Dean (Deano) Dunbar is an exceptional paddler. Not only has he completed paddles that many of us wouldn’t even consider doing, or if we did we’d definitely struggle, but he’s completed them blind. Dean is registered blind and requires the assistance of others to guide him when on the water. But that doesn’t stop him setting himself challenges and pushing his limits. With a team of experienced paddlers his latest adventure was to complete the crossing from the Isles of Scilly to Sennen Cove on the western tip of Cornwall. 50km of open sea. And just the trust in his friends to get him there. Read Deans remarkable Scilly to Sennen story here:
The goal was simple, get the blind man from the Isles of Scilly back to Cornwall on his SUP, standing, kneeling, even prone, the goal was clear, and the team were ready. The team was made up of brothers, Carl and Jason Sawyer, Mark Richardson and Ian Phillips. All highly accomplished watermen in their own right, but as a team they had around 20 years of SUP experience between them.
Oh yes, and me, the blind man, Dean “Deano” Dunbar, with a total of 13 months SUP experience and just a handful of hours on the sea.
After purchasing my first board at the end of May 2014, Carl and I had been dreaming up challenges. Our first big one was in October, when Carl, Jason and I SUPed the Caledonian Canal. A distance of 96km from Fort William to Inverness. We did it over 3 consecutive days, and spent a total of 15.5 hours on the water. (The last day was 2.5 hours, but should have only been 1 hour, but due to sampling the local fire water the night before, the pace was a tad slack on the last day.)
Before coming up with the Cali Canal trip, Carl had suggested the Scilly crossing. As it was on the sea and 99.9% of my paddling has been on lochs and lakes, the plan was put on to the back burner. However, once the Cali Canal trip was done and dusted, Carl reminded me of the Scilly trip. Checking tides, weather systems, and other things that are well outside my mental capacity, Carl and Jason came up with the week of 22-26 June.
On the 19th of June, we, (my wife Rhona, our dog Stumpy, and I), started the long drive south from Perthshire. En route we stopped off at the Lake District, and I paddled in the 10.5 mile Windermere Summer Salstice race, with Jamie Harman from Red Paddle as my guide.
At this point, I still wasn’t sure if the Scilly trip was going to happen. With ever changing weather reports the week before, we had gone from, it will happen on Tuesday, but we’ll be SUPing from Cornwall to Scilly, to it will happen on Thursday and we will be paddling from Scilly to Cornwall, to a weather system is coming in and it looks like it may not happen. By the time Rhona and I arrived in Devon on the 21st, plans were still up in the air. Then on the morning of the 22nd, we got the green light. The plan was to head down to Cornwall, and crash at Jason’s house. Then the next morning we would catch the ferry over to the islands, and paddle back first thing on the 24th.
As soon as this plan was agreed, I started to get very nervous. My main concern was that I may let the team down. When I paddle on the sea, I cannot see the waves until they hit my board. Thus I paddle rather slowly, never knowing if my paddle is going to hit the water, or thin air. When I paddle on a loch I know exactly where the water is, but with rising and falling on waves that I can’t see, sometimes I put my paddle into a trough and hit nothing but air, and other times I put my paddle into a rising wave, and my paddle goes 3 foot deep. Also, waves can come from different directions, due to wake, backwash or just wind. I can’t see any of this, thus I tend to paddle a lot slower than most sea paddlers. Knowing this, I knew things would be slow, and this could be a problem for the rest of the team. As it turned out, the guys were totally cool with this, telling me that it wasn’t a race and they were happy to go at whatever pace I could do. Top blokes!! (Considering these guys spend a lot of their time racing, this was very generous of them.)
