One of the best things about of stand-up paddleboarding? The unexpected is just round the corner! Venturing out to North Devon for the UK staycation resulted in the first Wing session (hooked now!) and meeting an inspiring duo behind the SUP It And Sea expedition, Dave Chant and Sophie Witter on a mission to become the first pair to paddle the length of Britain – from Land’s End to John o’Groats – whilst raising over £24,000 for three charities: The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), Wilderness Foundation UK and Frontline Children.
What caught our attention were two SIC Maui boards, unmissable as set against the dramatic scenery of Valley of Rocks, on the stunning North Devon coast. From the branded “SUP It and Sea” stickers on the van parked up at the bottom of the hill we found out that the owners were no ordinary SUP tourists. Now this is what you call a serendipitous encounter! But wait for it – We met Dave and Sophie on the eve of their biggest challenge to date…
Hi Sophie and Dave! What an encounter and what a story! The day after we met and on the 13th day of your expedition, you have experienced the biggest challenge to date…What happened?
Sophie Witter: After reaching Porlock Weir we were forced off the sea for a few days due to bad weather so after treating ourselves that morning to a cream tea and a walk around Porlock we headed out of the town to find a nice campsite for the night. After passing a farm full of skittish sheep and enjoying the views we heard a big crash. Dave checked the wing mirror and turned to myself and Mandy our support crew and photographer at the time with a panicked look on his face and shouted the boards are on the floor. I don’t think we have ever moved so fast. We rushed to the back of the van to find one board our larger 14ft by 30 inch SIC bullet with its nose on the floor but still hanging from the roof rack arm by the leash but what we hadn’t expected and couldn’t believe is that our 14ft by 27.5 inch SIC bullet was missing.
My initial reaction was to start walking back to look for the board as we all thought it couldn’t have fallen off too far back and perhaps the reason for the skittish sheep was a flying paddleboard. Well actually, I say that was my initial reaction but in fact I actually grabbed a picture of the scene on my phone first thinking this was all part of the adventure and a moment to be captured. I did this while walking backwards down the road before shouting back to Mandy to take photos which a little birdie told me afterwards hadn’t gone down well with Dave.
After making it to the farm whilst giggling away as I always do in the most inappropriate of circumstances, it was clear there was no board, so I kept on walking and of course just to add to the commotion of the day I had no signal so trying to get hold of the others was tricky. Eventually reunited with Mandy we walked miles in search of the board and I looked like a mad woman flagging down cars in the middle of country lanes to warn them it might be in the road and to ask if they had seen the board. In hindsight it was a hilarious scenario to find ourselves in. Eventually we all got back together drove the route a few more times and walked in the pouring rain before giving up and leaving with one damaged board and another board missing.
Dave Chant: We were driving our support van on a country lane with the boards locked into our roof rack system going to camp and relax for the day as the weather was not good for paddleboarding when we heard a thump and saw one of the boards in the mirrors hanging from the side of the vehicle. When we went out we found the other board was nowhere to be seen.
We spent hours combing miles of road back to where we started driving but one of the boards had completely disappeared. The remaining board was badly damaged on the nose and tail from having scraped through the tarmac for a while before the van could stop.
Who came to your rescue and how will you progress into your journey?
Sophie: After heading to the pub for a stiff drink … well two for Dave we started making some calls. The first was to Gareth at Get on the Water UK who within half an hour had connected us with Steve at Fusion Repairs in Porthcawl, agreed to lend us an inflatable to continue the journey and had put aside one of his incoming SIC Bullets for us. Between Gareth and Steve they took a lot of stress out of the situation. They were both a true testament to the strength and kindness within the SUP community.
Dave: We “retreated” to the pub for a drink – much needed – and looked at our contacts and decided to call Gareth from Get On The Water in Cardiff as we were a few hours away. Within thirty minutes he had agreed to put aside the same spec hardboard he was due to get delivered into the country the next week, lend us an inflatable for a week and put us in contact with Steve from Fusion Repairs to repair our damaged board.
We were able a few days later to head out from Porlock and travel all the way to the canals off Sharpness with two inflatables, and a week later had a new hardboard and a repaired one for our journey onwards. We were lucky that we only needed three days off the water.
Could you tell us more about yourselves?
Sophie: I started paddleboarding a year ago with my Paddleversary (oh yes that’s a thing) being celebrated on the 8th August whilst we were paddling the Severn and then cake in the van.
