This year, environmentalist and adventurer Lizzie Carr became the first woman to Stand Up Paddleboard solo across the English Channel, a feat that might sound rather relaxing until you consider the reality.
Just imagine: your paddleboard rides an expanse of blue sea stretching to the horizon. You can see no land at all – isolated, alone, five miles off the English coast with 19 miles still to go. It’s a daunting experience, but Carr’s plenty fit for it. A 30-year-old British environmental activist who campaigns against plastic pollution, she’s also paddled 400 miles up England’s interior waterways, an unsupported trip that took her an arduous 22 days to complete. We talked to Carr, whose homepage can be found at lizzieoutside.co.uk, about what drives her to attempt these challenges, and what kind of gear she relies on to make these kinds of achievements possible.
Lizzie Carr / Photo courtesy of Lizzie Carr
How did your battle against plastic pollution start, Lizzie?
There was a horrifying moment when I started to Stand Up Paddleboard [SUP] in London when I looked around and saw just how bad the plastic pollution is on our inland waterways. I was surrounded by bottles, bags and wrappers. They’d get caught on the fin, or pop out from under the board. There I was paddling for escape and freedom and it was marred by all the rubbish. The real turning point was when I saw a coot’s nest and I realised it was actually made from plastic and there were some tiny little eggs in there. It really upset me because our wildlife can’t protect itself; it just has to live with the destruction we’re creating. I wanted to scale things back and help people feel they can make a difference, personally. So I started raising awareness, and encouraging people to get involved with #PlasticPatrol, partly by photographing and logging items. Now we have a Plastic Patrol app available for iOS where people all around the world can geo-tag the things they find. This means we can crowdsource global hot-spots and really campaign to tackle the problem.
How important is the environmental side of things to your expeditions?
It’s essential – I call it ‘adventure with purpose’. On my cross-channel SUP I also gathered water samples every few miles. We’re analysing those to see the location and level of invisible plastic pollution in the form of micro-beads and micro plastics – they’re ingested by shellfish and enter the human food chain.
Tell us about SUP equipment.
At its most basic all you need is a board, a leash, a buoyancy aid and a paddle. That’s part of the beauty of it. Because the board is inflatable you can put it in a rucksack and go on a hike. In England’s Lake District, I’ve hiked up to Derwent Water, pumped up the board and just gone to the little islands. Or you can go island hopping around the Isles of Scilly, one of my favourite places to take my SUP. Paddle boarding gives me a sense of freedom and escape. Even living in a city, you can head out onto rivers and canals where you’re far enough away from land for the sights and sounds to be muffled. You’re still immersed in the natural environment, but in a completely different way.
Lizzie Carr working on river cleanup @ Owen Tomkins Photography
What are your principles for choosing gear?
I have two Red paddleboards, one that I use for long distances and touring – it’s slightly longer and narrower and tracks better. The other I use for short distances and also to SUP-surf. When I’m travelling distances it’s all about minimising weight – because every little bit of weight I carry is extra weight that I need to push – and I don’t want it. So everything is stripped back to the bare essentials and I’m quite militant with that mind-set. I went for a Vango tent with a porch so I could keep my gear dry, and a North Face, non-down, sleeping bag. It was cleared for minus 16 degrees and I was always toasty. One thing I don’t like is feeling cold. You need good dry bags, obviously, and I used some from Craghoppers. My stuff did fall in once but the bags float if you leave some air in them and they kept everything dry. I covered things with a tarpaulin as well.
Did you use special paddleboarding clothes?
Not really. Unless it’s extremely cold or I’m going to be particularly exposed I don’t really wear neoprene. It gets heavy when it’s wet and takes a long time to dry so I opt for gym kit; stuff that’s light, warm, breathable and also dries quickly. I took three sets of most layers – you need to rotate gear because if things get wet they take longer to dry, especially when you’re camping. I used an NRS (nrs.com) buoyancy aid and a really big, unglamorous waterproof that didn’t restrict my paddling.
What was your favourite piece of gear?
That was my re-fillable water bottle. It’s made by Water-to-Go and has replaceable filters – mine lasted for the whole 22 days. It’s been tested robustly in all sorts of remote environments so I felt comfortable using it to filter canal water for all my drinking and cooking. It meant I was able to keep hydrated and avoid buying single-use plastic bottles as I went. That was really important to me because raising awareness about plastic pollution was one of the big motivators for the trip.
What tech do you use?
My phone is vital to my journeys – it’s how I log and geo-tag my plastic finds on the app. I also used it to navigate – for the England expedition, I used online OS Maps. I used a Solar Monkey charger, which also powered my laptop via a small battery pack. On the cross-Channel trip the support boat had a radar. That was really handy as they had to tell me to paddle faster a few times, because a big cargo vessel was on the same course.
Any makeshift innovations you accomplished in the middle of a trip?
One my length of England paddle I was doing about 30km a day; that’s around a Channel crossing a day, for three weeks. There were lots of locks – short sections where the water flow and level is controlled by gates. You have to get out and portage [carry] all your kit to the next level. Some of these mean you’re hauling all your equipment up 5-6m ladders. It was pretty exhausting. Then I hit on using a carabiner to attach an elastic bungee cord to the front of the board. It made a huge difference; it actually became vital – and was the result of just adapting two pieces of kit that I happened to have with me.
Tackling great expanses on an SUP / Photo courtesy of Lizzie Carr
Is there one bit of gear you wouldn't be without?
My Swiss Army Knife – it’s come in handy every time I’ve gone out. Once, toward the start of my England SUP, my fin snapped clean off. But I met this guy who was the head of design technology at a local college. He was friends with a lock-keeper who had some wood, and between us we fashioned a new fin using my penknife. I couldn’t have continued paddling without it. Now I carry a spare fin – and my knife.
Is there one bit of equipment that you wish you’d had but didn’t?
Sea sickness tablets! On my cross-Channel SUP I didn’t take them. After about 8 miles I felt queasy and then really awful. It was horrific, I couldn’t eat to refuel; I just had to carry on. Lesson learnt!