As the paddleboard rides the water and the blue sky meets blue sea, an expanse of nothingness lies ahead. For the first time, suddenly, I realise I can see no land at all. I felt isolated, alone and devoid of direction. It's 10am and I’m five miles off the English coast. But I’ve got 19 miles still to go, so I dip my paddle into the water and push ahead.
This is what happened last month when I became the first woman to stand up paddleboard solo across the English Channel, monitoring plastic pollution and taking samples for plastic analysis en route.
This journey felt like a natural next step to my 400 mile SUP expedition in 2016 that took me across the length of England and was the starting point of my nationwide #PlasticPatrol campaign.
“YOU CAN NEVER CROSS THE OCEAN UNLESS YOU HAVE COURAGE TO LOSE SIGHT OF THE SHORE.”
I took up paddle boarding recreationally – on a bit of a whim after illness – three years ago. It was, at first, a low impact way of restoring my strength but I was quickly hooked and spent most of my free time out on the water.
Fast forward three years to now, having quit my job, got over my illness and completed two world first paddle boarding challenges, it all feels very surreal.
I left Rye Harbour on the morning of 18th May. The support boat skipper gave the final nod for the crossing just 18 hours earlier and although conditions didn't look perfect - there was a window good enough for a crossing. I'd already waited almost three weeks for the weather patterns to change and apart from this day there didn't look to be another slot in the foreseeable - so we chanced it.
This fast turnaround meant a frantic, last-minute dash to get myself organised and I drove down to the South Coast late the night before feeling flustered and anxious.
It was a 4am start (I woke up early - the alarm was set for 5am), and by the time I reached the harbour the sun had risen and I was looking out to flat, calm and glassy ocean and clear blue skies. The gentle northerly wind would propel me through the waters towards France.
The conditions were far from my nightmares I'd had of crashing waves, huge swells and gusty winds. I’d prepared myself mentally and physically for the absolute worst so the stillness I was looking out to helped ease the nerves before I set off.
For the first five miles I could look back and see the British coastline. I enjoyed watching landmarks get smaller, knowing I was making distance. But after an hour or so, when land hadn't disappeared - it got demoralising.
By the time I reached the start of the shipping lane the coastline had completely disappeared. Paddling in an expanse of blue and away from land goes against everything you're advised with paddle boarding. Stay near the shore, they say, and if you can't see the ocean floor you've gone too far out. If you can't see land - you're in real trouble. I had absolutely no markers - land or sea - to pinpoint myself and measure distance. It was me and a couple of gigantic cargo ships for company. On the one hand I was acutely aware of the magic in that moment and I wanted to soak up the experience, but that didn't mean I wasn't scared.
"Lizzie, can you paddle a little faster for a while. There's a cargo ship about 6 miles off and it's on course for you," the skipper shouted at me from the distance.
I picked up the pace for a good ten minutes, edging myself out of its path. The visibility was fairly low and whilst the skipper had a radar on-board to track ships, they were only coming into my view from 3-4 miles away which, by this point, they were like giants towering above me.
I'd equipped myself in every practical sense – hydration packs to keep fuelled, carbohydrate gels to prevent cramping, neoprene boots to avoid hypothermia. And I had trained hard to deal with the physical challenges but, despite my efforts, there was one crucial point that I completely over looked.
I hadn’t considered, let alone planned for, the fact I might get seasick!
By mile six - as I'd entered the shipping lanes - I was feeling queasy. Initially I put it down to the release of tension leading up to the day, but by mile eight I was feeling pretty awful.
That was the first moment I questioned my ability to complete the challenge. Mindset is as important as physical strength and stamina and my confidence was falling – fast. I tried not to think about the nausea, but the monotony of paddling lends itself to doing just that!
I hit mile ten – in the depths of the British shipping lanes - and waved down the support boat. The advice was to eat something, but I couldn’t. Even so much as the thought of food made me want to throw up. I lay back on my board contemplating the rest of the journey – all 14 miles of it – and whilst doing so loosened my buoyancy aid. I felt almost immediately better before sitting up, taking in a deep breath, and ploughing on. I had to finish this.
WATER SAMPLING FOR PLASTICS
By mile 14, as the sickness started to subside, I’d collected three water samples and counted several pieces of plastic I’d seen floating in the ocean – a few bottles, a couple of bags and a huge piece of polystyrene almost as big as me!
