Interview: Supjunkie Pics: Idyllic Islay – Julie Stitchell,
Scarlet Visuals and John Harris Photography
British SUP explorer Charlie Head has made the first SUP descents of the Rio Marañon (the true source of the Amazon) and the Blue Nile. Most recently, he completed the first solo and unsupported SUP circumnavigation of the UK.
Charlie finished in style on the Cumbrian coast, with a world record-breaking 87.2-mile non-stop crossing in open water. During the final stages of his UK circumnavigation, Charlie took some time out to talk to us.
Charlie – you seem to have been stand up paddling forever – when and where did your SUP journey start, and did you do any other water sports beforehand?
I was pretty young when I set up water sports schools for myself and others. At the time, commercial success required a cut-throat attitude I neither had nor wanted. It conflicted too often with my nature and beliefs.
I find teaching therapeutic and beneficial in both directions, and I soon realised people were learning more than water sports; they were there learning about themselves too. I also realised I was teaching beyond my own experience. I withdrew, knowing I needed to go away and learn, become a better teacher, and be able to offer services in the way that I believe in and not be handcuffed to a certain business model.
As I got more into paddleboarding, I resolved to use SUP as a means for that growth and that soul searching.
Before this current challenge, when did your BIG SUP adventures start, and what have been your main reasons for pushing yourself in some pretty bleak and dangerous waters?
I started with a circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight, then paddled from Land’s End to London with bare feet and a tarp. I set my sights early on with some significant SUP firsts; in fact, I was teeing up an ocean crossing with Red Bull on a bespoke craft I’d designed when they asked me to schedule ‘Mission Amazon’, a first SUP descent of the Rio Marañon, the true source of the Amazon.
My nature means I derive great comfort in testing myself; for me, it represents progress. I love the creativity, innovation, patience and strength of mind of pushing myself, taking my mind and body to places that will teach me a better way of handling the outside world. The point of my UK circumnavigation has been to take on the hardest possible things, using all my knowledge to the max under pressure, harnessing my courage, resilience, and grit. Learning to have a relationship with your fear is an important process, much like dancing with the darkness of mental health.
Exploration is about pursuing the untrodden path and finding the answers in the darkest places within and without, harnessing the creativity you didn’t know you had. The lure of the bigger picture motivates you through adversity. It’s all in the courage of taking the first step.
In 2016, you set off to circumnavigate the UK, which was, in your own words, a ‘social experiment’ – can you let us know what led you to attempt this, particularly with the challenges of your mental health issues?
Before exploration came into my life, I had spent life swimming in ponds of people who didn’t share my perspective or resonate with me. Moving through communities reassures me; it restores faith in humanity, connecting me to people who love what I love, people who are like me.
I conceived the social experiment to fill the gaps education, and business hadn’t and couldn’t. I’ve paddled solo and unsupported, fuelled by the kindness of strangers. The power of the internet brought me the people and the tools that I needed. The UK expeditions have been a meditation in asking for help and connecting with people. I expose ‘my underbelly’ to connect with people who relate to me and want to reach out. The trust and reassurance that comes from each expedition have taught me so much about articulating and addressing the origins of my emotions and mental health.
It can feel counter-intuitive, but once you’ve relinquished control in favour of vulnerability, the thing that you were afraid of no longer has power. You’ve disarmed the bomb and carved a new path in the process.
Your UK trips are mostly self-supported with limited supplies and no money, with Scotland being no exception – we are guessing that this has involved many friends and strangers helping you along the way. Has this part of your journey been an enlightening experience?
Yes, exceptionally enlightening. I arrive independently and invite organic interaction. The connection is so different if it’s organic; it means we have joint ownership of conversations, experiences, and the views we’ve shared and refined. Sometimes I am a mobile confession box. I’m typically in places for such a short time so people can dive right into their stories, liberated by the fact I’ll be moving on and use me as a springboard for their own expression. The help, faith and openness from strangers have been incredibly humbling and educational.
When you have to wait on a weather window, for example, being locked in on the Scottish island of Islay ahead of a big crossing – is waiting a form of frustration or do you have a good mindset for moments like this?
When you’re wired in a certain way, the mindset needed to manage waiting is an interesting one. I was a high energy, hyperactive kid with relentless energy, so initially, I found it hard to be a chameleon, simply changing frequency from high energy to standby mode. There are naturally some ‘misses’ sometimes when you’ll find me positively vibrating as I deal with extremes! The challenge is coping with the transitions.
Ultimately, it’s about trying to harness that optimum frequency when I need it, the one that keeps me together. So, whilst it can be hard to fight against my design, I know now that redirecting that energy is a good approach for me. I try to practice what I preach; doing what calms my mind is important, so I use breathing and exercise to keep me present.