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My first time on a board was on a local lake with a friend and neither of us had a clue about paddleboarding. On arrival they were busy so asked if we would mind a thinner board and knowing no better, we thought why not at least it gets us on the water sooner. Well, I now know that the first board I tried was a racing board and although I’d like to say it was partly to blame for my inability to stand, I can’t let it take all the blame.
The following week I started paddleboarding with someone who had their own board before going on to spend most of my Summer evenings and weekends paddling on the Thames in Reading or occasionally hitting the coast down at West Wittering. Within weeks I was hooked and decided to treat myself with my redundancy pay and order my own board. I won’t lie although I love my Sudoo 10’6 all-rounder I did fall for the pretty colours. Initially, I thought that once the days got colder and the nights drew in Paddelope (yes I name my boards) would be packed away until next year but the time to pack her away never came. Instead, wetsuits were purchased and through the winter I paddled. Like many last year Christmas wasn’t the same and due to my job, I didn’t want to put my parents at risk so I spent the majority of the day alone but with a new paddle from Santa I hit the Thames on Christmas Day with a flask of tea and Mince pie.
In February of this year, I started doing more individual paddles and realised that I was actually not too bad at it having done 11 miles on my first full day of solo paddling. Having not had any lessons I thought it best to get some and so I found an awesome local instructor Julia at ITSUPERA and after my lesson I felt so much more confident on the board. This first lesson not only helped with my technique but has lead to a whole bunch of new friends that have been awesome both on and off the water. It is also thanks to ITSUPERA that SUP it and Sea came to be as it was on Julia and Mike’s (SUP_Planetearth) Thames Challenge that Dave and I met and so the expedition was born.
Paddleboarding has also done wonders for my mental health and has been a huge factor in improving my confidence and belief in myself. I live with Depression and Anxiety and I’ve found that when I am really feeling the impact of either or both of these illness’ SUP makes me feel so much better. Paddleboarding and being on the water is a fantastic coping mechanism but beyond that SUP has made me a happier healthier person because the sheer enjoyment and the benefits to my mind and body mean that without thinking it improves my mental health. The best part is that the majority of the time it’s an almost nature boost rather than being something I need to reach for to escape and I think that makes it special.
Dave: Normally I work UK music festivals so I hardly see a river each Summer but in 2020 all festivals were cancelled so I started walking every day and seeing paddleboarders. Within days I had bought a paddleboard and on my second foray clocked up 16km on the river. I loved the passing of the river, towns and sights at slow speed and wondered how far you could go. I thought about whether you could do Land’s End to John O’Groats on a SUP, researched it and safe to say was fairly disappointed to see that it had been completed twice in 2018 by Fiona Quinn and Cal Major. Both are amazing and really flying the flag for kickass females in paddleboarding but it would gave been nice to be first!
The obsession wouldn’t go away though. I used to stay up thinking about logistics and couldn’t sleep. The idea of being the first male or first pair to get there kept circling my mind. I’m freelance and my last job ended in June so I decided it was now or never. One month to plan, out on the water in July, and three months hopefully to complete.
SIC Maui boards are “powering” your adventure. How did you choose your gear?
We did a lot of research on hard boards. We made the decision to have a hardboard pretty quickly for their performance on the sea and the fact that we were choosing to go without a support boat.
We spoke to many people and were between the Starboard or SIC. We needed a board that was versatile enough for our route and we kept coming back to the SIC. We have friends who use the SIC Tao and SIC Bullet inflatable and had tried both and found them a great paddle. We also spoke with Jordan Wiley our community Patron who used the Okeanos for his Great British Paddle and recommended SIC. After much research we went for the Bullets.
We were very lucky as we all know the market has been moving so quickly and ability to get boards was difficult. We think we snapped up the last two Bullets available at the end of June.
Since embarking on the challenge we have had to switch to inflatables for a short time and we could really feel the difference in performance on the sea.
Following in the steps of some awesome trailblazers and becoming the first pair to paddle the length of Britain – from Land’s End to John O’Groats – whilst raising over £24,000 for Charity. What’s your vision behind this expedition?
Sophie: For me, an adventure of this nature has been a long time coming. I have dreamed of Thru Hikes, had a joint list of SUP adventures and I have a rough Google map of a half thought out expedition incorporating many of the activities that I love with SUP of course being one of them. When Dave first told me about his idea of paddling LEJOG, I was very jealous or as we say it gave me insane adventure butterflies so when he asked, I knew it was a yes to take on this adventure. Although in many ways the timing couldn’t have been worse, with me having only recently starting my business and having to sell my car to help finance the expedition I knew that after a few years of adapting my lifestyle, being more active taking time to train in a career that gave me flexibility and investing in my mental health and getting myself well this was exactly the adventure I had been waiting for and there really is no time like the present.
