© Joel Caldwell
When Lizzie Carr was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 25, it inadvertently kick-started a journey that led to her discover paddleboarding, set two world records and use adventure as a vehicle to raise awareness of plastic pollution in our waterways and oceans.
Lizzie, who was the first person to stand-up paddleboard the length of Great Britain (400 miles) and the English Channel, went on to set up Plastic Patrol, a nationwide campaign to clean up our waterways, and an accompanying app enabling the public to document their plastic finds. I chatted to Lizzie about her experiences, including last September’s challenge to SUP 170 miles along the length of the Hudson River, from Albany, New York to the Statue of Liberty.
Congratulations on your Hudson River paddle. How did it compare to your other adventures?
It was probably the most challenging of my paddleboarding adventures! As soon as you hear the words ‘river’ and ‘paddleboarding’, it conjures up serene, calm, images in your mind, whereas my experience on the Hudson was somewhat different, largely because Hurricane Florence was making its way towards the East Coast as I was paddling down. It threw up lots of really challenging weather conditions, boats to contend with, currents, and the tides are notoriously fickle on the Hudson too.
Were there good days amongst the challenging times?
I definitely wouldn’t say there would good days; there were good hours. There were times when everything just worked and I was in a really good rhythm, the weather favourable and the waters were calm and I was covering distance. But they were few and far between!
Was the challenge a physical one or more a mental struggle?
It was a physical and mental struggle because I was completely alone on the water with really quite challenging elements working against me. Because it was physically more challenging, it actually makes you more nervous. The fear factor kicks in. Being left alone on the water for any amount of time takes your brain in different directions. It’s quite difficult when you’re by yourself to bring yourself back out of it. I was alone on the water, unsupported, but I had a vehicle travelling by land with the logistics manager and the filmmaker in it.
What was a day like on the Hudson like?
I’d paddle on the start of the slack most days and right up until the tide turned. Once I got further towards Manhattan, the tides became less important and it was much more about the currents. If you could catch the current and the tide working simultaneously together it meant I could just fly down the river. But that was the magic hour and it didn’t always happen at the right time of day. The high tide was somewhere between 11 and midday, so although I’d want to get out early and get the day started, I was using a lot of energy covering next to no ground. I tried to work with the tide, but you couldn’t really take that approach.
Because the weather conditions were so challenging, it was always in the back of my mind that I needed to conserve energy for the day. If anything happened – if there was a crosswind or I was stuck in the middle of a shipping lane and had to get out of it – I needed to know that I could paddle quickly enough and hard enough and for long enough to get out of that situation.
Did you have all your food and water with you?
Yes, I had all my kit on my board. The plan was that I’d camp at various points along the way, but along the Hudson there’s a lot of private land and quite a lot of dense woodland, especially further upstream, with rock faces and shrubbery. Because the weather was basically torrential and everything that could go wrong did go wrong, I ended up staying in cabins or campsites with the crew each night.
Tell me about the SmartFin that you were using?
I did a number of citizen science activities while I was on the water. First of all, I used a SmartFin, which is a detachable fin which is micro-chipped so that I can measure water temperature and motion characteristics in the water. I’ve been working with the scientists behind that to start to uncover patterns and insights as to what goes on in the water compared to ocean characteristics. So that’s really interesting, comparing inland and coastal areas. There’s a lot more research on coastal waters but less so in a river environment.
You were using your SUP to highlight plastic pollution. Did you log what you found?
I used the Plastic Patrol app that I developed to photograph and log every piece of plastic I encountered on my route to create a visual picture of just how much I was seeing along the way. This would be analysed to see the amount and types of plastic, the brands we were seeing, and where were finding them, to develop hotspots along the route and inform clean-ups and activities going forward.
I also worked with a couple of organisations and charities whose purpose it is to look after the Hudson River – River Keeper and the Hudson River Park Trust – and did three beach clean-ups en route, where I replicated what I do in the UK; getting communities involved, inviting them to try paddleboarding completely free in return for them litter picking to engage with the problem.
Were there any surprises in terms of the plastics you found?
To be honest, no. I’ve seen so much now that nothing really surprises me anymore, as awful as it sounds. There were definitely similarities to what I find in the UK in terms of the types of plastics: the bottles, the bags, the wrappers – those are the major three things and are absolutely consistent with what I find when I’m logging plastic in England. I think that’s a reflection of this fast-paced consumerist lifestyle we all live in.
I haven’t had the results back for the microplastics sampling yet, but I think that might uncover some interesting insights.
Can you explain what microplastics are?
Microplastics are tiny plastic pieces; the fragments less than about 5mm in size where plastic has broken down and eroded over time. A lot of it is unseen by the naked eye. So things like microbeads that used to be in some face washes; you might not necessarily see those but they’re contaminating the water and they’re not really going anywhere. We took samples in the river to see how far upstream was contaminated with microplastics and how that could be happening.
Rewinding five years, you were diagnosed with stage two thyroid cancer. It sounds like this was a massive catalyst for changing your life completely?
Oh, 100 percent. I’d gone away on a bit of a sabbatical from work just before my diagnosis. I’d never done a gap year or travelled extensively, but I saved up the money to do it to have 10 months to explore and experience the world, thinking I was going to come back and work really hard, get my corporate head on. Two months after I got back everything completely changed with my cancer diagnosis – it was just like a very surreal experience blindsiding you. I was 25 at the time and never expected to hear those words. I don’t really know how to describe it other than just a whirlwind.
How did the paddleboarding come into the equation?
