Photo: James Appleton
Last month, 30-year-old Cal Major paddled her way into the record books as she completed her challenge to SUP (stand-up paddleboard) 1000 miles from Lands End to John O’Groats, unsupported, in a bid to highlight the breadth of plastic pollution in Britain.
Combining her love of the ocean adventure with her mission to raise awareness of plastic consumption, Cal founded Paddle Against Plastic in 2016, and since then has circumnavigated the Isle of Skye (400 miles) and paddled the length of the Cornish coast (260 miles). In other words, she’s one awesome lady! Here, the Dryrobe ambassador fills me in on her most recent record-breaking adventure.
Firstly, congratulations! Now that the dust has settled on your epic paddle, how are you feeling?
Thank you very much! I’m feeling so much better now thank you, but the first couple of weeks were unexpectedly tough! Despite feeling very grateful for what I’d just experienced, and to be back home with my people, I was struck by the dreaded post-adventure blues, a mixture of missing the constant stream of endorphins, the focus, sense of achievement and simplicity of being out to sea alone for so long every day, and being thrust back into our complicated society, not really knowing what to do with myself! I’ve found taking time back out in nature, with like-minded people, and doing things I love has reignited my fire. I am seeing the dip after it as part and parcel of the whole challenge!
Rewind a bit, what gave you the idea to SUP from Lands End to John O’Groats – something that’s never been done before?
I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind for several years. It’s obviously been completed on most other modes of transport, but never on a SUP. The fact that it had never been done is what attracted me to it in the first place! It gave me the opportunity to capture people’s imaginations and to show that wherever we are in the UK we are never too far from plastic pollution, and also to highlight all the positive stuff that’s happening the length of the country to help tackle it.
How had you been preparing physically in the run up to LEJOG?
My training for this expedition was somewhat lacking! I wasn’t in the best physical state in the run up to the trip – I was dealing with knee and shoulder injuries from just having hiked across the Jordan desert, and so the mainstay of my preparation was physiotherapy and avoiding any more injuries! Having trained super-hard for previous expeditions I knew the benefit of it, and was very concerned that I just didn’t have the time to get my body ready. But I also knew that it would adapt over the months to follow, and that I could help nurture it through that.
Had you done any mental preparation?
I had coaching in the run-up to get me to the start line, mostly to help connect me to my ‘Why’. I had a very specific purpose to the expedition, and it was paramount to maintain a good relationship with that and to know what a good outcome would look like. I also practice yoga daily which helps to keep my mind from running away from me too much! Before particularly tough sections of the expedition I would visualise the day and all its different possibilities, and what I would do in each eventuality, which helped a lot.
You’ve previously paddled the Cornish Coast and circumnavigated the Isle of Skye – did these experiences help you prepare?
Definitely. The most important help they gave were a deep and profound respect for the ocean and her power, my vulnerability out there, and her ability to throw a curve ball at any time! On a SUP, you have very little power to fight winds, tidal races and waves, and so careful planning was essential. Having got into some pretty hairy situations in previous expeditions, I had a much better understating of my limitations and abilities.
How did your LEJOG SUP compare to your expectations?
Firstly, I thought it would take 3-4 months and only took 2 months! I hadn’t expected to be able to do as many miles per day as I was able to by the end – my daily mileage doubled over that time. I tried not to have too specific expectations and to enter into the challenge very open-mindedly. I was most touched by people’s kindness among the way, I hadn’t expected that level of support from strangers!
What was your lowest or most challenging point?
The canals, believe it or not, were the hardest part for me. It was so hot, the days were so long, and there were no winds or tides to contend with, so no danger and nothing except my own willpower motivating me to keep paddling. Every single stroke had to come from my own will to do so and I had to really master my endurance mindset. I also had to portage around locks, which with bags and a heavy board, was very demoralising. There was one day I broke down on the side of the canal and just couldn’t carry on.
Did you have any hairy or scary moments?
