On 1st May 2012, Andy Mullins and Geoff Cater, set off in their kayaks from Portscatho and turned right. 115 days later, and after paddling 2,318 miles over the worst summer on record, they finished their epic journey around mainland Britain.
We paddled into Portloe harbour around 7.30 that evening, the day before we were due to arrive home. The last few miles crossing the bay from Dodman Point seemed to have taken an age as we battled against a stiff headwind. Somehow though it didnt matter. All the doubts about whether we could complete the circumnavigation, whether our bodies would hold up, whether we had the skills, or whether our resolve was tough enough, had long since faded. The sun was setting directly over the village almost as if to show us the way. It was impossible to see the village itself as it lay in the dark shadow cast by the low lying sun. When we were within a mile of landing, we caught a glimpse of my home village of Portscatho, just another hour away in the distance. It was framed neatly between Gull Rock and Nare Head.
Just for a moment we discussed just pushing on and landing to surprise everyone, but that was just for a moment. We were looking forward to a couple of beers on our last night, relaxing in the knowledge that we only had a few miles to go - we both swore that we would make it home the next day even if a Force 8 was blowing. And, of course, we were looking forward to seeing our families and friends waiting for us on the beach the next day. Gull Rock had become such an important landmark for us throughout the expedition. Through the months of planning and training, I had often run along the South West Coastal Path and paused to look out towards the pyramid shaped lump of volcanic Greenstone and imagined what it would feel like at the end of the trip to see it once again.
It had become a psychological aid too - throughout the long and often difficult days of paddling, we had tried to boost each others morale by talking about the moment that we would set eyes on Gull Rock again and how it would feel paddling those last few miles into Portscatho Harbour. In some ways, we had imagined this moment so many times before that I was slightly nervous it would be an anti climax. Portloe is arguably one of Cornwalls prettiest and least spoilt villages. Having been built in a steep sided valley, is probably why it has escaped modern development since the original cottages were built. That night we washed and changed in the public toilets and slept on two benches that were on the hill on the opposite side of the valley to the village, and so we were pretty much in full view of everyone. Perhaps if this hadnt been our last night we would have sought somewhere with a little more privacy. Neither of us slept well that night.
We listened to music on our smart phones and marveled at the clear skies above us. The milky way was clearly visible as it had been on so much of the expedition. The coastal areas around our waters suffering less from light pollution than more built up in land suburban conurbations. ï¿¼We had time to reflect on the last 16 weeks. Since the 1st May we had been on an incredible adventure in our 18ft sea kayaks. We had seen just how beautiful the coast of Britain really is. We had encountered more wildlife than we ever thought possible:thousands of seals, sea otters, sea eagles, dolphin, porpoise, sun fish, orca, puffins, guillemots, jelly fish, arctic skuas - the list goes on.
The UK offers some of the most interesting and challenging tidal waters in the world and it didnt disappoint through the so called summer of 2012. We had tested our paddling and decision-making skills in some serious conditions: tide races; overfalls; strong winds; fog banks; and busy shipping lanes. We normally prefer to be out in F4 or less but we frequently ended up in F5,6 and 7s and on one memorable occasion a F8 - albeit for a short period. And if mother nature wasnt a big enough challenge - we narrowly avoided the debris thrown up by a bomb disposal squad controlled explosion; played chicken with thousands of sailing boats and jets skis through the Solent during Cowes week; and interrupted the training bombing run of an RAF Tornado (which I would add was down to inadequate marking of the firing range rather than a navigation mistake).
Lets just say that there were some evenings that we were just glad to land and sink a few beers in a bar. We met some truly inspirational people on the way round and some incredibly generous ones too. Wed land, wet and tired in the evenings and often be greeted by strangers with cups of tea and home made cake, offers of a place to stay, and donations to our charities. We were humbled by this and by their stories about the extraordinary things that have happened in their lives. A lifetime of memories in just four short months. I must have gotten some sleep as I was woken by Geoff as he strode past my bench in his undies for an early morning pee. I glanced at my watch - 6.30am.