The water sampling involved dropping a net into the water and trawling it along just under the surface of the water for around 2km (20 minutes) each time. I’d then siphon the debris from the net into a small glass jar – which has now gone off to University of Plymouth for analysis.
We’re looking for evidence of micro plastics and microbeads – the small (often unseen to the naked eye) fragments of plastic that are most harmful to marine species and, it turns out, are now filtering through into the human food chain causing all sorts of health implications!
“Every piece of plastic we intercept before it reaches our ocean is a victory.”
Like everyone, I can sometimes pile pressure on myself and hold high-expectations of what I “should” be achieving. Having the courage to dream big and follow my dreams without letting fear dictate or control decisions has been my outlook - and in a sense my mantra - since quitting my job two years ago.
Before I left for the Channel crossing my brother gently reminded me, that despite my ambition, I’m neither an endurance athlete nor a professional SUP racer. I haven’t build up to this challenge with a team of nutritionists, trainers and physiotherapists. It’s just me – an eager yet determined novice – lacking in refined technique and experience but bursting with commitment and passion for the cause that I’m fighting for.
His words carried me through some of the hardest parts of the challenge.
“You can do this. And when you start doubting yourself, tell yourself this:
“I can, I will, I must."
By the time I reached the French shipping lanes I'd been paddling for over five hours. I had found my rhythm, controlled my seasickness and allowed myself to visualise and look forward to completing the challenge.
Two years ago the French authorities put a ban on any human powered crafts travelling across the English Channel - excluding swimmers. This meant I had to jump on the support boast as we hit the French waters and speed through the shipping lane until I was out the other side.
The route I was travelling would take me to Bolougne, further down the French coast than Calais, allowing me to to make up the distance I lost in the shipping lane. Although being on the boat gave me some time to refuel, we were travelling fast and being whipped by the ever increasing wind was making me really cold. By the time we'd reached the end of the shipping lane my muscles had started to seize up and the I was shivering uncontrollably.
I had wrapped up warm and kept piling on the layers which helped and I took my neoprene socks off in favour of going barefoot for a bit. but I was keen to get back on the water as quickly as possible. Paddling would warm me back up.
It was quite soon after getting back on the water that I saw my first glimpse of land. Visibility was dropping and the weather was taking a turn for the worse. By mile 20 conditions making it really tough. I was starting to feel cramp in my calves and the change in wind speed and direction meant I was fatiguing quickly.
At mile 22 I could make out two big towers in the distance. "That’s Boulonge Harbour!" the skipper shouter over to me. I needed to get in between those two points to formally reach french shores. Seeing those towers gave me a new lease of life and I found energy I didn't know I had. I dug a little bit deeper and pushed on towards the shoreline.
Reaching the finishing point was a surreal moment. Firstly getting my head around that fact that I had taken my paddle board from one country to another was hard enough, but that coupled with the fact I'd completed a world first in the process was almost too much.
The weather was getting worse as I finished - dark clouds, strong winds and big swells - so I jumped quickly on the boat, deflated by board, and sped back to England. Not even the chance for some cheese and biscuits on French soil!
And now? It’s mixed emotions. When a challenge finishes there is a sense of emptiness. You’ve dedicated weeks and months to training for it and making sacrifices in life that, in just one day, it’s all over.
I’ve already found a way to fill that void. This summer I’m staging a series of #plasticpatrol clean ups in 14 locations across the UK. People can register here: www.plasticpatrol.co.uk and either join me on their own boards or register for one of the boards I’ll be bringing with me. I’ll be supplying litter pickers too. It's all about getting outside, enjoying our beautiful waterways and paddling to picking up plastics: getting active for a good cause!
I’ve also just launched the Plastic Patrol app (available for IoS in the app store now) so anyone unable to attend the clean-ups can still contribute. The app can be used anywhere in the world and the idea is that people photograph the plastic they find/collect in our waterways/beaches or even mountains so we can start to build what is essentially a heat map of the issue.
Anyone that posts their finds on social media using the hashtag will find it pulls into the global map too. Crowdsourcing this data globally is a united and powerful way to campaign and lobby for change. We live in an age where people can rally together for a common cause through technology and really instigate change, so by harnessing this and channeling it into a single campaign we have a strong voice to drive action!