Too many! But they’re also some of my favourite bits. I’ll tell you about one of the hairiest. The Mull of Galloway in the South West of Scotland is a great big headland that sticks out into the Irish Sea. Nine tides meet here and it is very exposed to wind, so timing to get around the point was critical. Storm Hector was on its way, so I had one opportunity to get around the point when tides and winds appeared favourable. This was at 3am, and I was still almost 20 miles away across Luce Bay, a military firing range. To arrive on time would mean setting off at 11.30pm, paddling across the bay and hoping I hit the point at the right time, whilst also avoiding two large rock stacks called “The Scares”, named so because of the standing waves and overfalls that accompany them.
Bleary-eyed, cold and disorientated by the dark, I set off, navigating by GPS. The wind was across my path the whole time and waves were rolling in from out to sea that I couldn’t see until they were upon me; with no horizon to focus on, keeping my balance was almost impossible, which meant kneeling on painful, bruised knees for the whole crossing. I tried a headtorch and the reflection off the black water just dazzled my eyes, so I pushed on, disorientated, further and further away from land and towards the point in the dark. I arrived an hour ahead of schedule, and I could hear, but not see, water rushing nearby. I couldn’t stop the tidal race pulling me in towards the point and the noise, but was swept round the Mull of Galloway, fortunately, rather than out to sea!
Wow! And what were the high points or most memorable days?
The days surrounded by animals were the most memorable. I had dolphins join me in Cornwall, seals in Scotland, and on the North East coast of Scotland, more birds than I could shake my paddle at. I was paddling past 100 metre cliffs lined with thousands of sea birds – puffins, razorbills, guillemots – all making so much noise, circling around me and diving into the sea. I became acutely aware that this isn’t just our ocean to play in, this is their home. We share this incredible planet with amazing creatures who do not deserve to be threatened just for our obsession with convenience and single use plastic.
Physically, it must have been exhausting. Where did you feel the brunt of the effort?
It differed day to day depending on how far I’d come or whether the wind had meant spending a whole day paddling just on one side. There were several days when I had to push so hard to get to my destination that I would arrive and collapse, powered the last mile only by adrenaline. There were a couple of days I made it to land borderline hypothermic and in a pretty bad way. Previously I’ve felt the physical effort in my lower back, but this time it was in my shoulders and neck; I tried to massage them out with a hockey ball but they were often just too tender to touch, let alone pummel.
You paddled through gale force winds and dangerous tides. Did you find this as much a mental battle as a physical one?
Yes, definitely – it was a mental battle just to get on the board and set off, full of anticipatory fear, on those days when I knew I faced difficult conditions. I had to tell myself that I had put all the safety precautions possible in place – I had a tracker, personal locator beacon, VHF radio, mobile phone, life vest, leash and I’d called the coastguard – and I had to trust my own knowledge and calculations, because an hour wrong with tides and I could have been in serious trouble. This happened on the first day at Land’s End – I knew from then on I couldn’t afford to make mistakes around headlands.
You’re raising awareness about plastic pollution. How did your beach cleans go?
I found a lot of the usual suspects – plastic bottles, plastic bags, fishing ropes, but the most shocking thing I found was on a remote beach in Scotland – thousands of plastic cotton bud sticks! These have been flushed down the loo and are on a direct path to the ocean.
Which areas did you find had the worst plastic problem?
I was most shocked by the plastic pollution in the canals. I’m used to seeing plastic piled high on beaches, but I was shocked by what I saw in land. Polystyrene chip trays, plastic bags, and hundreds of plastic bottles, every day. On one morning in Wigan I counted 691 plastic bottles just in the first hour of paddling. It really highlighted to me our need to connect the issue of plastic pollution out at sea to that which we are consuming in land. 80 percent of marine litter originates from land-based sources – I was paddling past plastic in the River Severn on a direct route out to sea. This is a problem that all of us need to tackle, not just those who live by the sea.
You paddled an average of 20-30 miles a day. What did you eat to keep your energy up?
