Paddling blind (part 1)

Words and photos: Dean Dunbar

So there I am. A wee blind guy, totally on my own, on an inflatable SUP in the middle of one of Scotland’s biggest lochs, battling an 8mph head wind, when I have this crazy idea… My name is Dean Dunbar and I am a registered blind adventurer and extreme sports enthusiast based in Scotland. Over the past 16 years I have participated in over 70 activities around the world, setting over a dozen world firsts. (Find out more at

paddling blind

The reason I find myself on Loch Tay is down to my very good friend Carl Sawyer. I take absolutely no responsibility for my own actions!

On holiday in Devon in 2012, Carl introduced me to SUP; one of his favourite sports. The session only lasted 40 minutes, as I got bored with falling in the sea. In 2013 I had another go and did a little better.

paddling blindThen in early 2014 I was chatting to Carl about what my next challenge could be. Like a dog with a bone, Carl suggested that I give SUP yet another go. As he is based in Exmouth and I am up here in Blairgowrie, he wouldn’t be able to offer any tuition. However, whilst online he came across Wilderness SUP, a SUP touring company based in Perth.Two weeks later I met up with the guys and they very kindly took me on two river trips to give me a real feel for the sport. As if that wasn’t enough, they then hooked me up with who did me a great deal on a Coreban Sonic inflatable board.

Now I had my own board I could start planning my future challenges. I had a couple in mind, but then Carl came up with the “Big One”. This was due to take place in Spring/Summer 2015, so I had plenty of time to train.

As well as SUPing, I was doing a lot of open-water swimming. Then one night I had a bit of trouble with one of my ears. The diagnosis was that I had a suspected perforated ear drum, which meant no more swimming for at least a month.

The next morning, out of the blue, Carl phoned to ask if instead of doing our “Big One” next year, how about doing it this October. Talk about serendipity!

For the “Big One”, we (Carl and Jason Sawyer, and me) will aim to paddle 40km a day. However at this point I probably hadn’t done any more than 6 or 7km. I would really have to up my training…

I had previously discussed paddling the full length of Loch Tay with Wilderness SUP. They were very keen to come along with me, helping me to become the first registered blind person to do this, but due to business commitments, a date could not be found.

As I had been training on my local loch, Clunie, which is very small and fairly sheltered, I decided to head over to Loch Tay to get a feel for it.

On Sunday 13 July we drove over to Loch Tay and, with an 8mph head wind, I managed to paddle 11km before turning round and trying to ride the waves back (not always successfully). It was during this trip that I came up with the crazy idea of doing the full loch totally on my own. I reckoned that as long as I hugged the south shore, I should be fine. I ran through all the “what ifs” and felt that I could answer them all sufficiently. By the time I got back to dry land at Kenmore, I had decided that I was going to attempt it the following weekend.

Sunday 20 July looked like the best weather opportunity.The BBC forecast assured me that I should have a tail wind for the majority of the trip, and I reckoned this would be ideal. Unfortunately nobody had told the wind about the BBC’s predictions and, instead I got a cross wind, which kept blowing me in towards the south shore I hoped to follow.

The combination of cross winds and poor sight made it difficult to stay my pre-planned 10-20 metres from the shore. Every so often my paddle would touch the loch-floor or I would see a rock just a few centimetres away and I would drop to my knees and paddle away from the shore.

paddling blind

The official length of Loch Tay is 23.42km, which is measured by drawing a straight line down the middle of the loch. However, as I was hugging the shore and going in and out of every little cove, I guesstimate that I probably travelled closer to 30km than 25km. All good training for the ‘Big One’.

It took me just under five hours to complete the journey – and it was amazing. In almost every other activity I have done I have had a guide. This was my first major solo effort, and what a buzz! Stay up to date with Deano’s SUP antics (and other challenges) by visiting his website:

UK’s highest SUP club
On July 26 the “UK’s Highest SUP Club” was founded. After a 15km bike and hike into the Cairngorms, we became the first people to SUP Loch Etchachan. At 927m above sea level, Etchachan is the UK’s highest loch/lake. That’s the joy of an inflatable SUP. Have Inflatable SUP – Will Travel!

Next time I’ll tell you if Carl’s new Red Paddle Elite and our new superlight SBS paddles made it through the ‘Big One’.

By the way: does anyone know if there is such a thing as a talking ‘water’ compass/GPS? I am aware of talking GPS’s, and they are great for use on land, but tend not to be so good on the water. If any company out there has made such a thing and is looking for a blind guy to try it out…

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1 Comment on Paddling blind (part 1)

  1. Roberto Colella // August 22, 2017 at 3:11 pm // Reply

    Hi, I am developing a navigation support system for blind people doing SUP. I will present it at the maker faire which will be held in rome on 3-5 December 2017. Feel free to contact me for any info.

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