Stand-Up Paddleboarding From Lands End To John O’Groats – Q&A With Cal Major From Paddle Against Plastic

Stand-Up Paddleboarding From Lands End To John O’Groats – Q&A With Cal Major From Paddle Against Plastic

Setting up Paddle Against Plastic in 2015 as a way to reach people and talk about the issue of plastic pollution, Cal Major took on a major feat in 2018 to stand up paddleboard the entire length of the UK from Lands End to John O’Groats! This adventure had never been achieved before and Cal knew that it was going to be tough but her determination to highlight the problems caused by single-use plastic was enough motivation to get her through such an arduous journey.  

What led you to start Paddle Against Plastic?
My journey with Paddle Against Plastic began in 2015 on the tiny, remote Scottish island of Tiree. Its white sands and turquoise water are home to an incredible amount of wildlife but its beaches were strewn with multicoloured, indestructible plastic. I started to notice plastic wherever I went surfing and felt the need to show people this issue on our home shores. I also wanted to connect people to the simple and positive solutions that we can all be proud to be a part of. So I began using stand up paddle boarding adventures to capture peoples’ imagination and connect them to the issue of plastic pollution in our oceans.
How has your life been directly affected by plastic pollution?
I see it wherever I go. I am so aware of its presence everywhere – in the supermarkets, on the streets, on the beach, in the sea… as a vet and an animal lover, I’m also very aware of plastic being amongst the habitats of animals. Last year while I was stand up paddle boarding around the Isle Of Skye I came across a cow eating a fishing net – sights like that break my heart.

What’s the most common type of plastic packaging you encounter?
By far the most common was plastic bottles. They were on beaches, floating in the sea, and ubiquitous in the canals. One morning in Wigan I counted 691 plastic bottles just in the first hour of paddling.
Are you noticing a shift in people’s attitudes towards single-use plastic?
Definitely – when I first started raising awareness with Paddle Against Plastic several years ago, there was very little in the media, and awareness, except amongst those directly linked to it, was very poor. I think we’ve come a long way in the meantime to close those gaps and connect people to the problem. People are now not only more aware of the problem, but becoming proud of the small changes they can make to help tackle it.
Plastic pollution is often portrayed as a coastal problem, do you think more can be done to highlight the issue of plastic pollution in land? 
I think this is the essential next step. The coastal communities I visited were generally very aware and had collaborative actions in place to tackle plastic pollution in whatever way they could. However, in land the awareness was much lower. I was paddling up the River Severn for four days passing hundreds of plastic bottles floating out to sea.

This problem is not just limited to the oceans, 80% of marine litter originates from the land. We need to provide more education to stop the flow of plastic further up the line.

Land’s End to John O’Groats is an epic feat, what made you choose this particular route?
It’s one that had been at the back of my mind for several years and had never been attempted before. By paddling the entire length of the UK I wanted to gain a better understanding of the plastic pollution problem, and highlight that wherever we are in the UK, we’re never too far from the issue. I also wanted to demonstrate all the really amazing stuff that’s happening the length of the UK to help tackle it!

What were you most nervous about before you started your journey?
Oh gosh! I think the whole trip seemed like such a big undertaking that I tried to break it down into chunks and only ever look a couple of days ahead of me. There were so many great big scary headlands and tidal races to negotiate but I purposely only started to plan their timings once I was within a couple of days of them. I suppose I was most nervous about getting into trouble out to sea – the wind blowing me offshore, running out of energy or getting caught in a tidal race – and being alone and unable to fight the conditions.
What was the hardest part of your expedition? Was there ever a point that you wanted to give up?
I don’t think I ever wanted to give up completely, but there were so many times I wanted to curl up and sleep, or have the day off, or just not get up that morning! I really had to master the endurance mindset to get through each hour, each day, and then each week and each month. The canals, believe it or not, were the hardest part for me. It was so hot, 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 a desire to do so, and sometimes I was paddling so slowly and purposelessly, without realising it, that I had to have a quiet word with myself!

Your expedition not only drew attention to the issue of plastic pollution but also raised money for mental health charities (Vetlife and The Samaritans), why did you choose these particular charities?
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. The Samaritans and Vetlife both offer helplines and somewhere to turn in people’s darkest times; I wanted to help support this but also to highlight that this is an option for anyone and everyone if they’re feeling low.
Do you think that there is a link between mental health and being amongst nature? If yes, why?
Massively! I see it myself – if I’m having a bad day, it’s very rare that a couple of hours out in nature, particularly for me in the sea, can’t help point me in the right direction. But I think it’s important to have regular time in nature to maintain a healthy mindset. We live in a fast-paced society where a lot of the time we’re disconnected from ourselves from nature, and what it means to be a human. I think turning your phone off and stepping into nature can be a very powerful way to remind us of the important things in life. It doesn’t have to be an epic expedition, or the best surf ever, just some mindful time appreciating what is around and available to us.

Any future trips planned?
I’m heading back up to Scotland to paddle some of the sections I haven’t yet done – I would eventually like to link up the whole UK coast. And I have another very exciting expedition in the pipeline 😉 watch this space!
Where can we watch the full movie of your Land’s End to John O’Groats expedition when it comes out?
I’m excited for the film to be ready! We’re in the process of editing it now; keep an eye on my social media channels for updates of where you can watch it! Instagram: @cal_major, Facebook: Cal Major – Paddle Against Plastic.

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