This was an opportunity to finally take the next step in living the life I want with adventures and expeditions being a part of how I live my life. I had spent so many years thinking it wasn’t possible that the fact I thought it was possible and I was willing to go for it almost became my motivation. This also ties in with the charity aspect for me. Therapy and getting out in nature and doing my SUPing, Wild Swimming and Hiking have done so much for me mentally and physically they have truly changed my life and so when it came to picking a charity, I wanted one that would help others and give them the same opportunities and support to get to where they want to go. I didn’t know it at the time when my depression and anxiety were bad but a charity like Wilderness Foundation was exactly what I needed. For me a desperate need to get outside at a particularly tough point in my life lead me to my first walk with my local walking group the Berkshire Walkers which was the first step (no pun intended this time) to getting me back outdoors and using physical activities to improve my mental health. I hope that in doing this expedition I can give others the opportunity to access therapy and outdoor activities that may help change their life. If I can do this in even a small way, I will be so pleased.
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Dave: My selfish motivation is to have a crazy and exciting Summer travelling the UK and seeing some amazing places. I think there’s always some narcissistic angle to an adventure which is why people initially set out on big adventures. I was also diagnosed in 2019 with osteoarthritis and need total hip replacements (the left one in the next few years) so the pain there slows me down. Paddleboarding is a great low impact sport and I wanted to prove to myself despite feeling more limited and painful in recent years that I could get out and do something fantastic (just don’t ask me to run an ultramarathon as my hips can’t take it!)
Our vision though was to prove that anyone can get out and succeed with crazy ambitions. Many adventures seem to be had by larger than life characters like the experienced Cal Major or the athletic Jordan Wylie. We wanted to show that two slightly overweight, “normal” albeit crazy individuals could do this. There’s also added elements to our vision – we wanted to showcase the SUP community as it’s so friendly and the local communities we pass through, and highlight how good getting outside and on to the water is for health and wellbeing.
Finally, it was a chance to raise money for some great causes. Wilderness UK is close to Sophie’s heart as a mental health charity that provides therapy and outdoor activities. RNLI literally saves people’s lives at sea, and do a cracking job of keeping our beaches safe with their lifeguard team. Frontline Children is our community charity that build schools for kids in war torn countries. Jordan Wylie introduced us to the charity and has been such a supportive and motivational factor in getting us to the start line that we wanted to support somebody in the SUP Community.
What drives you when things get tough?
Sophie: Chocolate. OK I am joking slightly but the promise of a treat at the end of the day always helps but also it depends on the day and how you are finding it tough. Generally, there are all sorts of ways in which day to day we get ourselves through some of them are simple things. I sing and I’m always down for a good pun which although Dave keeps saying he wants me to stop I think he secretly likes as he joins in too especially when we are passing boats on the canals. There is also Sophie Sauras who comes out in tough paddling conditions like battling a headwind. It’s a nickname I got when doing the Thames Challenge as I tend to make a RAR-ing sound much to Dave’s embarrassment.
Where we have had mishaps like the board incident or more recently when Dave’s inflatable pump broke, I am usually able to laugh it off and I can even get a little thrill out of it. The problem solving or the mishaps are all part of the adventure but there are other days such as tough days on the sea or when the weather is against you that you have to dig a little deeper. On the first few days when I was struggling with sea sickness and there were nerves all around, I did keep looking at the stickers on the board which has our mission and charities and thinking I have to keep going we have money to raise and each charity is so important how can I not do this for them. I have also had a few rough days where we weren’t making the head way we wanted to or sometimes its just not a good day and at those times I think just keep paddling something Mike and I would say on the Thames Challenge and on one particularly challenging day heading towards Weston Super Mare I just kept thinking about some of my BlueTit wild swimming friends back home and what they would say and who I knew would be cheering me on.
However, it is important to me though that I share and show the good and the bad and some days are tough days and no matter what you do sometimes you have to accept that. I know that may be perceived as negative, but I have learnt that it’s OK to allow yourself a bad or tough day and accepting that can sometimes make it better. As can talking about it. A few days ago, I found that my anxiety was really bad and with Dave and I not knowing each other well I just had to say look my anxiety is bad this evening. I am OK I do not need anything right now but just so you’re aware. Ultimately though it all comes down to this is something I want to do, and I am finally on an adventure and I wouldn’t change that for the world.