On the 23rd we caught the ferry out to the Scillies, with 3 Jimmy Lewis hard boards and 2 Red Paddle inflatables. As well as our team of 5, my wife Rhona, and another friend, film-maker Dave Robson joined us. As well as shooting some footage, Dave was going to help Rhona carry the board bags and other extra kit back to the mainland. We spent the afternoon prepping our kit and having a wee paddle around the bay, before heading over to one of Jason and Mark’s friends, (Wayne), who very kindly put us up for the night. The next morning we started to stir around 4am. By 5.10 we were on the water. The sun was just beginning to rise, as we made our way towards it. (Even I could see the sun!) As we left the safety of the islands, the lads spotted a colony of seals and went over to have a look. I knew I wouldn’t be able to see much, so the team told me to continue paddling towards the sun.
The glassy calm water started to move a bit more, and Jason later explained to me that this was because we were paddling over a shelf at the foot of the last wee island. Being on my own, this was a tad concerning. However, I just kept my head down and kept plodding on.
After a few minutes I heard a double whistle blow. This was one of the signals Carl and I had worked out. A single long whistle meant “stay still and wait”, and a double blast meant “come back to me”. I heard the double blast, but wasn’t exactly sure from which direction it had come. I waited a few seconds, before hearing it again, then again. Instead of being at sea level, the whistling was coming from above me. It was a bird! I started to paddle again, when there was a long single whistle. This time it was definitely Carl. As he got closer, he told me to alter my course a bit as the tide had carried me north.
From here on in, a team member was always within 20 metres of me. Over the next 6 hours we slowly made our way from Scilly towards Cornwall. There was a subtle swell, but nothing too major. Carl explained to me that the swell was big enough to hide the other paddlers from us, when the swell came between us, but I hardly noticed it. Just the occasional drop off the back.
As we came towards the shipping lanes, we would re-group, and work out whether we should cross or wait. Safety was our first concern. We took fuel breaks every 40 minutes or so, making sure we all ate and drank at these points.
Throughout the paddle, the guys spotted puffins, dolphins and seals. (Well that’s what they told me.) However, I’m not so sure about the crocodile!
The last 5km were tough for me. We were now entering coastal waters, and the smooth, calm water had now been replaced with a messy, lumpy sea. This was probably more like the water the rest of the team were used to, but for me it was hard work. As we got closer to the shore, I could hear the waves crashing on rocks, and feel the tide and backwash working against me. Again, my nerves started to jangle. But with Carl’s usual calm guidance, we made our way on to the beach at Sennen. Up until the beach landing only Mark and I had not been for a swim, but the landing proved too much for us both, with the waves dumping us on the sandy beach at Sennen.
Although the team looked like it had just been thrown together, they had a huge amount of knowledge, skill and kit between them. All 4 of the guys have a massive amount of water skills under their belts, and 2 of the team, Jason and Mark, are aircrew for the local, (Culdrose), Royal Navy Search and Rescue team. They fly this route at least once or twice a week and know how the local weather systems, tides, etc, work and what to look out for. At the end of the day, the trip was only going to happen when they were happy.
The 50km trip took us 8 hours and 11 minutes to complete, and as well as me becoming the first registered blind person to do this crossing, Carl and I are thought to be the first to do it on inflatable boards. A huge thanks goes out to Jimmy Lewis, Red Paddle, and Palm, for their kit and support.
A personal thanks from me goes out to the rest of the team, Ian Phillips, Mark Richardson, Carl Sawyer and Jason Sawyer, without who this trip would have remained just an idea. BTW. No kneeling or prone was required!!
Words by :Dean (Deano) Dunbar
Dean’s Scilly paddle has been made into a short, inspirational video, “SUP it and See 2: Board Scilly” which follows on from his Caledonian Canal trip “SUP it and See”. Both videos were created by Dave Robson.
To read about Deano’s other SUP adventures and other activities he has done, (around 80 of them, including the human catapult, helicopter bungee jumping, speedriding, etc.), Come see the Blind Man at play! www.extremedreams.co.uk
This was without doubt, an epic paddle undertaken by a group of experienced open water paddlers with the right kit and preparation. We cannot wait to see the next instalment from Deano and the team.