It was light and the curtains in the cottages opposite were beginning to twitch. The kitchens in the Lugger Hotel were in full swing preparing breakfast for their residents. I started to feel a little uncomfortable that we were drawing attention to ourselves. I sat up in my bivi bag to greet Geoff on the way back from the toilet. As he stood there in his undies and t-shirt I did think about warning him about the attractive lady who was approaching up the path behind him taking her dog for an early morning walk, but my mischievous side got the better of me. As we bid her good morning she actually apologised and looked embarrassed for disturbing us, as you might do if you had accidentally walked into a toilet and found it occupied. We both decided that it was time to get up and get dressed. A heavy dew had settled over our bivi bags overnight - this always happened when there was no cloud cover. When the bags got wet the breathable membrane that was meant to wick away moisture from your sleeping bag didnt work. That meant packing away a damp sleeping bag. Normally this ï¿¼would have been an irritating start to the day as it meant climbing back into a damp sleeping bag that night. But not today.
Today we didnt need to take the usual care in trying to keep things dry and clean. Having stuffed sleeping bag and bivi into dry bags and climbed into our shore gear - the one pair of trousers and fleecy top we had with us - we wandered down to the slipway to check on the boats. The chef from the Lugger Hotel was on his way back from the store room and stopped and said hello. Geoff and I engaged him in conversation but we both knew that each other would be thinking the same thing! Bacon and eggs! Having secured a table in the very fancy restaurant, we lay out the days paddling kit on the concrete slipway to allow the morning sun to dry it out as much as possible. As we walked through the reception, I caught a glimpse of our reflection in a mirror. We looked a right pair. Disheveled beards, puffy eyes and faces from all the sun, salt and wind over the last 16 weeks and straggly hair. We had gotten used to people giving us funny looks, but as we walked into the beautifully decorated restaurant, tables covered in freshly starched and ironed linen, we couldnt help but giggle at the contrast between our appearance and that of the other guests.
We didnt normally start the day this way but this was a special occasion. The staff were wonderful and didnt bat an eyelid when we ordered a full cooked breakfast - after cereal and fruit - and followed by several rounds of toast and around a gallon of coffee and tea each. We could take our time this morning as our families were expecting us in Portscatho at 14.00. So we did with a long luxurious breakfast. It wasnt the only big breakfast we had had, but this one was in the knowledge that there was only an hours paddle to do. It began to sink in. This really was our last day. We were in heaven. A couple of hours later we felt we were beginning to stretch the patience of the staff who probably wanted to clear away and get ready for lunch. We wondered the short distance back to the kayaks and watched as the fishermen from the two working boats in Portloe launched. It was a warm, sunny morning now and a few people had arrived on the small slipway - a family on holiday and a few dog walking local residents
. The kayaks and kit always attracted comment and usually started a conversation about what we were up to. Were you the pair we saw sleeping out last night? Err, yes. Sorry if we disrupted your normally beautiful views! Where are you off to? and Where did you start? We explained that we had been away for 16 weeks to circumnavigate mainland Britain and got the usual reaction of disbelief. Punctuated by ï¿¼What, all the way round? Yes What, all the way round Wales? Yes, the whole of Britain? Round the top of Scotland? Yes, all the way round? Are you mad? Well not mad, we prefer the term slightly unhinged.
Before too long we had a little audience who were genuinely excited about what we had done. As we got into our gear for the final time, we carried on chatting to our new friends. It turned out some of them knew friends in Portscatho too. I was already beginning to feel back home. As we finished packing our gear away and launched, we turned the kayaks to face the slipway and the assembled leaving party. They took photos and waved, wished us luck for our last few miles and as we turned and paddled past the harbour wall we heard them give us three cheers. That was it. We were both in tears. Our emotions were running high in anticipation of finishing our epic journey and this wonderful show of affection from complete strangers sent us over the edge. We had plenty of time, so we paddled round Gull Rock and waited for some friends who said they would meet us to paddle in the last few miles.
A couple of motor boats joined in too. That was our amazing little flotilla as we made the last few miles. A year of planning, 2,318 miles, 115 days away, 92 paddling days, around 2 million paddle strokes. Job done, expedition over. So, a little later than advertised (2.30pm), Geoff and I paddled into Portscatho Harbour, let off a couple of smoke flares, jumped out the boats and gave each other a big hug. But the biggest hugs and kisses were for our wives, Sue and Tanya. We owed them everything. Not only had they had to put up with our months of planning and obsession, but for 16 weeks we had left them to carry on with daily life, worrying about whether we would be safe - the moments of alarm when our satellite tracking device got stuck somewhere out at sea.
Having to deal with all lifes usual hassles without us being there to help. Yet at the same time they had been such incredible support to us when we had our inevitable low points. They had always cheered us up, encouraged us and loved us. There may have only been two kayaks as we paddled into Portscatho, but Geoff and I both knew that there had always been four of us out there on the water."