Luckily the whisky on the Scottish expedition was phenomenal, so that was a cosy comfort – a bit of Dutch courage!
What messages have you tried to share whilst giving talks to those you meet along the way?
This whole trip has been a pilgrimage of self-discovery, an external journey that’s been the framework for an internal one. As an explorer, the irony is that the greatest exploration of my life has been this internal journey. The messages tend to be around the power of expressing yourself, of removing boundaries and of community. Exploration and adventure are an exceptional forum for that.
As the chorus of my childhood was “slow down, chill, stop”, sometimes I’ll find myself simply trying to justify what I do – so I’m not simply perceived as an odd, relentless madman! It’s become obvious that what I do can feel very far removed to other people. I see my job as bridging that gap; I want to inspire people to know that the boundaries they set on themselves are very far from their true potential.
When communities get organised, we can achieve so much and support each other.
You are currently supporting the ‘dare2express’ charity – can you tell us a little more about them and why you chose this charity in particular?
The name hits the nail on the head for me; I was originally drawn by Chief Executive John Dennis’s honesty about his mental health. John set up dare2express to providing tipping point grants to give people access to professional help with their mental health. The mission, name and small size all resonated for me. I’m motivated by the transparent and direct potency of tipping point grants managed by people making a difference. My fundraising is an endorsement of daring to express; I’m demonstrating it’s ok to express yourself.
We have loved your videos as they give an honest account of your experiences, warts and all! Do you believe this is the best way to connect with like-minded souls?
Thank you! I’ve come to value the depth of the connection you get with others when you show your vulnerability. It doesn’t compromise your masculinity or your ability to be a badass! It does bring a kind of reassurance. You also learn a lot by expressing yourself to the camera and watching it back, even when not all of it is pleasant or easy watching. It’s always interesting examining the fine line between self-expression and self-indulgence, acknowledging the privilege of taking the time to undertake something like this. My emphasis is on learning; I hope my raw ‘warts and all’ delivery improves as I take on those lessons. The process is essential, and it’s one I’m keen to share: trusting that vulnerability will pay off, inspiring truth and honesty, particularly in men. I encourage everyone to manifest their beliefs and curate their appetite ruthlessly to jumpstart their development.
You are often alone for long periods – have you always been like this and is it what you prefer?
I prefer it in many ways; being able to do things on your own is very empowering. It also used to take quite a lot for me to let people in. People took advantage of me personally and professionally when I was younger, so I had trust issues. Now I’m mindful but much more comfortable, patient, and compassionate with people and their incentives.
It’s fair to say my experience of others has been educational! Some of the comfort with being on my own is natural, comes from conditioning from a young age. Not only am I an only child, but sometimes being with people made me feel more alone; I often felt like the world was against me. I came to be happy in solitude as a reaction to finding people quite exhausting; the ‘noise’ was too much.
Now I have more insight, and I’m not so bewildered. Resilience, strength, and empowerment came initially from that forced independence just to survive the environments I found so challenging. Being happy with yourself is most important; it stops you from getting lost in the vanity of who you are in relation to other people. The social experiment of circumnavigating the UK unsupported, relying on the kindness of strangers was the engine of that self-discovery, a catalyst to connection and conversations.
What plans do you have for the future?
When Covid interrupted my Scottish circumnavigation, I returned home to the Isle of Wight and used the time to set in motion the venture that this journey has inspired. This will be in the form of ‘Explorers Creed’. I will be running expeditions to give people the immersive experiences I’ve learnt so much from myself. People learn and absorb in such different ways; Explorers Creed will address this head-on.
I’m returning to teaching with a wiser head on my shoulders, with a more effective toolkit and sharing my experience. Thankfully, times have changed in the leisure industry; there’s more about ‘what you can give back’ at the grassroots and community levels. There’s a welcome revolution in profit for purpose too (B Corps).
There remain many new boundaries to break in terms of UK and global expeditions, and now more than ever, I want to bring people with me, exploring, showcasing and highlighting the parts of the world that need it the most.
I love film, media and artistic expression, so I want to write a book and produce different creative formats for film and TV.
Do you ever paddle ‘just for fun’ sometimes, or do you always have a planned mission?
I do paddle a bit just for fun, but I can be a bit possessed on the ‘progress’ front, so sometimes my ‘fun’ can turn out a little bit extreme! I love to surf, windsurf and kitesurf, and I always enjoy a good downwinder! It can take quite a bit to entertain me; I take a lot of pleasure in other people’s fun and love seeing people happy.
I want to say a huge thank you not only to Charlie but to Lucy Partridge, without whom this article would not have been possible, and we hope upon reading this you have been moved and inspired by Charlie and his story as much as we have.
You can support Charlie’s fundraising for dare2express here: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/dare2expressdonationscharliehead