There was one day out on the water I didn’t take on enough calories and ‘bonked’ 5 miles out to sea. I completely ran out of energy, was battling a headwind, there was mist everywhere so couldn’t see where I was supposed to be going, and I was miles away from land. After that, I knew that nutrition had to be a priority. Often times when I was paddling it was impossible to actually stop and eat, either because of a headwind that would blow me backwards or time pressures, and so I started putting Mountain Fuel – electrolytes and carbohydrates – into my water. This almost doubled my mileage overnight the first time I used it, and helped maintain my body’s needs. I also, where I could, forced myself to eat something every hour – mostly flapjack or nuts or similar – and conscious of my 24 hour nutritional intake ate big meals where I could in the evenings and mornings when I was off the water. I think I owe a lot of the endurance to proper nutrition.
Did you manage to stay dry and have a dry change of clothes to sleep in – or is that optimistic?!
I mostly did stay dry! I had amazing dry trousers and jacket from Palm Equipment which kept me warm on the water; my dry trousers were a life saver. It might have been summer, but having wet feet and legs all day is a sure fire way to cool you to the point of hypothermia, as I discovered on my first couple of days in May. I had dry bags from Finisterre which kept all my kit dry. I had the most amazing few weeks of summer, and it only actually rained a handful of days!
Can you tell me about the charities you’re raising money for?
I was raising money for Vetlife and The Samaritans – both who offer a lifeline to those in their hour of need. Mental health is a subject very close to my heart. I lost my best friend at the end of last year to suicide; she was a veterinary surgeon, and suicide amongst vets is 3-4 times higher than the national average. It’s an epidemic that needs to be talked about and addressed. Vetlife is a charity to support the wellbeing of vets, and both Vetlife and the Samaritans have a helpline for anyone and everyone facing dark times.
When you’re on an expedition what are your must-have items of kit?
Oh man, I have so many! I’ll tell you my top 5 that people might not have thought of!
#1. I always have a personal locator beacon attached to me, which is my lifeline if all else fails – if activated it sends out a distress signal and my GPS location. That is always my peace of mind that I won’t be lost at sea
#2. I had a couple of really amazing insulated steel containers from Klean Kanteen – bottles and food tubs. This meant I could make loads of rations in the evening, and put them into the food containers for breakfast and lunch the next day, and they’d still be warm. I could also make coffee the night before an early start, and it would still be piping hot the whole of the next day.
#3. GPS watch – this was a game changer. I only acquired one a few weeks into my trip, but being able to monitor speed and how many miles have been done/are left to do was really valuable for my mental game. It also allowed me to appreciate that when far out to sea with no coastline to base anything on, I knew I was still moving forward!
#4. Dryrobe – knowing I had this to wrap up in after a long cold day was such comfort. I literally wear mine everywhere – beach, camping, pub…
#5. Bureo polarized sunglasses – because of the glare off the water I wore these every day, even when it was overcast. They stopped my head hurting and removing the glare meant I could see right down into the water and see the kelp forests, lobsters, seals and fish under my board! I have Bureo glasses – the frames are made from recycled fishing nets.
Was there anything you were really looking forward to on finishing your trip?
Sleeping! The last week of my trip was a series of very, very early starts – 1am, 2am, 3am… – I was most looking forward to getting a decent amount of sleep! Also to not have to constantly be checking wind and tide forecasts. I wasn’t looking forward to finishing the paddling or the time out to sea though, they were magnificent.
Now home are you enjoying not being on an expedition or are you already planning the next trip?
I really miss it! I miss the sense of purpose, using my body and being out to sea. I’m planning to paddle the stretches of UK coastline that I haven’t yet managed to over the next wee while, and then have another expedition in the background that I’m planning – watch this space!
Are you sponsored by anyone at the moment?
My expedition was very kindly supported by Klean Kanteen, Palm Equipment, Green Tourism, Dryrobe and Starboard SUP.
What’s next for Paddle Against Plastic?
I’m heading back to some of the places I went on my expedition that I wasn’t able to spend much time at, meet up with some of the people and communities that were so kind to me and run some extreme beach cleans and canal clean ups. I’ll be focusing awareness raising in land where the most behavioral change is now needed.
You can keep up with Cal’s adventures and environmental work via her social channels: www.facebook.com/paddlevsplastic, www.instagram.com/cal_major, and www.twitter.com/paddlevsplastic . You can also visit Cal’s website, www.paddleagainstplastic.com and her fundraising page.