I started paddleboarding just after I finished radiotherapy. I’d gone to stay with my dad in the isle of Scilly, and I saw somebody paddleboarding at the beach. I thought it looked really relaxing and I knew I was in kind of a weakened state, but I could probably do it. I asked the local sailing club if I could borrow a paddleboard, went out for a little paddle and I just loved it. As soon as that paddle hit the water, I was hooked. It was originally about trying to build up my strength without doing anything high impact, but I found it was this magical thing that gave me a sense of calm, peace, and perspective that at that time I really needed.
I feel very fortunate to have found something that has really transformed my life. It sounds really clichéd, but in lots of ways paddleboarding saved me.
When you finally quit your job in 2015, how did paddleboarding open your eyes to plastic?
As I was spending more and more time on the water, I remember just being really aware of what I was seeing in terms of the environment and the plastic around me. It was this glaringly obvious problem that nobody was talking about. I couldn’t understand why there was no attention on it – even the global attention back then was really minimal.
I was seeing really horrible sights like bird nests made up 95% of plastic; wrappers, straws; hardly any natural material. Or swans chewing on wrappers. I couldn’t just keep ignoring it. With any sport, I believe you have a duty to protect the area you use as your playground whether you’re responsible for creating the problem or not. I felt really responsible in a lot of ways because I felt I had an insight that a lot of people hadn’t and I felt that other people needed to understand this.
You supped the length of Great Britain to raise plastic awareness. What was it like?
The 400-mile journey took 22 days in total, completely unsupported. I had all my kit on my back and didn’t have any support vehicle like I did with the Hudson. It was just tent, stove, food, clothes. On my board, off again. I’m very lucky to have travelled a lot but I maintain to this day that that was the greatest adventure of my life and it started in the county I was born in.
Did you learn anything from the journey?
Oh, I learned a lot about myself. We’re so much stronger than we think, mentally and physically. On that challenge there was no doubt in my mind that I would complete it. I didn’t have a set time I wanted to do it in; I wasn’t doing it for speed. It was my adventure, my journey, I was going to log all the plastic along the way, and that was my focus really. I knew it would take me time; I remember thinking if it takes 3 months or a year, I’m staying out here and getting it done. So I was quite happy with 22 days!
Was there a ‘What next?’ when you finished?
I definitely felt something was missing afterwards, as it had been my life for nearly a month; eat, sleep, paddle, repeat. It really was that primitive. By the time it had finished, the whole concept of what I was trying to achieve by logging all the plastic I was finding and drawing attention to it, had really snowballed and picked up attention. That was really the focus; the adventure was the vehicle to talk about what I really cared about. So it wasn’t like I was ready and raring to go for the next big thing, but asking how can I make sure this conversation stays on this important topic.
In 2017 you were the first person to paddleboard the English Channel. You suffered some pretty dreadful seasickness during the SUP?
It was funny first of all because I told all the guys on the support boat to take sea sickness tablets because I didn’t want anyone to get ill on the boat. I’d never got seasickness before while paddleboarding, so it never even crossed my mind.
The rules of paddleboarding are that you should always be able to see land, and if you can’t, you’re in trouble. And if you’re in the ocean and it’s clear, you should be able to see the bottom of the floor, so you’re not too deep. You’re always using landmarks around you to benchmark your bearings, then all of a sudden 5 miles off the south coast, you’re paddling away from all the landmarks you recognise, which is so counterintuitive to what you’re used to. You’ve got blue sky, blue water, no way to position yourself, no sense of direction visibly around you, and it can become very disorientating and I think that’s why I got sick. I just couldn’t focus myself on anything.
Do you do any mental preparation for your SUP challenges?
I think generally I take things as they come. I think you have to try and mentally prepare, but I don’t think you can ever comprehend what you’re putting yourself into until you’re there. Paddleboarding is interesting because to the untrained eye it can seem like a really simple, leisurely activity, but actually because it’s full body it can demand so much from you, even though it’s low impact. It becomes really tiring and can be exhausting.
Personally, with the mental side of things, if I feel physically strong and I believe I can do it, I’m OK. One thing I find hard is when other people comment on the challenge you’re taking on. In the past, someone saying, ‘It’s really hard, are you fit enough? I wouldn’t do it’ has really knocked my confidence. It makes you question yourself. Now, I’d rather people not say anything.
Since you first started paddleboarding, have you seen an increase in people’s plastic awareness?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s the Blue Planet effect that everyone talks about; it’s real. Year three of Plastic Patrol and our capacity is increasing again and there’s more waiting lists, so I feel there’s definitely more awareness, but there’s more action as well. When I first started campaigning against plastic it was a time where people just thought I was bonkers – especially after I’d just quit my job, survived cancer and started paddleboarding along the canals and rivers. It’s nice now that within 3 or 4 years people can see why I was so determined to do something about the plastic problem.
Have you got anything planned for this year?
I’m training for the London Marathon now. I haven’t been able to do high impact stuff for quite a long time, so this is quite a big thing for me. I’ve been doing a little bit of running and I’ve got a 16-week training plan… let me know if anyone has any tips?!
Tell me about your new book, Paddling Britain.
It’s a guidebook – my 50 favourite places to paddleboard in the UK, so inland, coastal, canals, rivers, open waters. You can find it in bookstores and on Amazon or you can buy signed copies on my website. [You can buy it here]
What are your favourite items of it for paddleboarding?
A woolly hat (laughs). And I always have a carabineer with me and it always comes in handy. I have it hooked onto my jacket, as there’s always a time when I need a one on the water.
Do you have any sponsors at the moment?
No, I’m not working with any sponsors at the moment, but Fanatic supported Plastic Patrol in 2017.