Dave: There’s a few things that help. One of them is that we have our route map and tagline on our boards so I like looking down at them and seeing how far we’ve come already. It’s quite motivating. Our tagline is “1600km. 2 paddleboarders. 1 mission. Be the first pair to paddleboard from Land’s End to John O’Groats” so I say that a few times. I also remember all the great people we have talked to and the places we have seen, and try to keep in mind that adventures have their ups and downs. We dislike that you tend to only see the highs through social media which gives you a slanted view of adventure.
It helps that our website and challenge is public. Though people would be understanding if we quit, the thought of everyone knowing actually drives me to continue. Whereas if we had just pushed a couple of paddleboards off Land’s End without telling anyone, that wouldn’t be a factor.
One of the silly things that keep us going when times are tough is that we say to each other that the situation will make good reading for our book! We never intended to write one but it seems to be a running joke now that you could turn something bad into something good, and it keeps our motivation up.
Why the extreme? Why push the boundaries and limits?
Sophie: Strangely this doesn’t feel extreme. I mean I know it is, don’t get me wrong and the amount of training we undertook and the things we had to learn to be safe shows how extreme it is, but it doesn’t feel extreme. I think extreme or challenges can be different to different people. When we were in Portishead there was an exercise class on the green where people were doing lunges, squats and Burpees and I found myself thinking I would not want to do that it’s crazy! Then my brain caught up with me and I realised I am paddleboarding 1600km surely that is the crazy thing.
Dave: I’d hate to go through my life and say I settled and I didn’t achieve some of my big dreams or goals. The harder the challenge, the sweeter it is when you achieve it. There’s a quote I love that says only by going too far will you actually find out how far you can go. There’s a certain glory and peace, almost a nirvana in a strange way, about setting out on a goal that even you think might not be possible, and then achieving it. I’m failing to explain it well but I think all adventurers will understand what I’m getting at.
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How did you prepare physically and mentally for this experience?
Sophie: Most of our preparation was safety training. We spent a day on the water with the awesome Lisa Borne who went through rescue and safety techniques with us as well as teaching us how to safely navigate our way around coves and headlands. We had hoped for some training on how to get on and off beaches in swell but the weather wasn’t playing ball it was a good bad weather day if that makes sense. We also had an additional two days training with Sam Starkie over in Newquay who worked on our technique by which I mean tried to teach us some and navigating headlands and getting in and out on swell beaches. That training was invaluable, and we often say right we need to do what Sam said or good job we had training with Sam. We also had several days Tidal Navigation arranged by Dave Brown of Acwaterra. This was invaluable as we learnt about weather, tidal movement, how to read naval charts and much more. Our brains felt like they would explode halfway through day one but without this training and the navigational support of Alex Alley our project manager the challenge would have been too risky.
Mentally, I think it is a journey for me as I am sure it is for most people who embark on an adventure. I mean ultimately, I signed up to this adventure with about a month to go before launch so really there wasn’t much time to mentally prepare but, in a way, the last few years have been preparing me for such an adventure. Having spent time in therapy and getting outdoors paddling, wild swimming and hiking I have taken the time to figure out what I want and how I want to live and also trying to make sure that I am healthy enough to go out and do what I want to do. Over the course of the journey so far I have had to use some of this preparation and realise that you go on a significant mental journey when undertaking an adventure of this nature regardless of whether you have anxiety, depression or other mental illness’ and as long as you recognize that this is part of the experience and aren’t too hard on yourself (and that’s coming from me) it will lead you to a better place and is a step to understanding yourself better.
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Dave: To be honest, we didn’t prepare physically. I’m a big believer that a lot of your physical strength comes whilst you are on the challenge itself. For us, it wasn’t a matter of getting a Guinness World Record or beating a time so we push but we try not to beat ourselves up when we don’t go as far as we want to. We know there’s tomorrow and that each week our paddling strength and resilience will increase.
Mentally, I’ve done some challenges before and climbed some big mountains like Aconcagua at 7000metres so I knew some of the mental toughness that had to be maintained on the expedition. Because we spent a whole month before full time planning the challenge and logistics, that four weeks became part of the mental preparation for understanding what we were getting ourselves in for!
The most beautiful spot or experience to date?
