stresses and the consumption of just stuff. It all melted away and all I focused on was just me, get up, eat, check conditions, pack, paddle, set up camp, eat, plan for the next day, sleep and repeat. I loved the simplicity of it all. Just surviving from two 40-litre expedition duffle bags, away from clutter and unnecessary stuff.
During the expedition, I had always had several options to choose from of possible places I would reach depending on the weather and water conditions or how I was feeling. It was literally plans of potential A-Z options. I liked the unknown of where I will get to and what I will face once off the water with every day being different and I enjoyed it. I went with the flow and adapted to the conditions of the water and what I encountered. The only pressures I had was the key moments to jump on the water to take advantage of a strong tide or I had to paddle like stink to pass MOD firing ranges or across busy shipping channels.
The other pressure was to charge up devices. As I was travelling solo and unsupported, the coastguard requested me to keep my VHF on whilst on the water, so I had to come onto land to charge them up. I picked two months where the weather was so changeable and this year in particular it was overcast, it affected the opportunity to charge devices from solar panels. So I relied on the kindness from strangers to allow me to hook up and charge my VHF and mobile phone. It was also a good opportunity to chat to locals to gain further insight to the area and any potential tricky spots.
However, a few people along the way would put their insecurities on me, with their worries of certain areas of complex water, but I reassured them I knew what I was doing, experienced and happy to do it solo and unsupported. Some people were amazed I was doing the trip this style and it was almost unheard of to do it independently. It was all about the planning, timing and the right conditions to do it successfully.
I was once offered a tow from a fishing boat and I explained I was more than happy to paddle. They mistakingly thought I was a nurse for my profession and they said I could do with being looked after. I just looked at them and thought to myself, do I look like the type of women who would make an ideal domesticated goddess to stay at home and look after a man whilst floating on a SUP in the middle of nowhere, not washed for a couple days, hands blistered? I smiled at them politely, I am glad I made this life choice, I couldn’t be happier. I waved goodbye to the friendly fisherman as they headed off into the distance and I continued on my journey alone.
I found as a female solo traveller that the many people I met were intrigued with my expedition and I received many acts of kindness – I felt well and truly loved and encouraged on my personal journey around Wales. I was offered places to stay, have a shower and provided with home-made cakes. I never thought the trip would be this good and I am so grateful to everyone who touched upon me – I didn’t feel alone. I was asked once if I ever cried during the trip. I just couldn’t relate to the question, as I never had a down moment on the trip. Many of people would say keep going, but I never considered that as an option of giving up. I always knew I would complete it, the only thing I just didn’t know was when.
The trip was incredible experience, I have seen such stunning landscapes, encountered beautiful marine and bird life and I have savoured daily magical moments from expedition life. I have gained more confidence in myself. I trust my gut instinct and not influenced by others. I feel I am at peace with myself and content in the present moment, enjoying the rich tapestry of a simple life in the outdoors. It has been truly life-changing and psyched me for more great adventures.
I had the privilege to meet others who were actively involved with protecting their waterways by doing their own litter picks and I encouraged them to also make a pledge to give up at least one single use plastic item, such as ditching the plastic straws, opting for reusable coffee cup and water bottles, cardboard cotton bud sticks instead of plastic ones, etc. It was gratifying to see this awareness and the shift in people’s mindset for altering their daily consumption for the better. I hope this awareness in individuals acting responsibly can continue to reduce our demand and reliance on single use plastics.
So I encourage you all to make a pledge against single use plastics, find alternatives or do without, let’s stop being a disposable society. Please also adopt a stretch of footpath, road, canal, river, coastline and do a litter pick. We can all do our bit to be responsible and to protect what we enjoy. If we all do our bit, we can help towards plastic free coastlines.
Supporters on expedition:
Starboard UK; Aquapac; Peak UK; Finisterre; Hilleberg Tents; Patagonia Outdoor Food; Revolwe; Waterskills Academy; Flapjackery; Eastwood Media; SMG Group Europe
ABOUT SIAN SYKES
Sian used to work in London in the fast-paced advertising industry, working up to 18 hours a day. She decided to make a career change to have a better work life balance and now runs a paddleboarding business in Wales. Sian is a regional rep for Surfers Against Sewage (environmental charity) and she is passionate about raising awareness, educating and inspiring others to reduce their daily consumption of single use plastics. Her trip around Wales was single use plastic free, she collected plastic pollution along the way and inspired others to make a pledge against plastic.
Sian is an ambassador for Starboard UK, Peak UK, Water Skills Academy and Aquapac. Further details can be found at www.psychedpaddleboarding.com