Here is a bit more about me and some background to the trip as well as a picture with a fish, to define my salty credentials. I'd love to hear from you, if you have a story to share or would like to join me on the water, you can contact me here
Hi, I’m Toby. I’m a kayaker, university tutor and practicing architect. I love the water in almost all its forms. I started kayaking around six years ago following a Christmas break in Jersey with relatives and avid outdoor enthusiasts, who never miss a chance to get in or on the sea. My dad had died suddenly the previous year and I was in need of a new focus. I found this when I got home, through my local canoe club and in the murky waters of the Thames. Since then I have met many fantastic people through kayaking who have encouraged and inspired me to ‘dream big’. I’ve paddled around various parts of the UK coast as well as overseas in Arctic Greenland, Sardinia and France. I’m also a keen whitewater kayaker and volunteer coach. I'm hugely grateful and proud to have been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to kickstart my adventure.
Around the same time as taking up kayaking, I was diagnosed with cancer, something my brother had be battling for a long time. Determined not to let this get in the way, I underwent a couple of rounds of surgery to remove the early stage tumour and got back on the water as soon as I could. My brother was not so lucky and following numerous operations, life changing reconstructive surgery to his neck and face, he lost his ability to speak or eat and passed away peacefully in a hospice last year.
I’ve always found the challenge and reward of outdoor experiences exhilarating. A hard slog on a loaded bike up a winding mountain pass, the uplifting beauty of a stunning vista and sense of achievement it brings. The enveloping power of a landscape and the connection with deeper time and a simpler life. The utter exhaustion after early starts just to be smashed around by the power of the eternal force of the tides. The deep tiredness that only physical exertion can bring, paired with the ability to say - ‘I did it’
A friend jokingly said to me recently ‘There’s nothing like surviving a near death experience to make you feel alive’ and in many ways he’s right. I am recovering from a shock infection of bacterial meningitis which jumped up on me whilst driving home on new years day this year. Emerging from a long course of IV antibiotics, it’s true that things seem differently real, focussed in sharp clarity. Food is tastier, colours seem more vibrant, my senses more alert, but that could just be the effect of the drugs or no booze for a while. Some people might call this kind of thing ‘peak experience’. My dad would have called it a boot up the jacksie. Basically, I’ve had a near miss and on reflection, I’ve actually had quite a few.
Born with a rare genetic condition, Fanconi’s Anaemia, my brother and I were no strangers to hospitals as children. He had some of the bones in his wrist and hands missing and I have some slight skeletal oddities, sometimes beneficial for party tricks. We both had abnormal blood counts and were seen regularly by consultants in London. My dad always made a point of making our hospital trips into a day out and something to look forward to. This somewhat explains the strange sense of comfort I feel whenever I’ve been in hospital, I secretly quite like the starched sheets, hospital pyjamas and smell of alcohol wipes.
As children, along with our older sister, we had a full and active life despite our illness. My parents took us walking, sailing, swimming and occasionally to athletics (my brother and I were good at this as we were on a continuous dose of anabolic steroids to boost our bone marrow, which now seems quite unfair on the other children) This was made more challenging for my dad following the acute, acquired brain injury that tragically hit my mum, aged just 39, sending her into a coma and destroying much of the frontal lobe of her brain. I was very young and only remember fragments of the day she had woken up in bed next to him, not knowing who he was or recognising any of us three children. She lived with us at home for a while until it became too difficult. After a long time in rehabilitative care, she now lives in a supported home and remarkably, still has a sense of humour.
By the age of 12, my blood counts started to take a plummet and I became transfusion dependant for a number of years, a result of bone marrow failure which then developed into acute myeloid leukaemia. I carried on at school but called in at the hospital three times a week for a top up until the risk of infection became too great and I was taught at home. I was part of a gene therapy trial in the United States where I met children with the same condition as me and saw first hand how differently it could affect others.
After several years of unsuccessful searches, and having built up antibodies to the blood products I was receiving, things were looking very ropey until an unrelated donor match popped up on the international register and I received a bone marrow transplant aged 15. This risky procedure was followed by several years of complications including having my spleen removed, something that is largely to blame for my near miss with meningitis on the motorway earlier this year.
As a young family, we were supported by our grandparents and an amazing woman from our village, who saw my dad needed help and took us three young kids under her wing. Keeping us all, including my dad, in check. She died of lung cancer shortly before I finished my A levels but not before sorting me out with a part time job at the local pub where I became the charity shop child of our mad but loving landlady.
I continued treatment through my undergraduate studies, having a pint of blood taken off every few weeks in an attempt to bring my dangerously high iron levels down. I was then relatively free of hospitals until I found a small lump in my throat that Christmas in Jersey. I got into cycling in my twenties and have done several long touring trips, largely to places with interesting buildings and nice food. My mum and dad had been keen dinghy sailors in their time but despite my dad’s best efforts, I never got into it. We spent many weekends on England’s east coast as children and it was on the cold, brown, churned up waters of the north sea that I first heard the shipping forecast.
Captivated by its slow repetitive rhythm, I have found it a comforting constant ever since. Now as a sea kayaker, I’ve re-learnt its meaning and importance. For this trip it forms a framework and a way to link faraway places together, learn from others and push myself further. As I write this, I’m hugely excited, if a little daunted about the prospect of the trip. My head is buzzing with logistics plans and I’m on the look out for anyone who wants to share the journey with me. That’s the problem when you tell people you are going to do something, you actually have to go and do it!
So what has all this taught me? I have realised that these things can be difficult to write about, mainly, I think as I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them and have generally found it more productive to get on with things, knowing there are always others facing greater issues. Probably, it has taught me that life is fragile and we should make the most of it. Moreover, I’ve learnt that we all have the capacity to challenge ourselves and change our experience by thinking about things differently.
Thanks for all your support. I hope you enjoy hearing about my adventure.