Sophie: I think this may be one of the hardest questions. Sadly, I don’t think I got the best Land’s End experience, but it is at least a memorable one. I have a vague recollection of a beautiful sunrise which I forced myself to take a moment and a picture to enjoy but I spent most of my time at Land’s End being sick over the side of the board but that in itself is a funny experience. For the rest of Cornwall, we were so spoilt with beautiful secret beaches, including one which had a little waterfall which was so refreshing and felt like paradise. Our first day as well as seasickness to contend with we also got to our end location which didn’t have the access we expected and so after a long day of SUPing and then a 90-minute round hike to the van for me we made camp by midnight on a beach and whilst not initially impressed waking up the next morning to a beautiful sunrise did make it all worth it. Aside from beautiful beaches of Cornwall and Devon there were other places that have captured our hearts.
We had an amazing couple of nights, in Watchet and although the weather was a bit Grey when we were there the spirit of this little town and the passing steam trains made it such a great place to visit. I’d recommend checking out Pebble’s bar. We also have a soft spot for Portishead which has the most incredible sunsets and we met so many amazing people there who were so generous especially Howie and Karen who bought us Tea and Cake, let us have a much-needed shower, cooked us breakfast and even rescued us when someone (Dave) drove off with the pump a beautiful location and beautiful people.
Speaking of which, one of the greatest parts of this journey so far has been the people. From those within the SUP community who have come through and supported us to people we have met along the way that have given us a place to sleep, shared a drink or their story and of course the people who have donated as we have met them along the way. One of the most memorable for me was a man I met in Gloucester who despite not having much money donated £1 in 20ps. That will remain with me forever.
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Dave: There has been just too many. Sitting off Land’s End slightly scared, slightly excited as the sun came up was surreal. Some of the Cornish coastline was fantastic, especially seeing dolphins off Perranporth beach. We’ve been surprised by some of the places we didn’t even think of as more than stopping points. Lynmouth and Lynton were beautiful and we had a few wild camp stays that were extraordinary. The people in Watchet were so friendly and we love the little town even though it’s not a tourist destination. Being down by the lake and sea in Portishead is another of our favourite places – the sunsets there have been unreal.
Finally, going under the Severn bridges was an experience I’ll struggle to put together with words. We planned the stretch and overplanned, calling the docks and checking ship movements, getting local knowledge, phoning the nuclear power station and making sure we avoided their restricted tidal reservoir. We were concerned running up to the day, but the actual day on the water was incredible.
What would you say to future SUP explorers?
Sophie: Go for it! Just try as I would say. I am a firm believer in even a day or a few hours you can make an adventure but if you want to do a longer expedition you can make it happen. The SUP community is fantastic and there will be people to support you … I’ll be one of them. Especially, for those who fear their mental health will be a barrier there are people out there to support you I am one of them.
What I would say is that if like us you do not have a massive team behind you then you will become a Jack of All Trades which at times can seem exhausting, but it is so rewarding. You never know what these adventures will throw at you but that is part of the fun and just keep remembering your why. Oh and record your journey as you go … all of it and do it as it happens. You will forget things because each day just brings so many new experiences or moments you want to remember that it is so hard to keep track of them all as I have learnt.
Above all though please do it safely. Consult people who are in the know and learn as much as you can. We made sure we undertook tidal training, safety training and had the support of a talented and knowledgeable project manager. As much as Dave and I planned this on a short time scale and have not been paddling for years we have made sure we’ve had as much training about safety as possible and invested primarily in safety kit.
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Dave: Just go out and do it. We are always here on the end of Facebook messenger or email if anyone wants any advice or motivation. Exploring is life altering and, I believe, part of our innate human desire but fear and hesitation can be killers. The weird thing is that this challenge seemed crazy, but as we have gone on it seems less and less crazy. It feels normal now to have decided to take three months off and just go paddling everyday. The first step is everything. I always said I would keep planning until paddling Land’s End to John o’Groats became too scary and I would then drop the challenge in the knowledge I’d given it my best shot. That day hasn’t come. We’ve been close, more so in the planning stage, but then we would have a tea (or a gin and tonic) and come back to it and it would seem a little bit less scary. In summary, I’m saying go and do it. Find your adventure. Make first steps. Seek advice and support if need be. And then just do it, taking each day at a time.
Thank you for your time and good luck with the rest of your amazing SUP adventure. Stay safe!
To follow the SUP It And Sea expedition, visit www.supitandsea.uk or follow Sophie and Dave on social media (Instagram and Facebook) and join the conversation using #supitandsea hashtag.
To get involved – Donate or Become a Sponsor – Visit Sponsor & Donate – SUP It And Sea
To explore SIC Maui quiver, visit www.sicmaui.com